Malacañang on Saturday played down the absence of US President Barack Obama from two key regional meetings—the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum in Bali, Indonesia on Monday and Tuesday and the East Asia Summit in Brunei on Wednesday and Thursday—to be attended by the region’s leaders, including President Benigno Aquino III.
“I don’t think the Philippine objectives, which are a peaceful and rules-based resolution to [its territorial dispute with China], are going to be affected greatly by the absence of President Obama at one or two meetings,” Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang told journalists here.
“Certainly, his presence here is welcome but this is a long game and if President Obama is not present in one or two meetings, then that’s not going to have an impact on our position,” Carandang said.
Obama scrapped his attendance in the two meetings and visits to the Philippines and Malaysia this week because of the partial shutdown of the US government, forced by deadlock between the Democrats and the Republicans in Congress on the budget.
US Secretary of State John Kerry is attending the two summits and visiting Manila and Kuala Lumpur in Obama’s place.
Good for China
But without Obama, the largest presence in the room at the two meetings will be that of China’s leader, Xi Jinping, who is already in the region visiting Malaysia and Indonesia to boost Beijing’s reputation after straining its relations with the Philippines and Vietnam over territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
But Kerry insisted that the United States’ commitment to Asia is as strong as ever despite Obama’s cancellation of his trip to the region.
“Let me be clear, none of what is happening (in Washington) diminishes one iota of our commitment to our partners in Asia,” Kerry told journalists here.
Analysts said Obama’s absence won’t work well for his government’s strategic “pivot” to Asia, a key policy shift that could affect the maritime disputes in the region.
For the Philippines, the goal of the President’s presence in the two meetings is to further enhance economic ties with and attract more investments from 20 other member economies of Apec, an objective that Mr. Aquino is expected to promote at the East Asia Summit where he will participate in nine meetings.
Mr. Aquino expects to be in the same meetings as Xi.
No talks with Xi
“I do understand that the Americans are sending a high-level delegation. We expect Secretary of State Kerry to be in these meetings. So I wouldn’t put too much on the absence of [President Obama] in this round of meetings. Of course, we are assuming that the shutdown and the other issues [will be] resolved at the soonest possible time, and [we hope] that they don’t drag on,” he said.
Mr. Aquino has set no bilateral talks with Xi, Carandang said.
“Neither side … believes it’s a good time to meet. We respect that,” he said.
But at some point in the efforts to resolve the territorial dispute, there will be “discussions” between the Philippines and China, Carandang said.
“We want peace, we want resolution to these issues. And if these issues can’t be resolved right away, then in the meantime, we want to make sure that it doesn’t lead to more tensions or even to violent confrontation. We’re all after the same thing. I guess we just have different ways of going about it,” he said.
Order of business
Mr. Aquino will arrive at the Ngurah Rai International Airport here at 11:45 a.m. Sunday.
Arriving with the President are Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima, Trade Secretary Gregory Domingo, Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan, Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras and Presidential Management Staff chief Julia Abad.
The first order of the day for Mr. Aquino will be the Apec CEO summit at the Bali International Convention Center, where he will talk about his administration’s efforts to achieve “inclusive growth.”
Joining him on the panel are Thailand Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Peru President Ollanta Humala.
On Tuesday, Mr. Aquino will lead the discussions during the Apec Leaders’ Retreat. He is expected to “call for the need to intensify cooperation in cross-border education and skills training as a fundamental step in aligning human resource development with economic growth and resiliency,” Foreign Affairs spokesperson Raul Hernandez said.
Carandang said that while there has been “rapid growth in the first three years” of the Aquino administration, “we are not happy that the growth has not been as inclusive as we want.”
“We have social interventions … but we feel that we need to make a bigger push for investments because investments are really what’s going to sustain the economic momentum that we have,” Carandang said.
“So as always, the President is going to take every opportunity to meet with world leaders and members of the international business community,” he said.
Mr. Aquino will appear before top business leaders in the Asia-Pacific region, with the Philippines riding high on the credit rating upgrades it has received from Fitch, Standard & Poor’s, and most recently, Moody’s.
“We will be asking people to come take a look and further invest in the Philippines,” Carandang said.
The Aquino administration has been criticized back home for its failure to achieve inclusive growth, meaning the effects of a growing economy are actually felt, especially by the poor.
Carandang argued that easing poverty and generating jobs usually “lagged” in the “natural trajectory of growth.”
“If our economic models are correct, then as we near the end of President Aquino’s term, we should be seeing significant improvement in the employment numbers and in the poverty numbers, assuming we stay the course and we attract the kind of investments that we’re looking [for],” he said.
Mr. Aquino will depart for Brunei at 1:40 p.m. Tuesday. With a report from AFP