Diplomatic issues mar Duterte int'l debut

VIENTIANE, Laos – From declining to meet with the UN chief to being snubbed by the world's most powerful man, diplomatic issues marred the international debut of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday, September 6, in Vientiane, Laos.

US President Barack Obama dropped a scheduled meeting with Duterte on Tuesday after the Philippine leader slammed him over human rights.

Duterte and Obama had been set to meet on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Vientiane, Laos, on Tuesday afternoon.

Obama cancelled the talks after Duterte on Monday, September 5, hit Washington for questioning him over extrajudicial killings. "Who is Obama to ask me that? I'll tell you, 'Who are you?'"

Obama responded by saying Duterte is "a colorful guy." The US president also said he wants "to make sure if I'm having a meeting that it's actually productive."

Duterte later said he is blaming Washington officials who "keep on mouthing statements" about human rights.

On Obama, Duterte said: "I do not want to quarrel with him. He's the most powerful president of any country on the planet."

With a strategic partnership between the two countries, the US is one of the Philippines' strongest allies in the Asia Pacific.

The US is also the Philippines' 3rd largest trading partner.

On top of this, more than 5.99 million Filipinos live in the US.

No time for UN chief

Before he was snubbed by Obama, Duterte already declined a meeting with another powerful man: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said they tried to set a time for a meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN forum in Laos, but that "no time could be agreed upon."

Duterte drew flak for declining to meet with Ban.

Reuters reported that a UN official, who declined to be named, "said it was 'basically unheard of' for a leader to be too busy to meet the secretary-general."

Duterte has launched several tirades against the world body after a UN special rapporteur criticized his crackdown on crime, even threatening to pull out of the UN, a threat he later withdrew.

"Maybe we’ll just have to decide to separate from the United Nations. If you are that disrespectful, son of a whore, then I will just leave you," Duterte said in a press conference last month.

He later said the threat was just a "joke."

More than 2,000 people have been killed since Duterte was sworn into office on June 30 and immediately launched his war on crime, according to the national police chief.

World sympathy

Before he was snubbed by Obama, Duterte was set to make his international debut with global sympathy behind him.

Just a week earlier, a terror attack in his home city of Davao killed at least 14 people, prompting world leaders to send him their condolences.

Obama himself was set to personally convey his condolences to Duterte during a scheduled meeting on Tuesday.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also said in a message, "I cannot help feeling indignation to learn that a bombing incident by terrorism caused numerous casualties in Davao City where Your Excellency served as the mayor for many years."

In a speech in Davao City before leaving for Vientiane, Duterte explained: "Recent events have shown that there are elements out there who seek to sow terror and wreak havoc in our society. We remain firm in our resolve to combat terrorism in all its forms and manifestations."

Duterte said, "I will use the opportunity for meeting with other ASEAN leaders and ASEAN dialogue partners to seek better support to regional efforts to address terrorism and extreme violent extremism."

Growing tensions

On Obama scrapping his meeting with Duterte, international affairs expert Richard Heydarian said: "The diplomatic snub clearly shows growing tensions in bilateral relations, thanks to the Filipino leader's colorful rhetoric and uncompromising war on crime, but I expect the two allies to sort things out behind the scenes."

"After all, the fundamentals of bilateral security and economic relations are expected to continue," he said.

He said Duterte, however, is still set to meet with Abe, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and possibly Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. "I expect those meetings to go smoothly," he said.

On the Davao terror attack, Heydarian said it "is reshaping the narrative around the Philippines."

He said, "I expect Duterte to be receiving greater international sympathy, and more expressions of support, with more discussions on counterterrorism."

"This, Duterte will be less in a defensive mode than initially expected, since he will less have to explain the human rights situation in the country." – With reports from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com

(Top photo: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte arrives at the Wattay International Airport in Vientiane on September 5, 2016 for the 28th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit and related summit to be held September 6-8. Noel Celis/AFP)

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.