Shortly before Noynoy’s Excellent Adventure in the US, I took the opportunity to speculate on what the outcomes of his first state visit might be, and whether those might be good or bad signs for the Philippines’ near-term prospects. That the news coming back from his expedition has been dominated by his appreciation for American fast-food, upside-down flags, and his having to suffer through a total of 26 hours of not being able to smoke (Imagine! Way to take one for the team, Noy.) should give everyone ample cause for concern. But was his trip a complete waste of time? Let’s review:
*Aquino at the UN: My take on this was that if he managed to present himself in a statesman-like manner, and address Philippine concerns in the context of global interests he would largely accomplish about all he could expect to at the UN. His brief speech to the General Assembly started off as a rehash of global interest platitudes, segued into a thinly-disguised whine about how rich nations are obliged to help poor nations like his, and ended with an awkward and confusing analogy to ‘People Power’. I did not see the video of his actually delivering the speech, but on paper, it’s unimaginative and obtuse. It’s not likely to have made much of an impression on anyone for longer than it took for the next speaker to ascend the rostrum (which was President Sambi of the Comoros Islands, if anyone’s interested); if one wants to find something positive to say about it, at least it can be said that Aquino probably didn’t annoy anyone with his remarks.
GRADE: D –. It was a pass, but only in the sense that he didn’t make a fool of himself or offend anyone for no good reason.
*The US-Asean Leaders’ Conference: In general, this went pretty well; Aquino avoided the problems of having to address internal security issues in the Philippines (in particular the still-fresh memories of the Manila Bus Massacre), and other potentially sticky inter-regional issues such as trade. The conference, although hampered by the absence of Indonesian President (and incoming ASEAN chairman) Yudhoyono, produced some interesting comments on strategic partnership with the US, but otherwise ended on the pleasantly innocuous note that I had earlier guessed would be a reasonably good sign for the Philippines’ relationship with its Southeast Asian neighborhood in the near future.
GRADE: B. Aquino certainly didn’t stand out, but he really wasn’t supposed to – this was, after all, a collective exercise. Otherwise he handled himself appropriately, and did well to not dwell on the focus of the meeting either by antagonizing or pandering to the leftist elements in the Philippines, who are certain to be furious about it.
*The Aquino-Obama Meeting: Contrary to my expectations, Aquino did get to meet with Obama privately, albeit for only seven minutes. Clearly not expecting the opportunity and obviously being completely unprepared for it, Aquino chose to bring up the thoroughly irrelevant matter of a 60-year old US ammunition dump on Corregidor Island.
GRADE: F. Aquino reacted with the diplomatic equivalent of that character in South Park that always throws up on his crush every time she talks to him, and should probably consider himself lucky that Obama had no real comment on the encounter.
*The Investment “Roadshow”: Even before Aquino left for the US, it was difficult for anyone with even a vague grasp of logic to see how someone with no business or economic acumen was going to convince investors to pour money into a country with one of the world’s most restrictive foreign investment frameworks, and the results were just about what anyone could expect. While the Office of the President is crowing about $2.8 billion in investments “pledged” during the trip, the details are less than impressive: $434 million of that is in the form of the MCC grant which the Aquino Administration had absolutely nothing to do with securing for the country – the approval having been made in March, two months before he was even elected – and the rest is in the form of very preliminary proposals to construct an additional power plant in Luzon, and a plan by Hewlett-Packard to expand operations in the Philippines. Neither of these two ideas have progressed beyond the study phase, and certainly cannot be construed as ‘money in the bank.’ And $2.4 billion in actual ‘foreign investment’ is not much to crow about – Vietnam has already collected almost twice that amount in the first five months of this year.
GRADE: F. The MCC grant had already been approved through no involvement of Aquino, Hewlett-Packard is already here, and the possibility of a new power plant, given the significant shortfall of electrical generating capacity in the country, at best represents mitigation of an existing problem rather than progress. Strictly speaking, Aquino did not achieve nothing – but he was pretty close.
OVERALL GRADE: F. On a scale of 1 to 10, Aquino’s entire trip scores about 3, and so the answer to the original question “Was his trip a complete waste of time?” is apparentlyYes. We at least now know that he really likes hot dogs and can suck it up and do without a cigarette for the duration of an overseas flight; what possible use that knowledge will be to the wise governance and progress of the country, someone else will have to explain.