Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte opened an annual summit of Southeast Asian leaders Saturday with an oblique swipe at Western governments, asking them not to meddle in the affairs of regional countries.
Duterte has often lashed out at Western criticism of his brutal anti-drug crackdown. Although couched in diplomatic tone, the president’s remarks at the opening ceremony of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Manila reflect his combative character.
Ties between ASEAN and the West could become stronger and more productive “if we learn to respect each other’s independence and treat each other as sovereign equals,” Duterte said. “Relations bear fruit when they are based on mutual respect and benefit.”
No mention of South China Sea
Duterte also cited the need for the 10-nation bloc to address security issues, including terrorism and piracy, but made no mention of touchy South China Sea territorial rifts, which China did not want to be highlighted in the daylong talks.
The long-simmering disputes, along with alarm over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and intensifying standoff with the United States, have taken attention away from the more benign topics of regional economic integration.
The summit is the first major international event Duterte has hosted since taking office 10 months ago.
A drug-free ASEAN
Duterte, whose drug war has left thousands dead and has drawn rebukes from the U.S., U.N., EU and rights groups, stressed the need to make ASEAN drug-free.
“The illegal drug trade apparatus is massive. But it is not impregnable,” Duterte said. “With political will and cooperation, it can be dismantled. It can be destroyed before it destroys our societies.”
The 72-year-old Duterte faces a mass murder complaint before the International Criminal Court and an impeachment bid at home as bodies pile up in his drugs campaign.
Duterte will find solace from the storm of criticism in ASEAN, which has a bedrock policy forbidding member states from meddling in each other’s domestic affairs. That has helped ASEAN, founded a half-century ago, to become an unwieldy collective of dictatorships, authoritarian states and a monarchy, along with fledgling democracies.
China gets its wish
Unlike his predecessor, Duterte has said he would not highlight the South China Sea disputes at the summit, particularly his country’s arbitration victory against Beijing. The ruling last July invalidated China’s historic claims to most of the disputed waters and said Beijing violated the rights of Filipinos when Chinese coast guard ships blocked them from fishing in a disputed shoal.
China called the ruling a sham and has moved to block it from being discussed at the summit or mentioned in the standard communique issued at the end of the meetings. Ahead of the summit, Chinese officials asked the Philippines, as ASEAN host, to avoid any reference to China’s arbitration defeat in the communique, three Philippine officials told The Associated Press on Friday on condition of anonymity.
An early draft of the communique obtained by the AP did not mention the ruling but did use the phrase — “full respect for legal and diplomatic processes.” The Chinese also wanted that removed because they believe it referred to the ruling, the officials said.
In the latest version of the communique, that phrase has been removed from the South China Sea topic and moved elsewhere in the statement, which discussed all issues tackled by the ASEAN leaders. Although seemingly a small detail, that change represented a victory by China to shield itself from calls to comply with the arbitration decision.
On North Korea, the ASEAN leaders would express “grave concern” over developments in the Korean Peninsula, including two nuclear tests staged by the North last year and subsequent ballistic missile launches, according to the latest draft of the ASEAN communique. The latest missile launch was Saturday.
“The actions of the DPRK have resulted in an escalation of tensions that can affect peace and stability in the entire region,” the leaders said in the draft statement.