President Rodrigo Duterte is set to host world leaders in Manila this week, hoping their presence will quieten international criticism over his deadly drugs war.
US President Donald Trump will be among leaders from 19 countries, plus the heads of the United Nations and European Union, coming for the 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) meetings, which will begin with a banquet tonight followed by summits on Monday and Tuesday.
Hundreds of Asean CEOs will also gather for the Asean Business and Investment Summit (ABIS) on Monday, with Philippine officials eyeing progress on what could be the world’s largest trade deal, as well as a special focus on medium, small and micro enterprises or MSMEs.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Indian Premier Narendra Modi will headline the ABIS on November 13-14 at the Solaire Grand Ballroom in Parañaque City, hosted by the Asean Business Advisory Council (ABAC).
RCEP a ‘key deliverable’
Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez said finalizing the negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) deal was one of the key deliverables of the Philippines’ chairmanship of the Asean this year.
“We are preparing for the overall report and assessment on the [RCEP] based on the key element (framework) adopted moving forward,” Lopez said on Friday.
The proposed RCEP will cover Asean’s 10 member-states and Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.
The agreement is considered an alternative to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has stumbled after the United States withdrew earlier this year.
Jayant Menon, lead economist of the Economic Research and Regional Cooperation Department of the Asian Development Bank, said that with the Philippines’ chairmanship, there was “hope” the RCEP could be concluded this year.
“But it may also spill over to 2019. If concluded soon, RCEP will be the largest free trade agreement in the world. By harmonizing rules and regulations and pursuing regulatory convergence, RCEP will significantly reduce the cost of doing business, and moving goods and services across borders. This will boost growth of this region, including the Philippines, by promoting increased trade and investment,” said Menon.
The business summit will also cover topics ranging from infrastructure development, women in business, human capital development, open markets and entrepreneurship in the digital economy.
Menon said one of the major opportunities of the digital economy, as part of the so-called “4th Industrial Revolution” (4IR), was the potential of “disruptive technologies” to empower MSMEs.
“About 90 percent of enterprises in the Philippines are MSMEs and they provide most of the employment as well. MSMEs are often constrained by lack of access to business and financial services,” said Menon.
Menon said the rise of online marketplaces could provide platforms for MSMEs to access regional and global markets from relatively remote parts of the country.
Mentoring small businesses
As part of the effort to further empower MSMEs in the region, the Asean Mentors for Entrepreneurship Network (AMEN), a project designed to facilitate the scaling up of the micro and small enterprises in the region through mentorship, will also launched in this year’s ABIS.
AMEN, a flagship program of the ABAC under the Philippines’ Asean chairmanship, is designed to facilitate the scaling up of the micro- and small enterprises in the ASEAN region through mentorship. The mentors will come from three major groups: entrepreneurs, the business practitioners, and the academicians.
BDO Capital President Ed Francisco said mentorship would have a big impact on MSMEs.
“The challenge really is how many can you mentor. Once somebody mentors, these MSMEs will really benefit from it. But, there are a lot of MSMEs in the country. Mentorship has a big impact but it does not really solve the problem of finance,” said Francisco.
Francisco expressed hope that this year’s Asean summit would also look at how to better provide financing for MSMEs.
While trade policies would be discussed during the summit, the Philippine government should be cautious on deciding whether or not it should liberalize some of the sectors of the economy, he said.
“We have to make sure that these investments will not kill our local companies. If we are not ready to compete with the ‘big boys,’ and then we keep on liberalizing our sectors, our MSMEs will suffer,” Francisco said.
Francisco expects a lot of goodwill to be generated by the country’s hosting of the meetings of the Asean, which marks its 50th anniversary this year.
“Because we are the host, our hosting will elevate the picture of the Philippines, that we are a good organizer. They will see the beauty of the Philippines and hopefully they will bring in more investments. That’s from a macro perspective,” he said.
But rights groups have expressed alarm and disappointment that Trump and most others are likely to endorse or stay silent over Duterte’s rule, which has seen thousands of people killed.
“Duterte will enjoy the gift of tacit silence from East Asian leaders on his murderous drug war during the upcoming summit,” Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phelim Kine told AFP.
“We can expect East Asian leaders to exercise a diplomatic blind eye to the killings of thousands of Filipinos over the past 16 months as part of Duterte’s drug war.”
Duterte won last year’s presidential elections after promising to eradicate illegal drugs with an unprecedented crackdown that would see up to 100,000 people killed.
Since Duterte took office, police have reported killing 3,967 people in the crackdown.
Another 2,290 people have been murdered in drug-related crimes, while thousands of other deaths remain unsolved, according to government data.
Many Filipinos back Duterte, believing he is taking necessary measures to fight crime.
But rights groups warn he may be orchestrating a crime against humanity.
Amnesty International accuses police of shooting dead defenseless people and paying assassins to murder addicts.
Rights groups say police are following Duterte’s incitements to kill, citing comments of his such as he would be “happy to slaughter” three million addicts.
Domestic opponents have appealed to the International Criminal Court to investigate, pointing to the jailing of opponents, a compliant congress and intimidated judiciary as reasons to step in.
A ‘great job’
But the ICC has yet to respond and, despite some vocal critics in the West, Duterte goes into the Manila summits full of confidence that Trump and the others will effectively endorse his rule by not speaking against the killings.
In Vietnam on Thursday on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific economic summit, Duterte boasted that when he was 16 he stabbed to death someone for looking at him the wrong way.
He then offered to host a global summit on human rights, but insisted that the alleged crimes of the United States, France and other nations also be investigated.
Duterte, 72, last year branded then-US president Barack Obama a “son of a whore” for criticizing the drug war.
But Trump and Duterte have expressed mutual admiration for other. Trump told Duterte in a telephone call in April that he was doing a “great job” with his campaign against drugs.
They are expected to hold one-on-one talks on Monday and, if Trump does not bring up any human rights concerns, Duterte is widely expected to trumpet the meeting as an endorsement.
“We will be extremely disappointed if Trump does not raise it,” Amnesty’s Philippine director, Jose Noel Olano, told reporters on Saturday.
Duterte can expect blanket support from his Asean colleagues, many of whom are also shadowed by human rights controversies.
“From the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, to a sweeping crackdown on all forms of dissent in Cambodia to the thousands killed in Philippines, human rights are under siege across Southeast Asia,” Rachel Chhoa-Howard, a Philippine researcher with Amnesty, told AFP.
The premiers of China and Russia, two other important Duterte backers, will also be in Manila.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is another key backer of Duterte, with the pair having established a warm relationship.
AFP AND ANNA LEAH E. GONZALES