POSTSCRIPT / January 21, 2020 / Tuesday


Opinion Columnist

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Unintended effects of a Duterte US trip

AS this is being written, no word has come out of Malacañang if President Duterte is accepting President Trump’s invitation for him, with nine other Southeast Asian leaders, to attend a summit in Las Vegas on March 14.

Accepting or declining the invitation to the proposed summit between Trump and the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) does not look like an easy decision, considering the sensitive political issues wrapped around it.

Many times, Duterte has said he was not interested in going to the US – mostly in reaction to American officials’ meddling in Philippine affairs and their criticism of his war on illegal drugs.

He has also said that the long haul between Manila and the US (which could stretch to 15 hours depending on his port of entry) would be too grueling. Two weeks after March 14, the proposed date of the summit, Duterte will be 75 years old.

Why should Duterte accept the invitation? First, it will disprove claims of his critics that he, one of several Philippine officials and private enablers, is barred from the US for instigating the continued detention of opposition Sen. Leila de Lima on drug charges.

Second, it could confirm that Duterte is a good friend of Trump, whose phone conversation in 2017 had been leaked by Malacañang to show that the US President approves of his way of waging a bloody war against drug traffickers and abusers.

Third, a US visit would help douse speculation that Duterte is dragging the Philippines farther left, away from its ally of long-standing toward communist China in the guise of charting an independent foreign policy.

Fourth, it could even improve his high trust rating among Filipinos, a big majority of whom still hold America close to their heart while harboring mistrust of China’s intentions toward to the Philippines.

Before looking at the other side – why Duterte might hesitate to accept the invitation to the proposed summit on March 14 – recall the antecedents.

In 2017, then newly elected Trump attended the ASEAN summit in Manila chaired by Duterte, who was similarly new on the job. At the time, the Philippines was also hosting the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.

But after Manila, Trump skipped two successive annual meetings of the regional bloc — the ASEAN and Indo-Pacific meetings in 2018 in Singapore, and the ASEAN summit on Nov. 3-4, 2019, in Bangkok.

Trump’s absence gave China, a neighbor that Duterte has been cultivating as a friend and benefactor, a psychological opening to continue asserting its regional presence in the disputed South China Sea.

In Bangkok last year, US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross stood in for Trump. It was the lowest level US representation at the meetings since Barack Obama upgraded ties with ASEAN in 2011.

O’Brien read Trump’s message where he invited the ASEAN leaders to a special summit in the US in early 2020. This was the invitation reiterated in the Jan. 9 followup letter announced by Malacañang the other day.

With the US delegation downgraded in Bangkok, only three ASEAN leaders showed up to listen .  – those from Thailand (the chair and host), Laos (the coordinator between the bloc and the US) and Vietnam (the chair of this year’s ASEAN summit). Duterte did not attend.

Also high in the background is the passing last month of a US budget provision banning the entry of Philippine officials behind the detention of De Lima. Conceivably, Duterte is on top of the list, but his being a sovereign may entitle him to special treatment.

A provision on “Prohibition on Entry” permits the US State Secretary to apply subsection (c) to foreign government officials about whom the secretary has “credible information” as having been involved in the “wrongful imprisonment” of De Lima.

Subsection (c) refers to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which authorizes the US government to slap sanctions on persons linked to human rights violations, including banning them from the US and freezing their Stateside assets.

Malacañang responded by threatening to require American visitors to secure visas. It also banned US Sens. Dick Durbin and Patrick Leahy, authors of the amendment, and Sen. Edward Markey, who supported it, from entering the Philippines.

On the other hand, Duterte cannot help noticing certain details and possible consequences of his visiting the US.

The group invitation is not for a state visit, but for a working summit. Based on the skimpy details announced so far, the trip does not include Duterte’s calling at the White House.

Among the blessed events that Philippine leaders look forward to is being received by the US President at the White House. So important is this detail that a Filipino official is usually assigned to record how many minutes they were in the Oval Office.

The visiting dignitary is sometimes treated to a colorful parade rolled out in the White House lawn. In the case of then President Cory Aquino, she was accorded the honor of addressing the joint session of an adoring US Congress.

What awaits Duterte? From the gambling and crime hot spot that Las Vegas is, will the brash mayor of Davao be whisked to the White House for special attention? If not, how would Duterte and his coterie take it?

The timing of the visit requires delicate balancing by his host. Already under extreme stress from anti-US sentiments in key capitals and the impeachment trial in the Senate, Trump cannot risk a Duterte visit jeopardizing his quest for reelection in November.

Any public display of affection for Duterte – in case he singles him out for special attention – could cost him some political points at the polls.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of January 21, 2020)

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