US, China, Japan welcome Aquino's victory in Philippines

Associated Press Writer

MANILA, Philippines -- Leaders of the U.S., China and Japan welcomed Philippine President-elect Benigno Aquino III's rise to power, pledging help Thursday as he faces daunting challenges including rebellions, massive poverty and a crippling budget deficit.

The Philippine Congress proclaimed Aquino as the Southeast Asian nation's 15th president Tuesday, formalizing the landslide victory of the son of deeply revered democracy icons. Shortly after the euphoric ceremony, Aquino said his legal team had begun an inventory of the problems he will inherit.

President Barack Obama congratulated Aquino during a telephone conversation, praising the country's first automated elections on May 10 as a "positive testament to the strength and vitality of democracy" in the former U.S. commonwealth.

Both "looked forward to bringing our cooperation to a new level and to meeting at a mutually convenient time," the White House said.

To introduce some "humor" into his conversation with Obama, Aquino said he brought up both their smoking problems, for which the new Philippine leader has been criticized by both supporters and critics.

"Mr. President, I understand we have the same issue with smoking," Aquino said he told Obama. "He said, 'Well I quit that already. I have quit. It's your sole problem. At the time that you decide to quit, I'll send the advice.'"

Obama said last year that he couldn't quite break his 30-year smoking habit at times, and his doctor said in February that his smoking was still a struggle.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Filipinos expect Aquino "to carry forward the democratic traditions that his parents did so much to champion."

Chinese President Hu Jintao said his country intends to deepen bilateral ties. "Under new historical circumstances, I would like to work with you to carry forward our traditional friendship, expand our mutually beneficial cooperation," he said.

New Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan pledged his country will "do its utmost to cooperate ... in efforts toward further stability and progress."

Australian Ambassador Rod Smith also met Aquino Thursday.

Aquino, a 50-year-old bachelor from one of the country's wealthiest landowning clans, will take his oath of office on June 30. He will replace Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who won a congressional seat in last month's elections after a nine-year presidency wracked by failed coup attempts and opposition impeachment bids for alleged election fraud, corruption and human rights abuses.

Aquino's late parents - opposition Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr. and ex-President Corazon Aquino - are revered for their opposition to the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was ousted by a 1986 "people power" revolt.

Aquino, regarded by many as a political lightweight for an unimpressive stint in Congress, will inherit a nation grappling with poverty and debilitated by decades-long Marxist and Muslim insurgencies, military unrest, corruption, violent crime and political strife.

"We can't say it's total joy," Aquino told reporters of his victory. "I'm happy but anxious because of the huge problems the country has to confront."

Political analyst Ronald Holmes said it was important for Aquino to make Filipinos realize the depth of the country's problems and the limit of government resources at his disposal, to tame high public expectations.

"It's a job for a superman," Holmes said.

Aquino and his late mother had led the political opposition in calling for Arroyo's resignation, and that enmity will be reflected in the first hour of his presidency.

He said Tuesday he will not take his oath before the Supreme Court chief justice, whose appointment by Arroyo in the dying days of her term has been called unconstitutional by the opposition. Aquino also plans to replace the current military chief of staff, who is closely identified with Arroyo.

Arroyo, nevertheless, congratulated Aquino in a phone call late Tuesday.

Aquino has expressed alarm at the ballooning national budget deficit, which he said could surpass $8.7 billion (400 billion pesos) this year.


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