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U.S. chooses PHL as sole partner for growth in Asia-Pacific

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The Philippines has been the only country in the Asia-Pacific region which the United States has chosen for the Obama administration’s Partners for Growth program, U.S. Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell said at a press conference Thursday afternoon.

Campbell said the American decision indicated Washington’s “respect” for the steps undertaken by President Benigno S. Aquino III in ensuring that its socio-economic policies are embarked on properly.

Campbell, who is in Manila for the two-day first-ever Philippines-US Strategic Dialogue, was responding to a reporter’s question on U.S. reactions to the Philippine Partnership Program. He leads the U.S. delegation to the bilateral talks.

The State Department official described the PPP as an undertaking essential for economic coordination. “There is a broad desire to increase or explore bilateral mechanism such as the PPP,” Campbell added.

Thursday’s meeting of senior officials on both sides, representing such eminent government agencies on Foreign Affairs, Defense, Trade and Industry, Justice, and Economic and Trade, focused on the socio-political aspects of Manila-Washington relations.

The meeting discussed “non-traditional threats” to security such as severe weather conditions in the Asia-Pacific, where unusual storm patterns and great-intensity typhoons continue a-brewing, according to Campbell.

The closing sessions on Friday will discuss the security and defense agenda, according to DFA spokesperson Eduardo Malaya. Both Campbell and Malaya confirmed that the controversial Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) was not taken up Thursday.

The State Department official remarked, however, that VFA is still an important component of the bilateral relations.

Campbell said that Friday’s meeting would address Philippine “maritime issues on a multi-setting” and the steps the U.S. is taking to increase the maritime capacity of “these maritime islands,” without linking the problem to counter-terrorism activities in Mindanao’s porous sea coasts and to anti-piracy measures involving Filipino seafarers aboard maritime vessels traversing the sea lanes of the Somali Basin, the Gulf of Aden, the Horn of Africa, Indian Ocean and other pirate-infested waterways..

Campbell’s counterpart in the talks is Foreign Affairs Undersecretary for Policy Erlinda Basilio, who reiterated that the first-day meeting was “fruitful and substantive” covering a “range of topics that impact” on the bilateral relations as well as in regional groupings that include the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto G. Romulo and U.S. Ambassador Harry K. Thomas Jr. have earlier issued statements that described Manila-Washington bilateral relations as “nurtured by a shared history and adherence to common values, especially a commitment to freedom, democracy, and free enterprise.”

At the press conference, Campbell reiterated this and said “there is so much we (U.S.) can do to expand the enduring relationship” as he also emphasized Washington’s “clear and deep interest in improving our bilateral relations and with Southeast Asia.”

Basilio noted that “looking to the future” of the relations, the Dialogue has formed four Working Groups (WG): rule of law and law enforcement, territorial defense and maritime, economy and trade, and regional and global relations.

“We have a great plan for the future of this country (Philippines),” Basilio said, looking at Campbell for confirmation while expressing gratitude to the U.S. for its “forward-looking” concerns for Manila.

Speaking of Philippine-American relations vis-a-vis China, the latter being perceived as now having a more determined influence on Manila and possibly replacing Washington affection in the hearts of Filipinos, Campbell said: “For Asian nations equal relations with both Washington and Beijing is the best in attaining peace and stability in the region.”

He admitted that US-China relations is “complex, but there is a recognition that a relationship should be reliable, stable and realistic and where peace and stability are essential components.”

With some other ASEAN members, the Philippines, as well as China itself, claim territorial possession in whole or in parts of the South China Sea.

Beijing and the ASEAN have signed a so-called Declaration of Conduct of the Parties to the South China Sea (DoC) in 2002. Beijing has shown preference for a bilateral discussion of the issue rather than on a multilateral level.

But the U.S., describing the South China Sea as a “critical waterway” for international maritime, desires that “the DoC should lead to a formal approach,” stated Campbell.

He noted that this is where the ASEAN has a “central role” to make. Up to July 2012, the Philippines is the Country Coordinator of the ASEAN in talks with Washington.

Anent this, Basilio stated that on the Spratlys issue on the South China Sea, “the working group is there precisely to work out the details and address the DoC framework.”

Washington has invited the Philippines to the next Dialogue to be held in the U.S. on a still unfixed date.

By Gloria Jane Baylon-PNA/PIA9-BST




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