POSTSCRIPT / November 20, 2001 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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GMA hints at ‘pleasant surprises’ in White House

WASHINGTON, DC. – After a week of trying to pry out figures on American commitments of military assistance, the press covering the visit here of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo succeeded Sunday night in putting a dollar tag on expectations from the White House.

President Arroyo had been dodging questions on specific American commitments with requests to the press to just wait for the joint communiqué to be issued after her meeting today (Tuesday) with President George W. Bush at the White House.

“Hintayin na lang ninyo (Just wait),” she pleaded, adding that there could be “pleasant surprises” during her one-on-one with Bush.

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$19-M PACKAGE: But when pressed after a taped TV interview at the Willard Hotel here, she disclosed that she expected to get something like $19 million in military assistance next year as a result of renewed initiatives after the Sept. 11 terror attacks here and in New York.

If Uncle Sam delivers, this package would mark a ten-fold improvement over the $1.9 million pledged by the US for 2001.

The President appeared pleased in noting that $19 million is the lion’s share in the $22-million total pledged for US allies in the entire Asia-Pacific region.

The materiel would rank the Philippines fourth after major recipients of US military aid worldwide. The top three are Israel, Jordan and Egypt.

We could not immediately ascertain, however, if the $19 million being mentioned by President Arroyo includes items that have been in the pipeline as commitments to former President Erap Estrada before he was driven out of Malacanang last January.

The items in the old shopping list of the armed forces included 100 trucks, a Coast Guard cutter, 30,000 M-16 rifles, and several military helicopters. Some of them are military surplus that would require repair or retooling.

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MORE DEALS CLINCHED: President Arroyo flew to the US capital Sunday to cap her one-week working visit with a meeting with President Bush on political and security matters. Earlier in New York, she attended to business and economic concerns of her administration.

While Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes and National Security Adviser Roilo Golez pursued the security angle, other officials, including Chairman Felicito Payumo of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, busied themselves with more business deals.

Additional memoranda of understanding were signed here Sunday between Philippine authorities and Salomon Smith Barney ($200 million); Kellog, Brown and Root ($300 million in yearly income); Sun Microsystems ($3 million project cost); Ford Motor Co. ($1.2-billion in regional trade in five years); and Futrex Inc.

Payumo said that the Kellog, Brown and Root project would include ship repair facilities in the former US naval base. The world-class facilities would employ around 4,000 skilled workers, he said

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OLD ITEMS RECYCLED?: The mention by President Arroyo of $19 million in military assistance has not snuffed speculation that her runners might just be following up delivery of old items with a few additional items, like one or two helicopters, thrown in.

Two factors have added urgency to the desire of the Philippines to upgrade its military capability: the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the US and the linking of the Abu Sayyaf to the Osama bin Laden global network being blamed for those attacks.

In her Sunday TV taping with the press, the President expressed her willingness to have a Philippine contingent help in the rehabilitation of post-Taliban Afghanistan.

The conventional wisdom is that with President Arroyo promptly waving the flag and lining up behind Bush in his campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan, she should be rewarded with substantial logistics to improve the armed forces’ capability to fight terrorism.

There is the possibility, however, that the shopping list being carried by the Arroyo runners might remain a mere wish list.

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RUSH BUSH MEETING: There are some misgivings in Filipino circles about Bush giving our President just 30 minutes for a hurried meeting. With the exchanging of hellos, handshaking and picture taking, the 30 minutes might be gone before GMA is able to catch the eye of Bush for an earnest exchange.

After that hurried meeting, one of several that the US President has each day, our President and her key men will be treated to lunch not by Bush but by Golez’s counterpart, National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice.

Of course, as is always the case, the detailed preliminaries had been handled by Cabinet members meeting their opposite numbers in the Bush administration. The two Presidents normally come in toward the end to affix their seal of approval on the preliminary agreements.

Still, as GMA keeps hinting, there could be surprises. Who knows, Bush might suddenly be struck by a blinding light and start to see the anti-terrorist anti-poverty gospel according to la Gloria.

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PULL-ASIDE DIPLOMACY: President Arroyo tried to play down the shortness of her meeting with Bush. She said that aside from technical level discussions, she herself has had preliminary exchanges with Bush personally and by phone.

She cited the recent APEC summit in Shanghai where she noticed some of her fellow summiteers in pull-aside talks. She said she herself was able to sneak in some substantive conversations with Bush about Philippine concerns.

Citing the APEC meeting and other trips where she met other leaders, she stressed the value of such face-to-face interaction. These occasions, she said, help firm up relations and open avenues for later talks.

Even with this explanation, it will not be surprising that the opposition and GMA’s critics in media will keep questioning the wisdom of doing all this traveling.

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AUTUMNAL RIDE: While the President and her party flew straight to Andrews airbase near here for the concluding stages of her working visit, the press delegation came over on buses.

It was generally a pleasant Sunday four-hour ride on the smooth, wide tollways. Down the New Jersey Turnpike and Interstate 94, trees bursting in autumnal gold, red, brown and other startling shades of fall line both sides of the tollways for the visitors inured to the pollution, rut and traffic jams of EDSA.

The President flies Wednesday to Mexico for a brief visit, then will fly back to California and go home via Los Angeles.

What will be her pasalubong?

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of November 20, 2001)

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