The press had two opportunities to ask the presidents of the Philippines and United States about the significance of their meeting. The “prestigious” (as our President put it) representative of the Philippine media asked a slum book question. The American media person ignored our President altogether and asked about what’s being called the “Beer Summit.” There wasn’t even the online buzz created by Shrub’s maladroit effort to be hospitable by mentioning what a good cook his chef was.(see the transcript)
There wasn’t the easy banter we saw during the President’s previous Oval Office appearance (see President Hee Hee and President Ha Ha from June 25, 2008, as well as the Reuters transcript) although fashionistas will probably note the President wore the same (lucky?) dress. I suppose much will be made about the contrast between Bush’s fulsome praise for the President -“I congratulated the President on her strong stand on counterterrorism -more than strong stand- effective stand on counterterrorism, as well as laying out a vision for peace”- and the more moderate references by Obama to “I am very pleased that President Arroyo has made such good progress on dealing with counterterrorism issues.” But that might be more of a difference in style than of policy substance; both the Bush and Obama statements focused on the same points, indicating no real change in American policy towards the Philippines.
That policy no longer views the Philippines as a lynchpin of American policy in the region but still considers the country, both from the perspective of sentimental ties and emerging policy, as a reliable ally that needs to be reassured it can count on tokens of favor from time to time. The meeting then, is a reiteration, perhaps not to the President herself, but the country, that the traditional relationship is not about to be set aside, and that the country retains a place in the emerging scheme of things.
An American I talked to last night gave me what seemed the most sober and reasonable perspective on the meeting between the two chief executives. While the American asserted that a study of American diplomatic history would reveal high-level meetings between heads of state to be much more businesslike, but boring, than the public assumes, it was the regional context of the meeting that I found more interesting and even convincing.
For some time now the conventional wisdom is that the position the Philippines traditionally used to enjoy in the region has been taken up by Indonesia. As far back as 2006 I recall, during a conference in Washington DC, Americans referring to the President of Indonesia as “Asia’s new Magsaysay.” Where the current Democratic administration differs from its predecessor is its declaration that it intends to be more engaged in South East Asia. But that engagement carries with it a hierarchy of interests, and if in Asean, in terms of alliances, Indonesia is now a very high priority, while Burma is the biggest problem, the Philippines and American engagement must be taken in the context of where it could be situated in terms of that hierarchy of interests -as an adjunct to Indonesian concerns, the Asian and Middle East confrontation with radical Islam, and, along the way, an emerging detente with China.
On the one hand, the United States seems inclined to withdraw its front line to Guam, what with widespread expectations that its Okinawa bases will soon be closed; South Korean bases, like the Japanese bases, have proven more politically problematic than they may have been worth, militarily, but problems with North Korea (itself, arguably, a proxy for China to confront the United States in the region) will perhaps keep outright bases there more viable in the near future. At the same time, the United States, together with Japan, has interests, together with Australia, in not allowing China to have absolute supremacy both militarily and economically, in the region. Being able to project American naval and air power seems more important now, than maintaining actual land forces outside the Korean peninsula; beefing up the capacity of Asean nations to patrol their own waters and engage in counterterrorism more proactively and effectively, seems more beneficial and less politically-problematic, than having Americans on the ground to act as magnets for attack. Okinawa and the Philippines have proven how horny or undisciplined GIs can cause far too many headaches at a time when the Americans are out to foster a more positive impression than they earned during the Bush years.
Anyway, how does this play out vis-a-vis the Philippines? According to the American, the US government has devoted a lot of face time to engaging the Indonesian President, and has encountered the leaders of at the G20 Summit, the American president’s expected to swing by some regional capitals before or after the 2009 Apec CEO Summit in Singapore, but that Manila will not be included in the list of stopovers.
There’s a practical reason why Manila can’t be stopover in November -it’s when the campaign officially begins for the 2010 elections, and it would be impolitic for President Obama to be seen either implicitly or explicitly favoring either the President, her coalition, or any of the contenders for the presidency, because whoever ends up winning will have to engage the United States anyway, and vice-versa, but it would be unproductive, knowing Filipino sensitivities, to be seen endorsing or withholding endorsement from any candidate who might want to take advantage of the Obama visit.
This presents a problem, though, in terms of the new American administration policy to reengage Southeast Asia, which includes the country’s oldest regional ally, the Philippines. Regardless of administration, the United States would be foolish to ruffle feathers in Manila or cause Manila to lose face by what might be projected as a snub. On the other hand, the United States has been seen to be aggresively courting regional leaders like the President of Indonesia while the President of the Philippines was left flailing around trying to secure face time with the American president. She did not get it before, she will not get it later, so best to give her what she wants, now.
Which is what the President received. Unfortunately, domestic politics bumped her visit from the airwaves and the papers; CNN didn’t even mention the visit except parenthetically:
On the meeting’s being dubbed the “Beer Summit,” Obama said, “It’s a clever term, but this is not a summit, guys. This is three folks having a drink at the end of the day, and hopefully giving people an opportunity to listen to each other, and that’s really all it is.
“This is not a university seminar. It is not a summit. It’s an attempt to have some personal interaction when an issue has become so hyped and so symbolic that you lose sight of just the fact that these are people involved,” he said.
He said he would be surprised if the media makes the meeting out to be more important than his meeting Thursday with Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, president of the Philippines, but “the press has surprised me before.”
I was less convinced by the American’s assertion that the Department of State is very jealous of its prerogatives and that Filipino speculation that messages had been delivered to the President from the White was unwarranted, because State wouldn’t allow the Defense Department or someone like the CIA chief to convey a policy message concerning elections, etc. Maybe during the Bush years this would’ve been possible, but now now. But then again personally it seems conceivable that the Americans did as they say they did -send Defense Sec. Gates and Panetta of the CIA to focus on counterterrorism matters, which may or may not have included negotiating what columnist Jarius Bondoc said might’ve been the Obama agenda: asking the President to take in some prisoners from Guantanamo Bay.
Yesterday, I asked former Senator Kit Tatad how one should go about analyzing the Arroyo-Obama meeting. He said, look at her bodylanguage right after the meeting concludes, before she’s had time spin things. Unfortunately, the only impression I got was of the President being jetlagged. But then that’s been reported, anyway. If there’s anything to parse about the Oval Office meeting, it was that the American president emphasized the importance of the Philippines, reiterating its current ranking in the scheme of things, with a sop to the country’s amor propio by the essentially meaningless designation of the Philippines as “coordinator” of his upcoming Asean tour. That merely reinforces the traditional Asean view of the Philippines’ place in America’s scheme of things as the most reliable cheerleader of Washington.
There was a marked contrast between the Oval Office cultivation of the President as America’s fair-haired girl during the Bush years; Obama was far more reserved, though preserving every requirement of extending official courtesy to the President. So we shall have to see what the behavior of the President’s people will be like, when she returns, to see whether the President left the White House with a feeling of relief, exultation, or mounting dread.