[PHOTO AT LEFT - VISITOR: US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill reviews the honor guard at the Philippine Military Academy at Fort Del Pilar in Baguio City yesterday. Photo By ANDY ZAPATA JR.]

MANILA, AUGUST 1, 2006 (STAR) By Paolo Romero - A ranking US official said yesterday he was impressed with the Philippines’ economic growth as he urged the government to continue its reform policies.

Visiting US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill issued the statement after meeting separately yesterday with President Arroyo and her economic managers, accompanied by US Ambassador Kristie Kenney.

"I talked to the President about the impressive growth numbers being developed in the Philippine economy, the reduction in the government deficit which is also very important and it allows the government to focus on some of the problems, such as infrastructure, so it was a very, very good discussion," Hill told reporters at Malacañang.

He added that he believes "it is very important that... this positive economic trends (continue) for the Philippines to play a positive role in the region."

Hill, who arrived in the country on Saturday for a three-day visit, earlier urged the Philippines to play a leading role in Southeast Asia in dealing with natural disasters.

He said the 40-minute meeting mainly touched on Philippine-US economic relations and how it can be strengthened, though both of them also discussed the ongoing crisis in Lebanon and the issue of Myanmar’s relations with fellow ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) members.

Mrs. Arroyo also presented her "super regions" economic plan, which is basically a massive pump-priming involving infrastructure and other key growth areas for the five sub-regions of the country.

Hill also visited some US firms in the country, including call centers, and relayed how pleased US executives are "with the Filipino workers here, how pleased they are with the business growth, and how much they’d like to do in the future."

He pointed out that he saw "notable improvement in the overall macro-performance of the economy" since the last time he visited the country in February. The government said it was able to sustain growth for the last 22 consecutive quarters, a feat unparalleled by past administrations.

Trade Secretary Peter Favila and Finance Secretary Margarito Teves also met with Hill, discussing challenges facing the country and ways to attract foreign investments from the US and the Asian region.

The US, he said, is not threatened by increasing Chinese investments in the Philippines as the country can very much benefit from China’s dynamic growth.

"From the US point of view, you know more China does not mean less US," Hill said. "I mean we welcome the development of China, we welcome it as an engine of growth for the entire region and we think the Philippines is well-poised to take advantage of that."

According to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), the US is the country’s biggest trade partner and the top destination of exports.

The US has also long been extending development aid to the country. The Philippines was recently the recipient of a P1-billion grant from the US to help the country fight corruption.

The DFA also said bilateral trade volume between the Philippines and China in 2003 reached $9.4 billion, representing a growth rate of 79 percent over the figure of $5.2 billion in 2002. The Chinese government has also began major investments in mining in the country.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye, meanwhile, called for more cooperation and patience from the opposition to allow the country to achieve its economic goals faster.

Bunye pointed out that the country’s "development agenda needs time, cooperation and focus to achieve its end goals."

"It is easier for some to engage in fault-finding and muckraking but what is much more difficult, and often not appreciated, is the hard work and tough decisions that go into putting our fiscal house in order, growing the economy and investments, creating jobs and bringing essential services to the doorstep of the poor," Bunye said in a statement.

"We are doing all we can to pull this nation together and make it a home for Filipino unity, peace and enterprise. It would be better for our detractors to get on board rather than pull the ship down and drown the ardent hopes of our people," he added.

Improvements needed

Hill, in his lecture before students and faculty members of De La Salle University in Manila, said Washington is very optimistic about the Philippines’ future but urged the government to address the "problem of roads and airports. It is also a challenge to see first-rate airports and roads. I do not think you want anything less."

He also said the country should keep up the GDP (gross domestic product) growth rate of over five percent.

Hill said an infrastructure program is necessary to be competitive in the region, and added that he was struck by the sight of airplane components made by Filipinos working with an American airplane parts company during his visit to Baguio last Sunday.

"This is not second-rate, but first-rate," he said, referring to the components.

The US continues to closely watch the gains from the government’s economic reform program.

Robert Ludan, counselor for economic affairs of the US Embassy in Manila, said the US does not usually comment on a country’s credit standing and overall economic environment, but said Washington sees a credible forecast of continued improvement this year.

Ludan said government debts, including the government-owned and controlled corporations (GOCCs), is one of the areas that should improve.

He added that the slight reduction in the interest rate is also a positive development.

But Ludan said the US continues to be concerned with medium and long term private investments.

The embassy official noted that the government needs to invest more on infrastructure, education and health care.

Pivotal role

Hill urged the Philippines to use its role as ASEAN chairman to bring back North Korea to the six-party talks on the nuclear weapons program and called Pyongyang a country that is "totally out of step."

"We look forward to the Philippines using its leadership role what it can do to bring North Korea back to the bargaining table," he said.

But Hill said the US will not fall into any trap by Pyongyang with its insistence that its nuclear weapons program be limited to bilateral talks between the two countries. He pointed out that Pyongyang could easily blame the US for any failure to arrive at a result or a stalled negotiation.

"The US sees the situation in North Korea not as a bilateral problem but a regional problem. The US does not want to consider this a bilateral issue. We are not going to get into that trap. This is a multilateral problem," Hill said.

Hill added that it was "extraordinary" for the Chinese delegation that went to Pyongyang after its missile launch not to be met by North Korean officials.

"It was extraordinary when the Chinese delegation went to North Korea but it refused to meet with them. China has been generous. They (North Koreans) are always willing to take Chinese assistance but not willing to take in Chinese advice," he said.

The US maintained that Washington is not considering a military solution for Pyongyang’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program.

"Military response on our part is not our view. We do not want military solution. We want to solve things by diplomatic means," Hill said.

According to Hill, the five members of the six-party talks met at the sidelines of the Asean Regional Forum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia last week to discuss North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and how the countries see the future in northeast Asia.

It was also agreed to implement the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1695, the basic elements of the resolution, the call for the resumption of the six-party talks and call on all member states to exercise vigilance in preventing North Korea from getting the funding and technology for WMD and their missile program.

Meantime, Hill also urged ASEAN to make Myanmar finally fulfill its promise to implement democratic reforms.

He referred to Myanmar as a "very much out of step" country that is not going anywhere.

"Burma has so many promises. And yet, it is not going anywhere. It is very much out of step. It seems it wants to be isolated," Hill said.

He raised the matter of Myanmar with Mrs. Arroyo during their 40-minute meeting yesterday. He said one of the regional challenges was "the problem of Myanmar and its unwillingness to really work with Asean and frankly, live up to its responsibility as an ASEAN (member)."

He noted that the Philippines, which now chairs the 10-member Asean, can be at the forefront of international efforts to help Myanmar — a country run by a military junta — implement reforms.

"You know at the end of the day, Myanmar, they’re going to have to make a fundamental decision: Do they want to be isolated the way they are, or do they want to be a real player in the region?" Hill told reporters.

He said the Myanmar government has "put themselves in a situation where they can’t really talk to too many people." He pointed out that Myanmar has also been at odds with its ASEAN neighbors.

"I mean after all, this is a country that changed its capital, didn’t even inform its ASEAN members where it’s new capital was, so this is — to put it gently — rather unusual and I think some of that unusual behavior is something they ought to have a hard look at," Hill said.

Myanmar became an ASEAN member in 1997. — With Pia Lee-Brago

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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