Opportunities Abound in a Dynamic PH-US Alliance:

US-Philippines Society at Nine Years

Following is a Philippine Business Daily Mirror feature story on the US-Philippines Society. Executive Director Hank Hendrickson discusses a dynamic PH-US alliance and highlights the Society's programs and initiatives. 

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Harnessing historic bonds, forging a dynamic future

By Mike Policarpio

In 2021, diplomatic ties between the Philippines and the United States take a momentous turn, as both nations commemorate 75 years of friendship, partnership and alliance.

They encompass a wide spectrum of cooperation in various sectors: from business and commerce, military and security, education and culture, and various others in between.

While two-way relations are described as ironclad-strong, owing to the deep engagements of both countries forged through time and destiny, the US-Philippines Society has been instrumental in strengthening bilateral links of both countries. The private, nonprofit organization endeavors to further interaction and understanding from both fronts covering the entire gamut of engagements between Washington, D.C. and Manila which are seen to benefit the American public and the Filipinos.

From the society’s establishment in the American capital on May 7, 2012, founders of the nonprofit, independent, and binational group have been realizing their vision of elevating the profile of the Philippines in the US. Referencing its web site usphsociety.org, its officials and members are driven to “build on the rich and longstanding historical bonds between the two nations, and help to bring that unique relationship fully into the 21st Century, at a junction when US policy interests are increasingly focused on East Asia.”

Executive Director Hank Hendrickson recently accorded an exclusive interview to the BUSINESSMIRROR, as he discussed the workings of the US-Philippines Society, as well as its position on current realities and relevant issues against changing dynamics affecting the long-standing alliance of the two sovereign countries.

ENVOYS&EXPATS: For further appreciation of the society’s purpose of being, what are some of its most significant undertakings benefiting the Philippines?

HENDRICKSON: One of the things the US-Philippines Society is chartered to do is promote economic, business and trade ties between our two countries. There are also some strategic reasons in terms of providing balance for the Philippine economy: to have strong partnerships all around, not just to rely on one country.

We have provided assistance to the Philippines when it faced challenges of building resilience after Supertyphoon Haiyan in November 2013. In the US, we campaigned to raise millions of dollars in funds for projects targeted in areas hit by the natural disaster. The society was heavily involved in areas of immediate reconstruction and recovery, as well as in health, education and livelihood. Major donors were our Honorary Chair Hank Greenberg and the Starr Foundation. A strong partnership with Ambassador Jose L. Cuisia and the Philippine Embassy bolstered these efforts and other key initiatives during that period.

The Vietnamese community in America also provided assistance through the society, because they remembered, when they were “boat people” refugees, the helping hand offered by Filipinos and wanted to “give back” during their time of need.

The US-Philippines Society also supported in recovery and development programs after the Marawi City siege of 2017. With major funding from Project Handclasp Foundation supported by American companies as well as charities and aided by US Navy sailors, the society provided livelihood assistance for internally displaced persons there, the children’s education, and the set-up of a health center in an evacuation site. We work very closely with partners, including the Philippine Disaster Resilience Foundation, which is co-chaired by two of the society’s leading Filipino members: Manuel V. Pangilinan and Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala.

The way we do these things is really through partnerships, because we are a small organization, and we have very good people, leadership and support, especially from our co-chairs Pangilinan and Ambassador John Negroponte. Our work is bound with US universities, think-tanks, embassies in the diplomatic side, as well as development and recovery-assistance groups based in both countries. When we put everything together, it can make a difference.

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The executive director (from left) with Ambassador Jose Manuel G. Romualdez, Forum Chair William Wise and Ambassador Thomas Hubbard at the Southeast Asia Forum at the Stimson Center, Washington, D.C. in March 2020

What are the points of strength in the economic ties between our countries?

Since their relations go way back, American companies operating locally in the Philippines remain important. They provide food, agricultural services, and much more to a huge consumer market of more than 100 million people. On the other side, there’s an important niche for American firms offering high-tech, leading-edge products manufactured in the Philippines, which aren’t easily available elsewhere.

American businesses are likewise present in Philippine business-process operations. They pump-in millions of dollars into the local economy and generate employment. Beyond call centers, there’s back-end office work, and that’s an important area.

Another is in manufacturing and production, which are part of the global supply chains. That’s where competition exists within Asean for American businesses.

For instance, we had a delegation led by former ambassador Tom Hubbard and Ambassador John Maisto which visited Clark City in February 2020, where we had excellent briefings and meetings with executives and officials there. Given the historic association between the place and the US, the ambassadors were really impressed by its seeming “swords to ploughshares” transformation: from a military base, to a modern commercial and manufacturing hub.

Opportunities abound. It reminded us of business opportunities that the “modern” Philippines have to attract, and America is part of that. I’m sure there are examples in other parts of the Philippines, but that one struck us. We thought it was worth visiting, and we came away impressed.

There’s a major briefing happening between US and Philippine economic leaders. What role would the society play in that gathering?

The program is part of the efforts highlighting the 75th year of our two countries’ diplomatic relations. The initiative of Ambassador Jose Manuel G. Romualdez and the embassy is to make sure the relationship that’s been long-standing between the two countries gets headlines. I think the military alliance, or the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea (SCS/WPS) issue, is incorporated in that.

Investors are looking at the Philippines. They are interested in attracting companies that can be involved in manufacturing or technologies, as the complexities of the supply chain face trading interactions, particularly with respect to the China-US trade relationship.

As I’ve mentioned, opportunities are teeming for countries like the Philippines. Huge business-process operations are all very modern. Global operations bring our two countries together in the economic and business spheres. What the society tries to do is to highlight opportunities in those areas, and remind people that the US, as a Pacific power, with its long relationship with the Philippines in business and commercial areas, wants to build on that and move ahead. I think that’s what this program is going to show.

One point I’m keenly interested in is a presentation by USAID (United States Agency for International Development) Acting Administrator Gloria D. Steele. Those who will tune-in on this program will learn about the relationship between the said agency and the Philippines in areas outside of just building infrastructure. But it’s working on supporting a rules-based and transparent environment for business operations to make the Philippines more competitive at the international level. They can attract business investments. It’s important in a number of areas, and there’s a major USAID commitment in working with local partners.

The other idea that’s important is with the US International Development Finance Corp. It is designed to give government support for American businesses overseas. Also, the USTDA is looking at the Philippines and are opening an office. That’s going to be an important, tangible reflection of the US government’s interest in supporting American business engagements abroad; specifically, in the Philippines.

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Hendrickson (from right), Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro L. Locsin Jr., Noel Izon and Dr. Bonnie Harris at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, January 2020.

Speaking of the disputed waters, what is the society’s position with regard to issues involving China?

I think it’s fair to say our members support a rules-based approach to solving disputes in the SCS/WPS. The arbitral court is very clear in rejecting sweeping and historic claims. I remembered when this case was first launched: the Philippines was all by itself in facing and bringing the case to the United Nations tribunal. But at the end of it, China was pretty much by itself after the decisions came down rejecting its claims. So the society certainly supports the decisions of that court that favored the Philippines.

We see value in maintaining a strong alliance under the defense treaty. We’ve done programs concerning the Visiting Forces Agreement founded during the time Ambassador Hubbard was envoy to the Philippines to address needs that would offer ways for the US to operate in the SCS/WPS in the post-bases era. Since there are no more bases in the Philippines, that’s an important reminder that the US respects Philippine policy preferences. You’ve heard statements from American officials in support of the Philippines with regard to the disputed waters.

But we also recognize that there are Philippine preferences in security cooperation. I know right now they’re looking ahead for ways to do at least at the staffing level cooperation for Balikatan 2021, even in the face of the pandemic. So these kinds of cooperation do continue.

I think it is fair to say our members would support statements by US officials on Chinese Coast Guard Law, and what they’ve done in various areas in terms of the application of the US Defense Treaty: “We’ve got your back” statements by former Secretary (Michael R.) Pompeo, and also by the current administration, and a very strong reiteration of support for the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) alliance.

Please describe the society’s stand about the current situation involving Asian Americans, especially those of Filipino descent.

Following our meeting on March 22, the board of the US-Philippines Society issued a statement condemning bias against Asian-American Pacific Islanders community. It includes condemnation of this violence and harassment.

We recognize that people-to-people exchanges represent enduring and underlying strengths in our bilateral relationship. Inherent in those exchanges is a commitment to support a welcoming, respectful and inclusive society to reach diversity, while providing an opportunity for all.

Also in that statement, we took the occasion to salute with deep appreciation the work of tens of thousands of Filipinos and Filipino-American public-health professionals who risk their lives to protect our fellow citizens and others around the world from the pandemic.

We’re confident the overwhelming majority of Americans understand that our Filipino-American neighbors are deserving of thanks and respect, and not suspicion or harassment. We ask people to join us in promoting acceptance, respect and dignity throughout our community.

Speaking of such, are there initiatives from the society pertaining to the health crisis? Has it extended help to the Philippines during the pandemic?

Certainly. Most of it is aimed at providing personal protective equipment (PPE) and assistance for front-line workers, as well as medical equipment for health facilities. The US-Philippines Society had also sent out appeals for assistance.

It likewise partnered with the American Chamber Foundation Philippines and joined them in their campaign: “Covid Appeal for Solidarity.” Funds were allocated for PPE purchases, adopted hospitals, as we also provided testing kits to several hospitals across the archipelago.

That said, our model for fundraising is through contributions, and many have responded. We tip our hats to compatriots and members of the Filipino-American community who have been helpful in these areas.

One of our board members, Henry Howard, lent a hand to Filipino seafarers who were stranded in Florida. He helped with logistics to send them back home. Those are just some of the few things the board has done here from the US side.

Here in the US, we’ve highlighted the role of Filipino and American health-care professionals. Our members are also actively working to promote access to vaccines.

The society has underscored issues and performed a great deal talking about the importance of cooperation in meeting the health needs during this pandemic. We try to remind people that this pandemic knows no boundaries, and that we can help people beyond their borders. We are advocates of that.

Aside from trade and economics, what other dimensions of Philippine-US cooperation do you see with much activity in the future?

It ranges across the board, and it would include a long-standing alliance. 2021 marks not only the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations, but also the 70th year of the MDT. In areas of cooperation, the challenge all along has been to bring the defense and alliance relationship into the modern era. There was cooperation during World War II, during the Cold War, the era of the bases, and beyond.

Looking at the cooperation meeting modern challenges, I remember when I was in Manila in the mid-’90s. The first aspects of international terrorism were evident with plots that had connections to the Philippines being used by international terrorists.

Decades since then, we’ve seen the way that threat has manifested. The beginnings of strong cooperation between the Philippines and the US in meeting the threat of international terrorism were strengthened.

I think the US is generally recognized in the Philippines for their helpful role with the Philippine Army in the Marawi siege and providing support there, as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) was trying to exploit what they thought might be an “opening” in Southeast Asia. So cooperation in international terrorism is one area. There’s a whole range of transnational issues where our countries will cooperate: Human trafficking, illegal-drug trafficking, climate change…the list goes on.

In other areas, I know Ambassador Maisto is deeply involved in working with the USAID and American universities to promote support for education in the Philippines in a variety of ways. The key here is to get American firms, the governments and aid agencies to see where they can best fit and work cooperatively in partnership; to see how far together these programs can go.

There’s also a big one we’re trying to support focusing on resilience-building in the face of weather and climate challenges to help build resilience in five key Philippine cities. We have the whole range of climate-change issues, education, transnational issues, alliance relations in the face of Chinese assertiveness in the SCS/WPS, and the Asean preference for the US to remain engaged as a balancer of choice in strategic and defense areas and in business.

We are not going away at all, and I think there are areas where you will see an expansion of American interest and activities.


About the Philippine Business Daily Mirror Expats & Envoys

"The Business Mirror started its Envoys and Expats section with the view of providing members of the diplomatic community and expatriates to share their views on the Philippines and life and doing business in the country."

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