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Duterte's absences in summits: What we're missing

COUNTRY'S TOP DIPLOMAT. President Rodrigo Duterte participates in the general dialogue at the APEC Leaders' Summit in Lima, Peru on November 19.

Photo by Simeon Celi Jr/Presidential Photo

President Rodrigo Duterte has so far been dismissive, if not outright disdainful, of international summits and his participation in them.

“I was not able to attend the socials because I wanted the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, I wanted to promote his acting career,” he joked during a press conference in Lima, Peru, on the last day of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit. 

He was explaining why he was a no-show at the APEC gala dinner hosted by Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski and at the traditional “family photo” of heads of state the next day. (READ: Duterte skips APEC family photo session, meetings)

MISSING DUTERTE. Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr stands in for President Duterte during the traditional APEC 'family photo' of heads of state.

Photo from PPD

“I’m promoting the movie career of Yasay. I said, you be the actor, you sit with the [other leaders],” Duterte repeated in Davao City on Thursday, November 24. 

If one believes that jokes are half-meant, the President’s joke clues you in on his opinion of international summits. Is diplomacy just a form of acting for Duterte? (READ: Why Duterte needs to act like a diplomat)

In fact, Duterte at first was unsure of even attending the APEC Summit, citing his aversion to long-haul flights. He had to be persuaded by Cabinet members to attend.

Next year, Duterte will himself host an international conference, namely the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit and related summits.

As host, it will be his duty to welcome other heads of state, lead ceremonies, and set the tone for meetings and social functions.

What kind of host will Duterte be?

Duterte's 'excuses'

Duterte gave more than one reason for his absence from APEC events.

At the Peru press conference on the Summit's last day, he said it was due to jetlag. 

Alam mo kung bakit? Jet lag… Sabi ko, it’s not good to be somebody with ‘yung mga greats ng convention tapos ako nakapikit ang mata,” Duterte told journalists. 

(You know why? Jet lag... I said, it's not good to be with the greats of the convention and then my eyes are shut.)

Then in Davao City, Duterte gave a different reason for his absence. He supposedly had a bad stomach that might have made him “explode” any time.

Saan ninyo ako gustong magpuririt (Where do you want me to release)? Doon sa stage o doon sa... (There in the stage or there in...) the hotel was just about 10 minutes away. Well, my stomach was not good. And I could have exploded anytime,” Duterte told reporters on Thursday, November 24, while visiting the grave of his father.

Duterte also skipped the ASEAN East Asia-US Summit last September. While the "official" reason from Malacañang was that he suffered from a migraine, in Manila, Duterte admitted he missed the Summit “on purpose” and “as a matter of principle.”

Duterte’s missed opportunity

But what does it matter if the Philippine President misses some events at an international summit?

Long-time diplomat and former Permanent Representative to the UN Lauro Baja Jr says Duterte should not take events like APEC gala dinners and photo sessions for granted.

“Summits like these are the highest form of diplomacy because you meet with other leaders of government and heads of state. It’s not so much the agenda in the international conferences as the goodwill and the network you are able to establish with your counterparts with other countries,” Baja told Rappler on November 25.

Dinners and photo sessions, though outside formal functions like meetings, are imbued with significance and present golden opportunities for new leaders like Duterte.

“It’s the informal discussions, corridor diplomacy, cafeteria diplomacy that counts. If you miss this opportunity, you create a perception that the Philippines is not taking seriously those conferences,” said the former diplomat.

Social functions at international summits are a chance to get more information from other leaders.

“As somebody said, ‘I regret that I have only one stomach to give to my country’ – because you really have to eat and drink just to be in good conversation with your peers, and to get some information from them,” seasoned diplomat and former senator Leticia Ramos Shahani told Rappler in a previous interview. 

Baja said Duterte’s conspicuous absence in the APEC family photo gives a “negative impression” that could reflect on the Philippines.

“It goes beyond the photo session because I think if you are not there, you give a negative impression to the international community. Imagine everyone (heads of state) is there, but it’s only the foreign secretary present. This photo opportunity, although it’s just a photo, is part and parcel of the conference,” he said. 

Experiencing jet lag or not feeling well are not acceptable excuses to miss events at international summits, he said.

“Being sick or being under the weather is not really a valid excuse for non-attendance. One must remember that other Asian leaders also have jet lag problems but were still present,” said Baja.

Duterte should be embracing his role as diplomat now more than ever because of his hosting responsibilities next year. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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