US offers to buy PH bananas

By Rodney Jaleco, ABS-CBN North America News Bureau

Posted at Jul 02 2012 08:28 AM | Updated as of Jul 02 2012 09:56 PM

WASHINGTON D.C. - They promised warships and radars to help the Philippines stand up to China’s intimidation in the South China Sea; now the United States is offering to buy Philippine bananas that’s been hostage to the growing spat between the Asian neighbors.

Ambassador Jose L. Cuisia Jr. revealed the results of President Aquino’s recent White House meeting with President Obama at the 7th annual People’s Ball at the Wardman Marriott Hotel.

“I hope that not all you’ll remember about the President’s recent visit was that he met with President Obama and Jessica Sanchez,” the envoy teased the crowd.

Talking later with the Manila Mail, Cuisia described the presidential sortie as “very welcome and very successful” although a number of agreements were not ready by the time Presidents Aquino and Obama met at the Oval Office last June 8.

“Most of the objectives were achieved but there were some agreements that unfortunately we were not able to sign in time because there were on both sides some technicalities that were not able to work out,” he told the Manila Mail.

One of them was the food security and market access program that was published in the Federal Register last June 15, paving the way for Philippine banana exports to the US.

Philippine banana exports have been caught in the crossfire of tensions between the country and China over a smoldering territorial spat in the South China Sea.

China banned Philippine bananas last March as both countries racheted up a word war over competing claims in the Spratly Islands.

But the “banana war” gained prominence when tensions flared at Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal, about 120 miles west of the main Philippine island of Luzon and hundreds of miles north of the Spratlys.

China claimed they rejected the banana shipments because they were infested by “mealy bugs”. But many in the Philippines believe it was retaliation for the country’s assertion of sovereignty at Scarborough Shoal.

The stand-off started 2 months ago when a US-supplied patrol ship tried to arrest Chinese fishermen caught allegedly poaching there.

The Philippines recently withdrew its ships from the area – apparently part of a deal to defuse tension – but President Aquino announced he may order the ships back after suggesting China broke a deal to withdraw its ships.

Veteran China observers have noted that the Asian powerhouse has a habit of imposing economic sanctions against defiant neighbors. They cited a recent territorial spat with Japan where China withheld the export of “rare earth” metals crucial for the production of high-tech goods. They also singled for more stringent food safety rules salmon from Norway after the Oslo-based Nobel Peace Prize selected jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.

A Washington Post report cited a 2010 study at German’s Gottingen University which found that from 1991 to 2008, countries whose leaders met with the exiled Tibetan Dalai Lama suffered a decline in exports to China.

When Filipinos organized protest actions against Chinese diplomatic outposts in the Philippines, United States and other countries, China encouraged its vacationing nationals to cancel reservations and planned tours in the Philippines.

The Chinese ban against Philippine bananas would reportedly hit about 200,000 farmers. Bananas comprise the 2nd biggest agricultural export for the Philippines.

But China insists linking politics with business.

The US imported about $1.4 billion worth of agricultural products from the Philippines in 2011 -- nearly half ($603 million) in the form of tropical oils. Fresh and processed fruits and vegetables imports amounted to about $260 million.

Cuisia declined to say whether the US offer to buy bananas from the Philippines was a response to what is widely seen and denounced as Chinese bullying tactics against countries that disagree with it.

He stressed that the establishment of a “national coast watch center” will boost “maritime domain awareness and security” although details of that project remain vague for now. It is unclear, for instance, who will actually operate the radars or just how extensive that network will be.

Coast Watch South, a string of radars jointly developed by the US and Australia, is largely manned by Filipinos but is focused more on sea lanes commonly used by smugglers and terrorists in Western Mindanao, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.

Meanwhile, the Philippine Air Force (PAF) has shelved plans to acquire US-built F-16 “Falcons”. Earlier reports said they were interested in the state-of-the-art combat aircraft that carries a $12 million price tag.

However, an official told the Manila Mail that “it’s been decided that it is useless to spend that much for something we can only use for 5-6 years.” Had the Philippines pushed through with the F-16 purchase, the supersonic jets would actually be hand-me-downs.