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Special Feature: Duterte tours ASEAN in preparation for 2017 Chairmanship

Photo from: pcoo.gov.ph

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s series of foreign trips this year concludes with the Cambodia-Singapore leg, making Myanmar the only remaining ASEAN country to be visited.

As the Philippines prepares for ASEAN chairmanship in 2017, consecutive visits to its neighboring countries were prioritized and effected immediately—with the administration barely six months in office.

This round of ASEAN visits aims to gather insights from its neighbors, to seek support for the Philippines’ ASEAN hosting, and to push for a united stand on issues affecting the region.

Each visit’s two- or three-day itinerary involved discussions on various areas of bilateral cooperation, ceremonies and state banquets, and meetings with businessmen and overseas Filipinos, some of which did not escape from issues and controversies.

On September 4 to 8, Duterte flew to Laos where he made his debut at the 28th and 29th ASEAN Summits and accepted 2017 chairmanship on the last day of the meetings.

One significant document signed during the Summit was the ASEAN Declaration titled “One ASEAN, One Response: ASEAN Responding to Disasters as One in the Region and Outside the Region.”

It was not merely his ASEAN debut that made it to the headlines, as his statements and actions drew attention both in the Philippines and the international community. He skipped meetings such as the ASEAN-US and ASEAN-UN dialogues, although the latter was due to a schedule conflict with his courtesy call on Laos President Bounnhang Vorachith. Both the United States and the United Nations have been vocal in criticizing his war on drugs campaign.

More than that, he publicly castigated the US for atrocities committed by its military in Mindanao during the colonial period.

Following the Summit in Vientiane, he flew to Indonesia for a state visit on September 9. On top of the agenda was maritime security in the Sulu and Sulawesi Seas—where a trilateral patrol among the littoral states, including Malaysia, has been agreed on to secure the seas from terrorism and transnational organized crime.

The two leaders discussed shared challenges on terrorism, violent extremism, insurgencies; and stressed the importance of having a drug-free ASEAN Community. However, no details were provided yet on whether the latter would be one of the priority agenda items during the Philippines’ chairing of ASEAN.

Indonesia and the Philippines being archipelagic states, Duterte and Widodo discussed maritime cooperation prospects in areas such as human resource development, fisheries and aquatic resources, shipbuilding, and boosting air and sea connectivity. Trade and people-to-people exchanges were also addressed.

The visit did not end without bringing the fate of Mary Jane Veloso, a Filipino drug courier who is on death row in Indonesia, to the table. Questions whether the Philippine President would raise the issue had been asked even before the visit, given his stance against drugs. After the visit, Duterte was quoted in Philippine as well as Indonesian media as giving the “green light” and thus appearing to condone her execution, but this was later clarified as a misinterpretation of the exchanges between the two heads of state by the media. Malacanang said the “green light” that Duterte had reportedly given to execute Veloso only meant the President will not intervene in Indonesia’s legal system.

Nearly two weeks after -- from September 28 to 29 -- Duterte traveled to Vietnam. This provided an opportunity for new leaders and sets of officials of both countries to discuss maritime cooperation, development, and the implications of the South China Sea arbitration ruling. Among his visits, the one to Hanoi was closely observed as Vietnam had supported the Philippines in its filing of the case against China in The Hague.  With the recent turnaround in Philippines-China relations, officials and experts looked forward to how Vietnam would respond and behave. [Read related article]

On maritime security, Vietnam called for joint patrols and for advancing the PH-VN Joint Committee on Sea and Ocean Co-operation, including the recruitment of legal experts to work with the committee. It also expressed willingness to work with the Philippines on high-tech crimes, cybercrimes, human trafficking, terrorism, and rescue operations at sea.

In Hanoi, the President also met with the business communities from both countries. Filipino entrepreneurs thrive in pharmaceuticals as well as food production and distribution in Vietnam. Vietnam pledged to create favorable conditions for cooperation with the Philippines in agriculture, services, and tourism, while the Philippines will reciprocate in infrastructure, oil and gas exploration, mining and services. Vietnam also expressed its interest in expanding rice exports in the coming years.

Originally slated to be his inaugural foreign visit, Duterte’s trip to Brunei came on October 16 to 18, after postponement due to an explosion in the President’s home turf of Davao City. Strengthening partnerships in agribusiness, tourism, renewable energy, and Islamic banking were the items brought into the discussion. Both sides emphasized the Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA) Initiative to facilitate and develop Halal industry (i.e., in certification, production, and supply), looking at the potential of exporting halal products to the world market. To facilitate this, air and sea linkages will have to improve as well.

The President personally thanked Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah for Brunei’s support for the peace process in Mindanao, and for the friendliness shown to overseas Filipino workers in Brunei as their host country. Meanwhile the Sultan expressed his appreciation for the Filipinos’ contribution to their economic development.

On his way to Malaysia, Duterte  had a stopover in Thailand on November 9 to pay respects to King Bhumibol Adulyadej who passed away in October.

In Malaysia, where he stayed from November 9 to 10, the Philippines sought cooperation on the illegal drug trade, and hoped to attract Malaysian investors especially in infrastructure, mass transportation, the building of regional centers, joint ventures in agri-business, halal-certified products, and high-value post-processing facilities. The President also thanked Prime Minister Najib for his country’s facilitator role in the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

On December 13 to 14, what should have been a working visit to Cambodia was upgraded to a state visit, producing four agreements: a Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in Combatting Transnational Crime (involving the Philippine National Police and Cambodian National Police); a Memorandum of Agreement on Cooperation in the Field of Labor; a Memorandum of Agreement on Sports Cooperation (involving the Philippine Sports Commission and Cambodia's Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport); and an Implementation Program of Tourism Cooperation 2016-2020 (involving the Philippines' Department of Tourism and Cambodia’s Ministry of Tourism).

Cambodia was invited to send more tourists to the Philippines, even as many Filipinos continue to visit Cambodia. Other opportunities for cooperation in holding trade fairs, an air services agreement, technology transfer (particularly rice seeds from the Philippines), and scholarship grants in science and engineering were also considered.

In his last trip to an ASEAN country for the year, Singapore warmly welcomed President Duterte, despite having previously banned him for burning the Singaporean flag in 1995 when he was mayor of Davao City, in protest against Singapore’s execution of OFW Flor Contemplacion. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had invited him to visit during the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit in Vientiane. No major agreements were signed, but both examined prospects of boosting trade, investments, labor cooperation, and strengthening defense and security cooperation.

In his arrival speech, Duterte expressed his dislike for foreign travels. However, he explains that this ASEAN tour is part of the preparations for the chairmanship. It exposed him to new ideas and gave him an opportunity to learn more about each member state’s views on regional issues, the dynamics in the region, and ASEAN’s own importance as a multilateral platform.

As for the bilateral relations, the visits allowed him to get to know his country’s neighbors better, and to express his administration’s determination to strengthen cooperation and continue to explore opportunities with them. 

Referring to the last trips in Cambodia and Singapore, he said: “Both visits gave me the opportunity to further strengthen our ties with our key neighbors and partners. […] [I]n my audience—Royal Audience, I stressed the value of our long-standing relations and reaffirmed the resolve to broaden collaboration.”