Obama in Asia: The “savior” comes

This week United States president Barack Obama embarks on a 7-day Asian tour that will bring him to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. Obama’s visit to Asia intends to send a clear message: the U.S. remains a strong strategic partner of its allies in the Asia-Pacific, a region whose balance is being stirred, even agitated, by China which is increasingly flexing its muscles in territorial disputes in East Asia, and staking its claim as an economic superpower.

But observers say this intended message comes muddled, rather than crystal clear. When Obama announced his “pivot to Asia” strategy in 2011 — an effort to “rebalance” U.S. foreign policy direction to Asia after decades of focus on the Middle East and Europe –- the U.S. perhaps did not anticipate an avalanche of crises such as the Arab spring. And even as Obama begins this week’s Asian swing, the U.S. is saddled with the unrest in Ukraine and how to deal with Russia.

Not to be forgotten, Obama’s Asia trip has been cancelled previously because of domestic problems, the most recent was in late 2013 when the White House was locked in a battle with the Capitol that led to the government shutdown. For some onlookers, this begs the question, so where’s this so-called pivot to Asia?

Then again, critics would say, who asked the U.S. to pivot to Asia in the first place?

America and the world

When talking about the U.S. with respect to its relationship with the rest of the world, I am reminded by a question that was posed to me by American Midwesterners at a journalists’ forum at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. This was a question that would repeatedly be asked of us foreign journalists on our trip across the U.S.: How does your country perceive the United States? How does the world look at the U.S.?

I would realize later on that the question was being posed not from a haughty standpoint. Middle America really had but a faint idea as to how the world looked at them, and they were really curious to know.

In one forum, I said that the phrase “the world’s savior” has been used several times during our trip to describe the U.S., sometimes in a plain and forthright manner, other times, with irony and derision.

Love-hate relationship

As a journalist from the Philippines I have some sense of where this image of the U.S. comes from, as well as some understanding of this love-hate relationship with the U.S. We’ve had a long history, I told our American audience, having been a colony of the U.S. for 45 years.

US-Philippine relations were off to a somewhat shaky start, to begin with, dragged as we were into the fray that was the Spanish-American War in 1898 that initially only involved Cuba (which was fighting to overthrow Spanish rule). Eventually, Spain ceded Cuba, and its other colonies including Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines, to the U.S. for $20 million.

The Philippines thought that the U.S. would quickly grant the country independence. But that would not be the case because the Philippines was placed under military control for fears that Filipinos were not yet ready for full democracy and unprepared to govern themselves and some foreign power might take advantage, so U.S. presence was necessary (a line that we continue to hear and debate about in today’s events). This began the saga of nationalist revolt against the U.S.

To be fair, I told our American audience, the American occupation did bring many gains to the Philippines: urban infrastructure, system of education, government structure, increase in trade, etc. But historians would also say American politics and party system became a breeding ground for the thirst for power and corruption that has become so pervasive in Philippine politics, just one of the downsides of American influence.

New security deal

When U.S. Pres. Obama arrives in Manila next week, he is expected to announce details of a new security deal agreed upon with the Philippines. Among those already reported by the New York Times and Reuters are the use of Philippine installations by U.S. troops for maritime and humanitarian operations, increase in presence of rotational troops, and boosting the Philippines’ defense capability amid tensions with China. This is a significant step since the U.S. military bases were booted out from Philippine shores in 1992.

Many things are still up in the air as far as the U.S.’s pivot to Asia is concerned. And as history reminds us, in every intervention, you take the good with the bad.

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1ST FILIPINO ASTRONAUT CHINO ROQUE AND WHAT HE DREADS IN OUTER SPACE

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(Chino Roque, 2nd from left, on the set of Bandila with, L-R, Julius Babao, Karen Davila and Boy Abunda.  Photo credit: @iamkarendavila on Instagram)

I spoke with soon-to-be astronaut Chino Roque a few minutes before his guesting on Bandila’s Ikaw Na! segment and asked him if he’s nervous (I was referring to the space mission) and he said he’s more nervous about fumbling his answers and lines during his live TV news interview.  If I were in his space suit, I’d be more concerned about reentering the earth’s orbit.  Indeed Chino is charming, not in an out-of-this-world manner, but in a down to earth sort of way. 

Obviously, Chino has not yet been bitten by the celebrity bug.  Between now and his space launch over a year from now, he will have to focus on training for this endeavor.  I asked him if he watched Sandra Bullock and George Clooney’s space blockbuster flick “Gravity” and he said yes.  What happened in that disaster movie is highly possible, Chino said.    

He and 23 other astronauts from different countries, selected from a competition, will train intensively at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  They will each get a chance to board a 2-seater reusable space shuttle with a trained pilot, but they will not just be passive passengers because, as Chino says, they also have to learn “which buttons to push.”  They also need to prepare for the physical rigors of space flight.

Veteran astronauts have lectured to them and they were told that one of the hardest things to do in space is going (as in doing your toilet business).  Imagine doing it in zero gravity (they better have good aim because you don’t want stuff floating around in an enclosed space).  Another challenge is reentry into the earth’s orbit because the pressure shocks the body and causes muscle atrophy.

Our talk was cut short when the live newscast started.  Chino sat with Boy Abunda for the interview and carried himself well despite the nerves.  Boy asked him if he has a girlfriend and Chino admitted he’s courting someone.  He was asked, given the choice to take a showbiz personality to space, who would that be?  He paused, was obviously at a loss for words, then finally said he really had not thought about it.  Evidently, hindi pa siya showbiz (and hopefully he’ll stay that way).

Boy asked a different question.  “If you saw the face of God when you fly to space, what would you tell Him?”  Chino answered that he wants to be able to give back as much as he could from that experience.  He says he will tell God, “I am down on both knees even if it is zero gravity.”  It’s been said that being in space is an encounter with God.  We have the right man for the job.

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THE DAY THE SKY FELL ON THE PHILIPPINES

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(The following post was published in Russian in New Times in Moscow.) 

It was one of the most gripping images I saw of super typhoon Haiyan when it struck central Philippines:  a group of people on the roof of a house trying to evade fast rising flood waters,  holding on for dear life as they were buffeted by rain, wind and storm surge in Tacloban City.  These images were captured on video by our news team on the ground.

For several tense hours, we lost all communication with our journalists.  When we reestablished connection later, the full story of those people on the roof dawned on us: They were children in an orphanage called Street Life Philippines that was pounded and destroyed during the super typhoon.  They climbed the roof and held on for nearly two hours, refusing to be swept away by the violent waters.

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What struck me most was what the founder of the orphanage, a foreigner named Erlend Johanndsen, said after surviving the ordeal: “Up there was the longest one and a half hours of their lives. But it also showed the true spirit of humanity and the true spirit of Filipinos. They were really holding on, refusing to surrender, refusing to give up.”  He said the children even managed to smile after that traumatic experience.

Indeed  the Filipino spirit is strong and indomitable.  But this time around, the tragedy seems much greater and the heartbreak for thousands of victims may take longer to recover from.

A man who survived the raging floods wept as he was being interviewed by our news team.  “I’m sorry,” he said in between tears, “I was unable to rescue my child.  He was already lifeless when his body was recovered.”

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When you walk the streets of badly hit towns, you see the extent of the damage.  It is a scene straight from an apocalyptic film.  Where houses and structures once stood, now you find a heap of garbage strewn by a mighty force.  On the streets, the foul stench of decaying corpses, the horror still etched on their faces.

And those who are alive do not feel they are fortunate.  “We survived the tragedy, but we will die of hunger,” one survivor lamented.  Another man was in tears as he cooked the very last piece of dried fish he was saving for his family.

Relief goods are painfully slow to come because of the badly damaged roads and ports, the lack of transportation and fuel, and the sheer scale of needed aid.

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But as it happens during every tragedy, Filipinos pull together to help those who are less fortunate.  Volunteers work day and night repacking goods, clothes, medicines, blankets, tents and other items donated by individuals, groups and institutions.

World aid has also been pouring in from different countries, the United Nations, the International Red Cross, World Food Programme, the Vatican, and other institutions.  But more will be appreciated.

Year 2013 is about to close but the local weather bureau says there will be 2 or 3 more weather disturbances that may affect the Philippines — we’ve had over 25 typhoons already  this year.  We can only brace ourselves for more.

I look at the brave kids from that orphanage, and I see the indomitable spirit of Filipinos.  The country may be bruised and battered by one natural calamity after another.  But always, we rise up and carry on.

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Link to New Times article:  http://newtimes.ru/articles/detail/74083