ON the eve of his first scheduled appearance on a world stage, President Duterte found himself in a confrontational situation with President Obama of the United States (US) when Obama cancelled their meeting on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Vientiane, Laos.
Duterte, in his usual colorful language punctuated with “son of a …,” had warned in a media briefing that Obama better not question his war against drugs. When this was reported to Obama, then attending the G20 conference in Hangzhou, China, he decided to cancel the meeting. He said he wanted to be sure that any meeting between them would be productive.
Actually, had the bilateral meeting gone through, the Philippines’ anti-drugs war would have been the least of their concerns. In recent days, the Philippines has noted the presence of several Chinese vessels around Scarborough Shoal, also known as Panatag Shoal and Bajo de Masinloc, just 210 kilometers from the Zambales coastline. The ships appear to be preparing to build an artificial island on the shoal, which China claims as its own, as it falls within its nine-dash line around most of the South China Sea. This claim has been rejected by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, but China has declared it does not recognize and accept the ruling.
Had the Obama-Duterte meeting been held as scheduled, this would have been taken up, along with President Obama’s efforts to win support for a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement among 12 nations. The TPP would include most of the ASEAN nations – but not China, which is pushing for its own “One Belt, One Road” agreement, which does not include the US.
But it is the South China Sea issue that is uppermost in the thinking of Philippine officials these days. Fellow ASEAN members Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei are with the Philippines on this issue, as they too have claims in the South China Sea which conflict with the sweeping nine-dash-line claim of China. But because some other members do not wish to antagonize China, all previous ASEAN meetings have avoided taking a stand on this matter. At the end of the ASEAN Summit today, when the final communiqué is issued, it will be seen whether ASEAN continues its stand against taking any solid position on the South China Sea issue.
When President Obama cancelled his meeting with President Duterte, he said the “Filipino people are some of our closest friends and allies and the Philippines is a treaty ally of ours.” He said he just wants to make sure that if he has a meeting with President Duterte, “it will be actually productive and we’re getting something done.”
The Philippines and US have agreed to reset their bilateral talks to a later date. President Duterte expressed regret that his earlier colorful language had come across as a personal attack on the US president. “We look forward to ironing out differences arising out of national priorities and perceptions, and working in mutually responsible ways for both countries,” he said.