MANILA, Philippines – To the tune of a marching band, amid the lights of giant Christmas lanterns, and under the gaze of the public eye, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte hosted his biggest international gathering so far: the gala dinner for the 50th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
On a balmy Sunday night, November 12, Duterte welcomed 19 leaders to the dinner, held at the SMX Convention Center in Pasay City. This is 10 more leaders than he played host to in his last major summit, the 30th ASEAN Summit and Related Summits in April, which was attended by the leaders of the 9 other ASEAN member countries.
Duterte, his perpetual slouch clothed in a formal barong, looked nothing like the clench-fisted, expletive-spitting president the Philippine public has come to know. On Sunday night, he bowed to the dictates of protocol and showed the world his pleasant side. (READ: How Duterte is preparing to host world leaders at ASEAN 2017)
The Mall of Asia Complex’s Seashell Lane was transformed into parade grounds, designed to give a rousing welcome to the leaders and their spouses as they were whisked into the convention center’s entrance in black bulletproof cars. They were greeted by a band and dancers waving their country’s flag as they entered the lobby where they were welcomed by Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea and his wife Bertola, regal in an emerald green Filipiniana.
But the night’s highlight was the leaders’ photo opportunity with host President Duterte and his partner Honeylet Avanceña.
At the entrance to the main hall, Duterte, wearing a more-flowery-than-usual barong, and Avanceña waited to shake hands with each leader and pose for a photo.
Avanceña was stunning in a richly embellished silver Filipiniana, glowing in fresh-looking makeup, with her hair partially tied back in a feminine sweep. Her aura of health and youth, straight posture, and bright smile stood in stark contrast to Duterte’s age, hunched shoulders, and lopsided, slightly mischievous grin.
Duterte shook hands with most of the leaders and there was generally some chitchat before and after the photos were taken.
But his handshake with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was the longest, at around 7 seconds.
Here comes Trump
The night’s most awaited moment did not disappoint.
United States President Donald Trump strode in wearing a beautifully-embroidered barong, slightly wrinkled in the back from his car ride, looking a bit ill at ease at first, until he reached Duterte and Avanceña.
It was likely the first time anyone had ever seen the American leader wear a barong.
The longest handshake that night was not between Duterte and another leader but between Trump and Avanceña.
The 15-second handshake lasted throughout their small talk, with Trump twice placing his other hand on Avanceña’s butterfly sleeve. His handshake with Duterte, meanwhile, was much shorter.
There was genuine warmth in Duterte’s eyes when he reached out to shake the hand of Indonesian President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi. In April, Duterte held a state dinner in Jokowi’s honor. The two share a hardline stance on illegal drugs and face similar problems of Muslim extremism and piracy.
Avanceña hugged and kissed on both cheeks the wife of South Korean President Moon Jae-In, Kim Jung-Sook.
For the group photo before the dinner proper, Duterte and Avanceña stood in between Trump and Li. Trump could be seen chatting with the Philippine president as they waited for photographers to get into position. The US leader was making sweeping gestures, as if commenting on the size of the hall.
At the long dinner table, this arrangement was repeated.
In formal international gatherings like this, even choosing which leader will sit beside another is not left to chance.
In previous ASEAN and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) events, for instance, Duterte was usually seated between a Russian leader (President Vladimir Putin or Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev) and an ASEAN leader like Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah or Jokowi.
In placing Duterte between the US and China, the two world powers engaged in a tug of war for influence and with whom the Philippines has a special relationship, what could have been on the minds of the organizers?
Trump was the first person Duterte acknowledged in his toast, followed by Medvedev. Rather than mention other foreign leaders, Duterte acknowledged former Philippine presidents Fidel Ramos and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
After the formalities, Duterte even acquiesced to Trump’s “orders” to sing his favorite song, “Ikaw.”
In his place of honor at the long table, Duterte looked distinctly uncomfortable in such a formal setting, looking everywhere but in front of him. Before his aide handed him a folder with his written speech, his gaze lingered on Avanceña who, unlike him, appeared serene, looking straight ahead with a slight smile.
But it was her turn to look slightly anxious as Duterte rose to give his toast.
Avanceña’s gaze alternated between looking up at Duterte and looking down at his typewritten speech, reading it with her eyes as her partner delivered it out loud.
“I am deeply honored to host this rare occasion where a number of world leaders are gathered in celebration of the 50th anniversary of ASEAN,” said Duterte, head facing down, likely much to the frustration of photographers. He would glance up every now and then, giving photographers a chance to capture his face.
Duterte read his speech fast, garbling some words and even skipping a few lines.
“Tonight, likewise President, we commemorate – Presidents, the gains that ASEAN has achieved over the years under your leadership,” he read.
This is not surprising given Duterte’s preference for spontaneous speeches, a luxury he can’t afford in this critical diplomatic event.
He seemed to make up for it with the vigor of his voice and strategic pauses and emphasis, proof that he had rehearsed the speech.
“I wish to offer a toast: to the unity, centrality, solidarity, and continued success of ASEAN,” he declaimed.
With his glass raised and an exclamation of “Mabuhay (May you live long)!” Duterte began the 3-day summit on a hopeful note.
He comes armed for his hosting duties with experience attending 5 major summits (29th ASEAN Summit, 2016 APEC Summit, World Economic Forum, Belt and Road Forum, and 2017 APEC Summit) and over 20 foreign visits.
What will the next two days bring for the Philippines and the region? While much is uncertain, one thing is for sure – Duterte will heave a sigh of relief once all the pageantry and formalities are over. – Rappler.com