Remarks by Ambassador Harry K. Thomas, Jr., Intramuros Lounge, San Francisco, California 02/03/2012
Magandang gabi! Masaya ako na andito ako ngayon. I am happy to be here today.
Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I am very pleased to be among you tonight, in a lounge that is a little piece of Manila in the great city of San Francisco. Let me thank Ted for organizing this wonderful event. My thanks also go out to everyone here tonight. I know that every day you are working to make the ties between the United States and the Philippines stronger and more vibrant. You make my job easier, and I appreciate the help, believe me.
San Francisco, like Manila, is a melting pot of different cultures, so I trust you too celebrated the Chinese New Year and the arrival of the year of the water dragon. I like the image of the water dragon because it captures the dynamism of developments between our two nations while reminding us that China is important to us all in a very positive way. The water dragon augurs well for diplomacy, for commerce, and hopefully for freedom of navigation on the high seas.
I know you all are very well-wired into Philippine news, and I look forward to your questions. What I thought I might do tonight is give you a recap of key developments over the last year or so, and then focus a little on the recent Bilateral Strategic Dialogue in Washington. Then we’ll open it up to questions.
Let me start by recapping 2011 because it was a very positive year during which we laid the foundation for what I think will be a substantial modernization of our relationship. Let me highlight three specific priorities very quickly, and I can speak about them in greater length during the question period if you like.
First, we stepped up the quality of service we offer to veterans, American citizens and travelers. We opened three new buildings, including a state-of-the art Veterans’ Clinic and improved consular facilities. We have the 2nd largest immigrant visa section in the world. We improved processes to make travelling more convenient. Now visa clients pay one fee for all basic services, and travelers renewing visas can in some instances use expedited procedures. And, I know you have lots of specific visa questions that I am afraid I’m not really qualified to answer. You can find the answers more easily, however, thanks to new visa information on our Facebook page, more prominent display of visa information on our webpage, and a new visa blog. Our Consul General recently even spent an hour answering visa-related tweets.
Second, we stepped up our outreach to connect with more Filipinos than ever before. We are prominent on Facebook, and I invite you to “friend” the Embassy. You can follow both the Embassy and me, personally, on Twitter if you’d like. I am most proud of what I call “America in 3-D,” which brings the 30 agencies of the U.S. Embassy to shopping malls in key areas so we can talk to, and learn from, Filipinos who might never make it past the Embassy’s security. These events include sports clinics, medical outreach, cultural presentations, classic American cars and good old American food. They help us tell the story of U.S.-Philippines friendship, build partners with emerging leaders and dynamic institutions, and remind us that American business, as well as the American government, is a key partner in the Philippines. Last year saw visits by Eric Spolstra, Kobe Bryant, and Ken Griffey Jr. to the Philippines, but we won’t be happy until Tim Lincecum joins us.
Our outreach extended to troubled areas as well, especially to Cagayan de Oro and its environs during the Christmas floods that killed more than a thousand people. Through USAID and our military partnership we were able to send needed supplies to complement the excellent work the Government of the Philippines was doing with its partner civic organizations. I am also proud of the fact that the Embassy community, including American and local staff, mobilized significant donations to help those affected.
Third, we took significant steps to align our programs, across the board, more closely behind President Aquino’s priorities to ensure we are reinforcing the elements he has defined as most essential. Our Millennium Challenge Corporation compact of $434 million over five years is breezing through the vital preliminary phases and heading quickly toward execution under the direction of a board consisting entirely of Philippine voting members. Through the newly-created “Partnership for Growth” the Philippines is one of four pilot countries in the world that worked with us to define constraints to growth and identify programs we can work on together to address those constraints. This innovative partnership means we will consistently reinforce the government’s efforts, and hopefully help it reach its goals more quickly. All our contributing agencies are a part of our “Partnership for Growth” team, which means we are coordinating more closely than we ever have before internally, as well as with the Government of the Philippines.
Last year, 2011, was an important year of anniversaries. We celebrated 50 years of Peace Corps and USAID cooperation in the Philippines, and 60 years of cooperation under the Mutual Defense Treaty. But we used those events to look forward, not back. Secretary Clinton, when she visited, signed with Secretary Del Rosario the Manila Declaration, which reaffirmed our bilateral Mutual Defense Treaty as one of the foundations for our relationship, but more broadly set forth our shared vision for strategic, political, economic, and people-to-people cooperation.
That leads me to this week’s Bilateral Strategic Dialogue, which is an innovative venue where teams from across multiple agencies from both governments sit down and talk about what we want to do – together – as economic partners, as military allies, and as regional neighbors. During last week’s meetings our two countries reaffirmed our commitment to fulfill the vision of the Manila Declaration through an invigorated and expanded alliance, an alliance that is capable of addressing 21st century challenges. This was the second such gathering between our two governments since the Dialogue began in 2011. We proposed intensifying cooperation, including in security, defense, commerce, law enforcement, human rights, maritime security, and disaster relief.
As partners we reviewed our ongoing collaboration in the Partnership for Growth and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and discussed the Philippines’ goal of eventually joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
We talked about working together to increase trade and investment and to strengthen regional institutions like ASEAN, APEC, and the East Asia Summit. We were able to acknowledge some new entrants into the Philippine market, including The Cheesesteak restaurant, a franchise that started right here in San Francisco, along with Johnny Rockets, Jamba Juice, Papa Johns and most recently PF Chang, which are real indicators to me, of how inextricably linked we are, not just economically, but gastronomically as well.
We talked about rule of law, and were able to review important programs to assist police, prosecutors and judicial personnel in the Philippines. Among our concrete successes since our first Bilateral Strategic Dialogue, I am proud to note the first-ever return of funds in an asset-forfeiture case. In April 2011 $132,000 in forfeited assets from former military comptroller General Jacinto Ligot were returned to the Philippine government; in January of this year, $100,000 in funds were returned that had been seized from sons of former military comptroller General Carlos F. Garcia on their entry into the United States. These important developments show the benefits of the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty we have with the Philippines, the confidence that our Government places in the Aquino administration, and in Justice Secretary Leila De Lima.
We reiterated our mutual commitment to human rights and the fight against human trafficking and acknowledged the progress made, and that work that remains to be done on both sides.
And of course we discussed our military relationship, which continues to earn headlines. So let’s start with a few basic facts. From 2001 to 2010, the United States provided over $507 million in military assistance to the Philippines. The highest level of aid to any South East Asia country. For a decade now, we have worked with the Armed Forces of the Philippines to blunt the ability of terrorists to spread violence and fear in the Southern Philippines.
Throughout the post-World War II era, the Philippines have been an important strategic partner and ally for the United States. As President Obama announced last month, the United States is strengthening our presence in Asia, given our national interest in the maintenance of peace and security in this region. This includes freedom of navigation, over flight, respect for international law, the rule of law, unimpeded lawful commerce across the region's maritime domain.
Soon after I return to Manila, we will kick off the Balikatan 2012 military exercise, one of several annual exercises that are incredible feats of organization, communication, planning and goodwill between members of the American and Philippine Armed Forces. Filipino and American military personnel from all branches of service will work shoulder-to-shoulder in the heat and the rain, cross-training in military operations such as air rescue, amphibious operations, close air support, small arms training, and staging support. They will also build and renovate schools and provide much-needed dental, medical, and veterinary services at the barangay level.
This year’s Balikatan will mark the 28th time that our militaries have conducted this exercise, in the spirit of friendship, cooperation, and military professionalism that characterize our relationship. Times may change, but our shared values and principles are enduring.
So I am coming back to Manila after this Bilateral Strategic Dialogue really energized by the opportunities we have, with the Aquino administration particularly, to modernize and mature our relationship. I hope that in a few months Secretary Clinton and Secretary Panetta will host their Philippine counterparts, Secretary Del Rosario and Secretary Gazmin, for a continuation of this strategic dialogue in Washington. I should mention as well that in January we hosted two high-level congressional delegations in Manila, a sign of Washington’s increased recognition of the seriousness of President Aquino’s administration.
In closing, let me say that I am optimistic. First, because Filipinos are optimistic, and after nearly two years in Manila, some of that optimism has rubbed off on me. Kaya Pa. But I am also optimistic because I believe that the current Philippine leadership is prepared to take some hard decisions. I am optimistic because we have some great programs and great cooperation going on with the Philippines that promises positive results, and a great team at the Embassy to help make it happen. And I am optimistic because I have come to understand and appreciate the dynamism, the work ethic, and community spirit of the Filipino people.
And for anyone who is interested in joining us, we will be putting on our “America in 3-D” roadshow in Iloilo in early March – you are all cordially invited! I can tell you honestly, “it’s more fun in the Philippines!”