How will the Philippines’ “most popular president” perform overseas?

Philippine President Rodrigo DutertePhoto: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte flies to Laos this week to take part in his first ASEAN Summit. Issues on the agenda include security, regional agreements, and economic cooperation. As the South China Sea issue looms large over the visit as we ask, can Duterte the diplomat score a win at the international level?

By Holly Reeves

President Duterte is about to unveil the first view of his foreign policy as he takes his inaugural trip outside the Philippines. He will begin his regional tour with a visit Brunei Darussalam on September 4 before heading to Laos for the ASEAN Summit from September 5 to 7. He will then proceed to Indonesia for a two-day visit as part of the traditional ASEAN visits for leaders.

Enjoying a super-majority support in the Congress, and set to appoint the bulk of the Supreme Court justices in coming years, Duterte is rapidly emerging as the Philippines’ most powerful president in recent memory. However, domestic success doesn’t guarantee triumph at the international level. Duterte’s foreign policy so far has been highly divisive.

But whether Duterte is famous or infamous, Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said several leaders from neighboring countries had expressed eagerness to meet with Mr. Duterte during the meeting, “We all know President Duterte is the most talked-about leader in ASEAN and around the world,” he added.

A topical agenda

His choice of Brunei as is the initial point of call is interesting and was chosen in recognition of the volume of work given to overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in the country. “(The President) will be on a working visit, will perform bilateral talks with ASEAN (leaders) and will be visiting OFW,” Andanar said. In a previous interview, Duterte said he would thank Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah for taking care of Filipino migrant workers.

Once he arrives in Vientiane, Duterte will have many issues to address. He will witness the turnover of the ASEAN chairmanship to the Philippines, which will host the leaders’ summit and related meetings next year. His country also takes the chair of BIMP-EAGA beginning in September 2016, giving the Duterte administration an opportunity to engage on the subregional and regional fronts.

It will be interesting to see whether there is any movement on other specific items like the Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area Initiative (BIMP-EAGA), a subregional initiative founded in 1994 in Duterte’s hometown of Davao City. The Growth Area, consisting of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines benefits agri-industry, fisheries, tourism, transportation, and shipping, as well as energy.

Security issues will also be high on the agenda; though perhaps not the developments in the South China Sea. “Part of [the discussions] is the security agreements which have been raised in the Indonesia, Malaysia and Philippines [tripartite talks]—addressing terrorism, and addressing economic possibilities —these are some of the talking points,” Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said.   

However, the shadow of his country’s territorial dispute with China looms large over the talks. In recent remarks, Duterte said he prefers to discuss the territorial dispute directly with China rather than bring up the matter during the summit.

“That has to wait because, if I act hostile now, then they might just decide not to sit in front of you and talk. Magkapikunan [This might raise tensions],” he said, adding, “the summit will not be the proper venue to be “ranting” or “raising hell.” Instead, he suggested, “Maybe a goodwill visit to their country to express our willingness to talk, be friendly and avoid war.”

Shaping foreign relations

As well as discussions of a China trip, Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. said Duterte was also eyeing “working visits” to other ASEAN countries. Communications Secretary Andanar also confirmed that Duterte would be making his first trip outside of Asia at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Lima, Peru with a possible side trip to San Francisco, California in the United States to meet with the Filipino community there.

Duterte may be one of the most popular presidents of all time but he also serves at one of the most challenging periods in his country’s history. The task ahead for the new president is to now turn interest in his administration into support for his country’s national interest. Not only must he seek cooperation for regional security initiatives, such as joint South China Sea patrols with Indonesia and Malaysia, but kickstart economic initiatives that will help him deliver on his promises at home.

Duterte, the “man of the people, ” may be a roaring success but the upcoming tour will offer the first insights into the approach of Duterte the international diplomat. He will need to manage a careful balance between the two, else his popular support could be lost to unpopular decisions on the world stage. The world, and its leaders, will be watching.