Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - Philippine President Benigno Aquino capped his two-day state visit to New Zealand yesterday Tuesday by witnessing the signing of three bilateral agreements meant to further strengthen diplomatic relations between Manila and Wellington.
The signing followed a bilateral meeting between Aquino and Prime Minister John Key. The accords deal with a reciprocal working holiday scheme, defence cooperation and geothermal energy cooperation.
The president and his lean entourage of Cabinet members and business groups were treated to a traditional "powhiri" (welcome) rites by the Maori, New Zealand's indigenous people, at the spacious lawn of Government House.
The formal ceremony entailed "wero" (challenge), a Maori warrior tradition used to determine whether visitors came in peace or with hostile intent.
Armed with a traditional weapon, three warriors led over two dozen chanting Maoris, performing an intimidating series of fight movements as they advanced toward Aquino.
The carefully choreographed movements ended with the president picking up the "taiaha" (dart), and the Maori warrior-leader slapping his thigh to signal that Aquino and his party could enter the area.
The warriors and their spouses then escorted the presidential entourage to the centre lawn, where Aquino was welcomed by Mateparae and his wife.
A 21-gun salute was rendered in honour of Aquino, as the Philippine national anthem was being played.
A state dinner was hosted by the governor general at Government House before Aquino and his entourage flew to Canberra, Australia, late Tuesday for the second leg of his two-nation state visit.
The geothermal and defence cooperation is meant to jump-start talks on these areas, while the arrangement on a working holiday scheme seems to be a done deal.
The president and the prime minister said the reciprocal arrangement would open up both countries to people-to-people exchanges as a way to fix the very low awareness among Filipinos and Kiwis of each other's culture, history and heritage as Pacific nations.
According to Aquino, there are only 36,640 Filipinos in New Zealand, representing just 1 per cent of the 4.4 million population.
The holiday scheme, signed by Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and Foreign Minister Murray McCully, is the first working holiday arrangement negotiated by the Philippines.
It complements the people-to-people exchanges between the two nations, providing those aged 18 to 30 temporary entry visas in each direction for a year.
Qualified participants are limited to a maximum of three months' work with one employer, or to enroll in training or study courses for not more than three months.
However, participants may spend up to a year either in New Zealand or the Philippines, said Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang.
It was announced here that the first visas under the scheme would be issued in 2013.
Asked at a press conference about the jobs that Filipinos and New Zealanders could apply for under the holiday scheme, Aquino said it would be related to areas like geothermal energy.
"I'm told that we have to send most of our experts here or students who would want to become experts in the field to live and perhaps to get an initial college degree for it," he said.
He said the main concept behind the working holiday scheme was "to discover how similar we are ... [to] enhance the cooperation we all have, and to demonstrate the growing interconnectivity and similarity of problems we are forced to confront.¿
Key, for his part, was excited about the scheme, saying: "It's an asset working with all opportunities in the Philippines and vice versa. It's pretty similar to what we signed in Indonesia."
The Memorandum of Agreement on Defence Cooperation, signed by Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and McCully, provides a formal framework for dialogue and cooperation on defence issues, said Carandang.
This includes meeting of both countries' senior officials and military representatives, education and capacity-building, training activities and exercises, information exchanges and multilateral cooperation.
Aquino cited a "shared history" of defence links between the Philippines and New Zealand, dating back to World War II, the Cold War, and even serving as peacekeeping forces in volatile parts of the world such as Timor Leste.
The arrangement on geothermal energy cooperation, signed by McCully and Del Rosario, provides a government-to-government framework to support geothermal development between the two countries.
The president noted that the Philippines was one of the two largest producers of geothermal power, but it was New Zealand that provided the Philippines help in harnessing this power source in the 1970s.
Early in the day, two private companies-Energy Development Corp. (EDC) of the Philippines and GNS Science of New Zealand-signed a separate business deal in the presence of Aquino in Auckland, his first stop in this state visit that took him to Wellington later in the day.
GNS will provide technical services to EDC, one of the two largest geothermal producers in the world.
New Zealand's Alliance Select Foods International Inc., based in the Philippines, also formalised in Auckland its US$2.18-million share purchase agreement to acquire 80 per cent of Akaroa Salmon NZ Ltd., a pioneer in salmon farming in New Zealand.
The Philippines is New Zealand's 13th largest export market, but is also the latter's third largest market for dairy products after China and the United States.
Aquino has found an ally in Key, as they both asserted that freedom of navigation in the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) was indispensable to global trade.
"Now, we are all vibrant democracies," the president said, referring to the United States, New Zealand and Australia, at a press conference here following the signing of the three agreements.
"We welcome the coming back of America, the strategic shift that they have called. It promotes a more balanced regime within the region which hopefully will provide greater stability to all parties concerned,¿ he added.
When asked the same question, Key echoed Aquino's stance.
"Well, I can give the same. Obviously peace and stability in the South China Sea is critical because Asia is the fastest growing partner of the world and we want to see their growth (there)."
Key emphasised that his country had always favoured peace efforts to settle disputes between nations.
Although New Zealand and the Philippines are far from inking a status of visiting forces agreement, he said that from the defence point of view, "we see real benefits from the other side.... But I think, you know, our military forces working together and training together is very positive to take place.¿
Snake in Eden
Key also praised the president for the Bangsamoro accord, saying this could very well be factored in by his government's foreign and trade affairs in revising the negative travel advisory on Mindanao.
In response, Aquino said: "I think we're safer than a lot of countries. We will not say that we're the Garden of Eden that is perfect. Even the Garden of Eden had a snake,¿ he said.
Aquino said it was the best time to invest in the Philippines amid the rapid growth of the economy and gains in his anticorruption drive.
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