Philippine President Benigno Aquino’s State of the Nation Address

  • Benigno Aquino
    Jul 26, 2011

    Investors, foreign policy analysts, and defense planners joined Philippine citizens in listening carefully to President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III’s second State of the Nation Address (SONA) on July 25 in Manila. These groups are assessing whether Aquino is a leader who will break the cycle of corruption, get investment flowing, expound and implement a national security strategy, and find a path to peace in Mindanao.

    Aquino did not disappoint those looking for focus and strong assertions of progress in these areas.

    The president’s speech was headlined by his reaffirmation of Philippine sovereignty over its exclusive economic zone the South China Sea, or what the Philippines call the “West Philippine Sea.” “What is ours is ours,” he said, referring to the Reed Bank area. While there was apparent progress in the ASEAN China Foreign Ministers meeting in Bali, including new language indicating both sides will develop specific implementing regulations to move from a Declaration of a Code of Conduct (DOC) to a Code of Conduct (COC), Aquino has been clear that the Philippines is willing to take the issue to the United Nations.

    He will get high marks from Filipinos who appreciate significant new trade with China, but have reacted strongly against Chinese assertions of sovereignty and aggressive actions toward Philippine oil and gas exploration ships working in what they deem to be Philippine waters.

    Speaking in Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines, the president addressed Filipinos as “My Bosses” and kept his language simple and direct, clearly reaching out to the man in the street. He picked up the theme of his first SONA and talked about how his government is moving to right what he feels are the wrongs of his predecessor Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her administration.

    While sounding an upbeat note and emphasizing “the straight and righteous path,” Aquino’s popularity has rebounded after dipping from historically high ratings immediately after his election. Aquino’s critics noted that he did not address key issues including land reform, infant and maternal mortality, extrajudicial killings, trade issues, or public-private partnerships.

    While foreign policy—other than the South China Sea issue—and trade did not feature prominently in President Aquino’s address, there are clear signals that U.S.-Philippine ties have vastly improved since his election. Despite standing up to perceived Chinese aggression in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, President Aquino has plans to visit China in September. A visit to the United States, a treaty ally of the Philippines, is still being discussed for September but is not yet confirmed.

    What did Aquino say and why is it important?

    Q1: What was the primary focus on Aquino’s speech?

    A1: Aquino is betting his legacy on the fight against corruption and on efforts to instill a new culture of accountability. He is focusing on righting what he perceives as the multitude of injustices foisted on the Philippines by his predecessor Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her administration.

    President Aquino opened his speech with an attack on the “wang-wang” culture of the Philippine government. Wang-wangs are police sirens used by some government officials and well-connected individuals to circumvent road laws and push through traffic. For Aquino, the wang-wang culture symbolizes the elite’s culture of entitlement and flagrant disregard for the law.

    He detailed his fight against corruption abuse and described how these actions have saved resources for the people of the Philippines. He described reform efforts to reduce government waste while promising to maintain his crackdown on corrupt officials. He revealed several instances of extreme corruption under the Arroyo administration, including a case in which PAGCOR, the Philippine gaming authority, allegedly spent $24 million on coffee over three years.

    Aquino said the appointment of former Supreme Court Justice Conchita Carpio-Morales as the new ombudsman (making her responsible for investigating crimes by national officials) would ensure that the prosecutions of high-level corrupt officials will continue. Aquino promised that “these will be real cases, with strong evidence and clear testimonies, which will lead to the punishment of the guilty.”

    He singled out electoral fraud in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), saying that “politics there have been dominated by horse-trading and transactional politics” and thanking the Philippine Congress for passing a law synchronizing ARMM elections with the rest of the regional elections in hopes of reducing fraud.

    Aquino did not name Arroyo specifically when discussing the investigations. However, she and her family members in Congress boycotted the SONA as they did a year ago. The Aquino administration has filed five plunder cases against Arroyo and despite snags in many investigations over the past year, the investigations are now intensifying.

    To follow through on his commitments, President Aquino will need to enact judicial reform. Corruption in courts has been a major obstacle to social justice and expanding investment in the Philippines.

    Q2: What did Aquino say about the South China Sea—or what the Filipinos call the “West Philippine Sea”—dispute?

    A2: About halfway through his speech, Aquino made a pointed notably direct statement on the conflict with China in the South China Sea. He repeated his new, more assertive national security policy, “what’s ours is ours,” but went further by declaring “we are ready to defend what is ours.” He said the Philippines had acquired a Hamilton Class coast guard cutter from the United States and displayed two photographs of the ships, saying that he has plans to obtain more weapons including ships, helicopters, patrol craft, and light arms from the United States. The president’s remarks built on Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario’s statements in Washington last month that the Philippines would seek to acquire advanced weapons systems from the United States to begin modernizing and rearming the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

    Aquino did not mention the disputed Spratly Islands specifically, but he did single out Reed Bank when discussing national defense. The Reed Bank, called Recto Bank in the Philippines, is a small island considered by the Philippines to be within its exclusive economic zone and separate from the Spratly Islands. Two Chinese patrol boats harassed an oil and gas exploration ship on Reed Bank several months ago. Philippine Navy aircraft and ships were sent to confront the Chinese ships, but they had left before the Philippine reinforcements arrived.

    Notably, President Aquino met with Admiral Robert Willard of the United States Pacific Command (PACOM) the day after the speech. Willard underlined U.S. support for the Armed Forces of the Philippines and reiterated the commitment to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

    Q3: What did Aquino say about economic performance and policy?

    A3: Aquino praised the Philippines’ growth rate and modest reduction in unemployment from 8 percent to 7.2 percent, crediting his administration’s efforts to streamline the government, build infrastructure, and reduce debt levels. He also emphasized the five debt rating upgrades by rating agencies the country has experienced in the past year, saving the country about $544 million in interest payments. During the previous administration, government bond ratings were upgraded once while being downgraded six times. Ratings agencies credit Aquino’s policies for salvaging the Philippines’ public finances.

    Aquino emphasized the need for investment in the energy sector, particularly in oil and gas exploration, which is primarily offshore.

    Ernest Bower is a senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Ian Saccomanno is the Philippines researcher for the Southeast Asia Program.

    Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2011 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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Ernest Z. Bower