How did President Rodrigo Duterte and our foreign policy team fare in their debut on the international stage at the Asean summit in Laos last week?
Not everyone here is pleased with what transpired in Vientiane, and we would certainly not say that everything went smoothly. But in terms of establishing himself, and by extension the Philippines, as a significant presence in the region, and in terms of actual achievements, it was not a bad showing by a President who is a diplomatic novice.
The colorful narrative being advanced by Malacañang communicators and administration officials that describes President Duterte’s visit as a spectacular success in Laos, even quoting another country’s leader describing the Philippine President as a “rock star” with whom the other heads of state present wanted to have selfies, is probably a bit too generous. Friction did flare between the tempestuous Duterte and US President Barack Obama, and while the latter – a consummate diplomat – dismissed Duterte’s pre-summit comments as colorfully harmless, the attention they attracted obviously did introduce some unnecessary tension.
On the other hand, the narrative about an embarrassing spectacle wherein Duterte’s behavior, particularly in an unexpected harangue (complete with a visual presentation) against the US for its brutality in Mindanao in the early 1900s, unfairly overlooks a couple of important points.
The first important point is that even though he was in an unfamiliar setting, Duterte handled himself thoughtfully – not thoughtfully for the stuffy rules of decorum in diplomatic gatherings, but as he thought appropriate to advance the interests of the country he leads. He said as much when he proclaimed he considered himself answerable to no one but the country who chose him as its leader. He adopted a more diplomatic tone in accepting the chairmanship of the Asean for 2017.
And when he thought it was time to defend his area of responsibility and put a stop to any notion of outsiders dictating how the Philippines’ internal concerns with drugs and criminality should be addressed, he did that, too, though harshly. It appeared he was aware he would be the one held to account for the results of the effort, not the current US President or the next one.
So, what did he accomplish at the summit? For one, the President was able to secure the cooperation of Indonesia to fight the growing problem of piracy affecting both countries.
He made it clear that he would deal with any other country on the basis of substance and what is in the Philippines’ best interests as he understands them.
Duterte’s visit to Laos was not flawless; his ‘antics’ overshadowed the substance at times, and while he was among leadership peers who probably got the message, clearly not everyone here at home in the Philippines did, and that is something that he and his diplomatic and communications team will have to work on.