POSTSCRIPT / March 13, 2022 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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US-Asean summit waiting for Duterte

President Duterte should seriously consider attending the special summit meeting between US President Biden and the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations set March 28-29 in Washington, DC.

By a happy coincidence, March 28 is President Duterte’s 77th birthday!

President Duterte and other ASEAN leaders. Photo: Edgar Su/ Reuters

Reports from Malacañang of late have it that Duterte, who exits as president at noon of June 30, is not keen on joining what could be his first and last US-Asean summit as the leader of one of the five nations that founded the regional bloc in 1967.

The association was organized by the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand. Since then, its membership has grown to 10, now representing the interests of a combined population of 662 million, or 8.4 percent of humanity.

In April 2017, Duterte presided over the historic 30th ASEAN summit held in Manila. The former Davao City mayor should not miss the opportunity of having the upcoming Washington meeting as the fitting finale to his stellar involvement in regional affairs.

After five years of what might be described as strained relations with the US, Duterte’s joining his fellow ASEAN leaders in a constructive meeting with President Biden – without pre-conditions – may help improve relations with the Philippines’ only treaty ally.

Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez told the media last week that Duterte was not keen on attending the US-Asean meeting in Washington. He said the President had told him he saw “no real compelling reason for him” to be there.

The President traditionally stays home during his birthday, he added, and this time he also has to attend to filling key vacancies in government before the ban takes effect on making appointments close to the May 9 elections.

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As the summit is likely to touch on the war in Ukraine and its possible repercussions in our part of Asia, utmost care must be taken to avoid the gathering’s being interpreted as an attempt of President Biden to solicit wider disapproval of the Russian invasion of its neighbor.

By saying the right things at the summit and amplifying his thoughts in the media, Duterte can use the meeting with Biden to help promote world peace and regional stability – aside from improving Philippine-US relations.

We trust that President Duterte would appreciate that positive angle as he wraps up his six-year administration under trying circumstances and helps smoothen the transition to the incoming administration.

Duterte’s birthday need not become an excuse for skipping the summit. He can have an advance celebration at home then fly to the US to join the ASEAN leaders and the host, who might just be waiting with their own Happy Birthday greetings!

We urge the President to consider adding to his US trip two or three days of free time for personal matters. That would be a rare chance for him and his family members to be together on a foreign trip while he is still the president.

(Starting Sunday, March 20, Filipinos coming from Manila will be welcomed by snappy spring weather that is more tolerable. It may be still a bit cold for Pinoys visiting the DC and New York areas, but more pleasant than the numbing cold of the winter.)

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President Duterte’s attending the summit would help wash away accusations that his rough relationship with the White House is inconsistent with his avowed foreign policy of being a friend to all nations that wish the Philippines well.

The US is not just a tested friend and trading partner, but also the country’s only treaty ally. The PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty, signed in 1951, needs updating to conform with present realities, but even in its present form, it is a deterrent to foreign aggression.

The President has often been pictured as being anti-American. Lacking clinical data, some observers speculate that his apparent antagonism is the offshoot of personal hurts and not really of clear national interest considerations.

In contrast to his penchant for making cutting remarks and keeping his distance from the US, Duterte has visited China five times (in 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 [twice]) and Russia two times (in 2017 and 2019).

Reaching out to the communist bloc early in his term, Duterte talked of his dream of a Beijing-Manila-Moscow axis and often mentioned Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin as his friends.

After his first visit to Beijing in 2016 that looked to some like a reporting of his capture of the Manila government, he brought home pasalubong of promised Chinese aid and investments allegedly worth some $24 million. Most of those items are still awaiting delivery.

His pivot to the left was made more dramatic by his announcement, made while standing on Chinese soil as a state guest, of his “separation” from the US.

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There had been previous instances when Duterte avoided US-Asean meetings. In his first foreign trip as president in Vientiane, Laos, to attend the 28th and 29th ASEAN summits Sept. 6-9, 2018, he was supposed to meet US President Obama.

But when Duterte, before departing Davao, criticized Obama and the US for planning to discuss the drug war and the human rights situation in the Philippines, the White House canceled the dialog.

Obama’s deputy national security advisor explained to the press, “Having a meeting where all we were gonna discuss was a series of comments, frankly did not strike us as the most constructive way to approach a bilateral meeting.”

On Sept. 8, Duterte also skipped the US-Asean summit, claiming he had a migraine. He later admitted he intentionally avoided the meetings as “a matter of principle”.

His second visit to Russia was in October 2019. He spent five days in Moscow and Sochi during which he met with President Putin, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Jordanian King Abdullah II, and chess grandmaster Anatoly Karpov. His first visit in May 2017 was cut short by the terror siege in Marawi City.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 13, 2022)

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