Arroyo takes foreign affairs post

Oliver Teves, MANILA, Philippines, AP

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo formally took over as secretary of foreign affairs Tuesday after Vice President Teofisto Guingona gave up the portfolio.

Guingona stepped down Friday following policy disputes with Arroyo over the deployment of U.S. troops for a counterterrorism training exercise in the southern Philippines.

“This morning after my usual Mass, I will preside over a meeting of officials of the DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs). Officially, I am taking over as secretary,” Arroyo announced on DZRH radio.

A Foreign Affairs Department statement said “substantive, strategic and policy issues” were discussed at the meeting. Topping the agenda was the protection of the rights and welfare of millions of Filipinos working abroad, it said.

Arroyo and the officials also discussed matters related to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the World Trade Organization, the Asia-Europe Meeting and Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit later this year.

She also reported that she has appointed Domingo Siazon, the Philippine envoy to Japan and a former foreign secretary, to represent her at the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Brunei later this month, a senior foreign affairs officer said.

According to the officer, who asked not to be identified, Arroyo also said she may have to appoint special envoys for other foreign meetings where the presence of the foreign secretary is required.

Government officials have said Arroyo will keep the extra job only temporarily.

However, on Tuesday the president said she has not received a list of possible replacements for Guingona from a “search committee” and has not given the group a deadline.

She also said opposition Sen. Blas Ople, who once headed the Senate foreign relations committee, has not been offered the position. There has been widespread speculation that she was considering Ople in an effort to win the lawmaker’s loyalty and maintain control of the 24 member Senate, which is equally divided between her supporters and the opposition.

Guingona was named to Arroyo’s Cabinet after she was elevated from the vice presidency and replaced Joseph Estrada as head of state in January 2001. Estrada was forced to step down by mass protests over his alleged corruption.

Guingona is president of the ruling Lakas party, of which Arroyo is chairwoman. A staunch nationalist, he has expressed reservations about the U.S. exercise on constitutional grounds. He helped draw up the exercise’s terms, aiming to prevent the possibility of U.S. troops being involved in combat.

Arroyo supports the exercise, which involves training Philippine troops to fight the Abu Sayyaf, a small but brutal Muslim extremist group believed to have ties with al-Qaida. About 1,000 U.S. troops are deployed in the exercise in the southern Philippines.