BALI, Indonesia – A Malacanang spokesman on Saturday downplayed the absence of US President Barack Obama from two key summits— the 21st Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation gathering here, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meet in Brunei right after— to be attended by regional leaders, including President Benigno Aquino III.
For the Philippines, the goal is to further enhance economic ties with and attract more investments from 20 other APEC countries, an objective that Mr. Aquino is expected to promote also at the ASEAN summit where he will participate in a total of nine meetings.
The Philippine President will show up at both summits amid the country’s maritime dispute with China.
“I don’t think the Philippine objectives, which are a peaceful and rules-based resolution to the disputes, are going to be affected greatly by the absence of President Obama at one or two meetings,” Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang told reporters here. “Certainly, his presence here was 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.”
Obama has decided to skip the two summits, including side trips to Malaysia and the Philippines, in the wake of a partial government shutdown triggered by a failure of the US Congress to pass a new federal budget as a result of a political standoff Democrats and Republicans. Observers said his absence won’t work well for his government’s strategic “pivot” to Asia, a key policy development that could affect the maritime disputes in the South China Sea, including a portion the Manila government calls the West Philippine Sea.
“I do understand that the Americans are a sending high-level delegation. We expect Secretary of State [John] Kerry to be in these meetings. So I wouldn’t put too much into the absence of the (US) president in this round of meetings. Of course, we are assuming that the shutdown and the other issues get resolved at the soonest possible time; and that they don’t drag on,” Carandang said.
Aquino has set no bilateral talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who will attend the APEC meeting and the ASEAN-China summit in Brunei later.
“Neither side at this point believes it’s a good time to meet. We respect that,” Carandang said. “At some point as this issue evolves, there will be discussions, I suppose, and at the end of the day we all want the same thing. 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 to even violent confrontation. We’re all after the same thing. I guess we just have different ways of going about it.”
Aquino is set to arrive at the Ngurah Rai International Airport here at 11:45 a.m. Sunday. He’ll be joined by Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario, Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima, Trade Secretary Gregory Domingo, Socio-Economic 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 Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Peruvian President Ollanta Humala.
On Tuesday, he will serve as a “lead discussant” 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,” Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Raul Hernandez said earlier.
Carandang admitted that while there has been “rapid growth in the last 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,” he said. “So as always, the President is going to take every opportunity to meet with world leaders and members of the international business community.”
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 apparent failure to achieve inclusive growth, meaning the effects of a growing economy are actually felt especially by the poor.
Carandang argued that alleviating poverty and generating employment 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 forward to,” he said.
Aquino will depart for Brunei at 1:40 p.m. Tuesday.