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Bush to Visit Manila to Mark Close US-Philippine Alliance - 2003-10-16

As President Bush travels to Manila for his first official visit, the Philippine government is anticipating its reward for its staunch anti-terrorism support. The two allies share the warmest relations in a decade.

When President Bush meets Philippine President Gloria Arroyo Saturday, it will be the second summit between the two leaders in six months. In May, the White House honored President Arroyo for her strong support of the U.S.-led war on terrorism and in Iraq.

Earlier this month, the United States designated the Philippines, a former U.S. colony, a non-NATO ally, giving it greater access to U.S. defense equipment and aid.

Noel Morada, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines, notes that the two allies are closer than they have been since U.S. military bases in the Philippines closed in 1991.

"The situation as far as military relations has not been as good even compared to the time when the U.S. bases where still active and present in the Philippines," he said.

President Bush praised the importance of the alliance during Ms. Arroyo's May state visit. "The relationship between the Philippines and the United States is stronger today than in any time in our recent history. Our alliance helps ensure the security of both our countries. It's a vital alliance," he said.

During Mr. Bush's visit, the Philippines plans to showcase its achievements in the war on terror, accomplished in part with millions of dollars in U.S. defense aid and training given to the Philippine military.

The Philippines' progress has not come without setbacks. An Indonesian terrorist escaped from a high security detention cell in Manila three months ago. But Monday, police killed Fathur al-Ghozi in a shootout in the southern Philippines.

In their meeting Saturday, Ms. Arroyo is expected to press President Bush for 30 helicopters and 30,000 rifles for the military and more joint anti-terrorism training exercises.

But Congressman Apolinario Lozada, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, says it is time to focus on economic issues. "We hope that the American president would concentrate really more on economic issues... because this is the main [problem] of the Philippines right now. We have to recover economically. We hope the American president would offer us more access to American markets, more assistance to the full development of our export products," he said.

Bilateral trade amounts to some $18 billion annually, and U.S. direct investment in the Philippines reaches $3.5 billion each year.

In addition to trade and investment, The United States gives millions of dollars in aid to the Philippines. Much of the development aid has been channeled into reconstruction projects in the poor southern provinces, where the Philippine government has been battling Muslim separatists for more than 30 years.

Some sectors in the Philippines, however, are skeptical of the close relationship, including nationalists who claim the Philippines is a puppet of the United States.

U.S. and Philippine officials counter by saying that relations are maturing and that the alliance is between equal partners.

But Professor Belinda Aquino of the University of Hawaii says it is impossible to have an equal relationship with a superpower. "We can never be able to talk about an equal relationship between two partners where one partner is dominant in terms of the ability to provide all kinds of resources to a weaker partner like the Philippines," he said.

President Bush's visit comes as politics are heating up ahead of next year's presidential elections.

President Arroyo, who had previously vowed she would not run for election, changed her mind earlier this month. But her popularity rating has slipped in recent months, following a failed military mutiny and a corruption scandal involving her husband.

Aides to President Arroyo see the Bush visit as a boost to her political campaign.

Security is tight in Manila for the eight-hour visit. Activists have mounted a series of protests around the country leading up to his arrival.

Mr. Bush will address a joint session of Congress, the first U.S. president to do so since Dwight Eisenhower in 1959.