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Manila calls for boost to strategic ties with Australia
During a visit to Canberra, Philippine President, Benigno Aquino held talks on defence and trade with the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

For many years the Philippines was one of the lame ducks of South East Asia but at long last its economy is on the move and alerting Australian business to the new opportunities was one of the reasons behind a visit from President Aquino.

Political editor Catherine McGrath reports.
CATHERINE MCGRATH, REPORTER: He's a popular leader with a squeaky clean image and he comes from the country's key political dynasty.

Benigno Aquino the Third was in Australia to strengthen ties and to promote a new and more prosperous Philippines.

BENIGNO AQUINO, PHILIPPINES PRESIDENT (While being photographed shaking Julia Gillard's hand: Very nice (inaudible).


CATHERINE MCGRATH: At the state dinner at Parliament House hosted by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, memories were cast back to the people's power revolution led by the President's mother Corazon Aquino and the fall of dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

JULIA GILLARD, AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER: Australians watched the events of February 1986 in awe and admiration.

My predecessor, Australia's then Prime Minister Bob Hawke, was one of the first foreign leaders to visit Manila following those days. He still speaks with deep respect of your mother, recalling their meeting and your family's generations of patriotic service.

CATHERINE MCGRATH: President Aquino himself remembered the time when his father was taken by the security forces.

BENIGNO AQUINO: We were awakened and we were told that our father had been arrested and our world had turned upside down. Seventy-three would have marked the presidential election. My father was supposed to have been one of the potential standard bearers of the party I belong to, the Liberal Party.

CATHERINE MCGRATH: His father, known as Benigno Aquino Junior, was imprisoned and then exiled and assassinated at Manila Airport when he returned from the United States in 1983.

(Archival footage from August, 1983 showing Benigno Aquino Junior's assassination)


NEWSREADER: At this point, all that was certain was that Aquino was lying dead on the runway.

CATHERINE MCGRATH: But now in October 2012 much has changed.

President Aquino is a corruption fighter and the country's 15th President. Relations with Australia are strong.

On defence matters, mindful of tensions in the South China Sea, the Philippines wants but hasn't been granted a strategic defence relationship status.

RICKY CARANDANG, PHILIPPINES PRESIDENTIAL SPOKESMAN: The Australian Government needs time to think about this proposal but the President was very clear. We are two countries with shared values, the same democratic systems and common interests in this part of the world and taking our relationship, our bilateral relationship, to the next level would seem to be the most logical step.

PROFESSOR PAUL HUTCHCROFT, AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY: I think we can count on continued strong defence ties but I'm not sure that it is going to be moving forward to actual defence of Philippine claims in the South China Sea. That's something that Australia's made quite clear it wants to stay clear of.

CATHERINE MCGRATH: On the domestic front, the peace deal just signed with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front could deliver peace on Mindanao.

BENIGNO AQUINO: Australia's been a true friend of Philippine democracy and a steadfast partner in the quest for a just and lasting peace.

JULIA GILLARD: We share your hope that a peace agreement will end this decades long conflict and we will work with you and the people of Mindanao to ensure the benefits of peace are felt as real progress for all.

PAUL HUTCHCROFT: There is a long ways to go but the framework agreement gives a road map of that process. It is something that should be approached with "guarded optimism" - and I'm quoting the chief negotiator on the Government's side - but every step like this is an important move towards hopefully resolution of a conflict that has claimed at least 120,000 lives, maybe 150,000 lives, led to the displacement of 1 million people.

CATHERINE MCGRATH: In Sydney, commerce was the focus when President Aquino spoke to CEOs at a round table and addressed a business forum.

BENIGNO AQUINO: If peace and security provide firm foundations for development, then it is equally important for nations to working together to seek opportunities that rebound to the mutual advantage of our peoples.

CATHERINE MCGRATH: The President wants to encourage more international investment.

EDUARD ALCORDO, AUSTRALIA PHILIPPINES BUSINESS COUNCIL: He will be giving the good news message, which is the Philippines is one of the fastest growing in Asia - more than 6 per cent. It's got- it's been re rated in terms of a credit rating. It is now double B plus, which is one notch below investment grade.

BENIGNO AQUINO: The results have been encouraging. The Philippines, formerly known as the Sick Man of Asia, has surprised onlookers with the visible fruits of (inaudible) reform.

At least 6.1 per cent GDP growth in the first semester of 2012, which is about the best forecast and estimates, and 46 record highs for the Philippines Stock Exchange index in the span of my 27 months in office.

Despite the current period of downturn due to global economic uncertainty, the Philippines has navigated itself into the sweet spot.

CATHERINE MCGRATH: The Philippines is currently the second fastest growing economy in ASEAN.

JIM MIDDLETON: Political editor Catherine McGrath reporting.
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