DAVAO CITY: President Rodrigo Duterte on Sunday called for a stronger region free of external interference, dependence and ignorance as he launched the Philippine chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) that coincides with the bloc’s 50th founding anniversary.
Duterte, who arrived in a pair of gray trousers, the sleeves of his barong rolled up just above the wrists, and wearing suspenders, stuck to his prepared remarks during ceremonies at the SMX Convention Center in his home city.
The President said Asean must be strengthened to attain peace, stability and “inclusive and innovation-led growth,” and become a “model of regionalism.”
But Asean must rid itself of dependence and ignorance, he said.
“For an Asean citizen, the Asean community must provide opportunities for a truly better life. This is a life that has broken the bonds of dependence and ignorance. This is a life that has given opportunities for self-improvement. This is a life that is provided by a society transformed and reformed,” Duterte said.
“We express our shared determination to ensure stability and security from external interference in any form of negotiation in order to preserve our national identity,” he added.
The Philippine hosting of the 2017 Asean meetings has the theme “Partnering for Change, Engaging the World.”
There will be 118 Asean meetings in the Philippines this year. Two of them will be summits of heads of states of the 10 Asean member-nations and dialogue partners.
There will also be 15 ministerial meetings, 31 senior officials’ meetings and more than 60 working group meetings.
The meetings will take place in various locations nationwide, including Metro Manila, Laoag, Pampanga, Legazpi, Palawan, Boracay, Cebu, Iloilo, Bacolod, Bohol, Cagayan de Oro, and Davao.
Along with Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, the Philippines is a founding member of Asean, which was formed in 1967 at the height of the Cold War. Asean formed a free-trade area in 1992 and declared the establishment of the Asean Economic Community at the end of 2015.
“Fifty years, hence, we see ourselves much changed for the better. Lives have been improved. The march towards sustainable development and inclusive growth continues to take place. And we have established amongst ourselves good neighborliness that allows for secure and stable relations. But we also see in ourselves the very same burning desire to move forward together based on shared values,” Duterte said in his speech.
“We see the very same resolve to work together for a world that recognizes interconnectedness and respect for the sovereign independence,” he added.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. reiterated the Philippines’ commitment to strengthening the Asean community.
“Over the past five decades, the Philippines has supported Asean and contributed to its progress and achievement. We are all partners in Asean’s work, in regional development, and in making positive change in the lives of our citizens,” Yasay said, speaking ahead of the President.
Militant groups however, criticized Asean as a foreign tool to pursue “neoliberal” economic policies.
The farmers’ group Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas said the launch of Asean 2017 was more than just “a showcase of the country’s world-class tourism and supreme hospitality, but ‘a stamp of commitment’ of the Duterte administration’s upholding of anti-people neoliberal economic policies promoted by the Asean and foreign economic powers.”
Focus on MSMEs
Duterte also said the Philippines would pursue initiatives to strengthen the capacity of micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs), which account for 90 percent of Asean businesses, during the 2017 meetings.
Duterte said Asean should provide opportunities for its people by making the region more open for businesses and improving connectivity.
“We must continue working on a bigger, more open, rules-based market for business and trade to thrive,” he said.
“We must forge the increased people-to-people interaction through commerce, travel, education,” he added.
Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry President George Barcelon said in an interview that the Asean Business Advisory Council would continue discussions on facilitating assistance to MSMEs through infrastructure and financing, among others.
The business council plans to enhance connectivity between Asean and its free-trade agreement partners through maritime infrastructure and routes.
“A multilateral agreement is needed to have facilities, such as ports, among our [free-trade] partners,” he said.
At the sidelines of the launch, Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol said the Philippine would pursue food export opportunities under the Asean Economic Community or AEC.
“In Asean, our target initially would be Singapore because it is dependent on food imports. [We will export] pork, chicken, eggs, even vegetables. But we have to really source these things from Mindanao because of its proximity to Singapore,” he said.
Piñol said he considered the AEC “both as a boon and a bane” especially for the country’s agriculture sector.
“We are trying to discover now what is it that Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam would need from us…if we don’t do that, there will be a trade imbalance. We will be flooded with [imported]products,” he said.
The government will ensure that farmers will be able to compete in the AEC, he said.
Piñol said support programs include solar-powered irrigation systems, a mechanization program, technology transfer and supply of hybrid seeds.
WITH PNA AND LLANESCA T. PANTI