Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has threatened to swear at U.S. President Barack Obama, dangled the prospect of leaving the United Nations and insulted the pope, all without leaving the country. Now he’s ready to meet the world.
Duterte, whose antics have repeatedly made headlines since he took office two months ago, is making his international debut at a pair of summits that start Tuesday in Vientiane, Laos. The meetings will be attended by Obama plus leaders from Southeast Asian nations, Russia, China and Japan.
Before the summits even begin, Duterte has caused a stir. Hours after an expletive-laden outburst as he headed for Laos, in which he warned Obama against questioning him about his war on illegal drugs, the White House announced their scheduled tete-a-tete was off.
"President Duterte is the most-talked-about leader in Asean and in the world," his Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said in a recent radio interview, referring to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Yet Duterte will also be the most diplomatically inexperienced leader at an event often dominated by thorny issues like the South China Sea. The Philippines under predecessor Benigno Aquino was a vocal critic of China’s actions in the disputed waterway, though Duterte has signaled a potentially more pragmatic approach with his biggest trading partner.
He faces a tricky time with military ally the U.S., given he has criticized those who called into question his violent war against drug suspects that has seen 2,400 people killed so far. The U.S. is among those who have expressed doubts as to whether the campaign adheres to human rights norms.
Duterte and Obama planned to meet at Laos. But before flying there on Monday, Duterte told reporters if the U.S. president questioned him “I will curse you in that forum.”
“I don’t care about him,” Duterte said. “Who is he?" “The Philippines is not a vassal state,” he said. “We have long ceased to be a colony.” The comments prompted Obama, speaking to reporters in China, to refer to him -- with a slight grimace -- as a "colorful guy.”
National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in a statement early Tuesday that Obama won’t proceed with the Duterte meeting. He didn’t give a reason.
As mayor of a city of 1.6 million people for two decades, Duterte had little experience on the international stage before sweeping to the presidency with his populist rhetoric.
"This is Duterte’s first major diplomatic event, and it’s hard to know exactly how he will present himself," said Gregory Poling, a Southeast Asia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Still, Duterte can be a pragmatist, he said, and “regularly tones down his bombastic rhetoric when necessary.”
This will be the first meeting of Southeast Asian leaders since a tribunal in the Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines in July, rejecting China’s claims to most of the South China Sea, which hosts more than $5 trillion in international trade each year. China’s assertions to the area, where it has reclaimed thousands of acres of land and boosted its naval presence, are often a focus of Asean summits as they overlap those of Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia.
China wants the disputes settled on a bilateral basis and in the past has pushed Asean allies Laos and Cambodia to stop the bloc, which operates on a consensus basis, from issuing statements on the dispute that criticize Beijing.
Duterte’s vision for how he will manage ties with the U.S. and China has varied wildly. He has shifted between saying he is open to co-operating with China on resource exploration in the South China Sea to warning of a "bloody" fight if Beijing pushes too far. He’s also questioned the U.S. commitment to protecting Philippine interests and irked Washington by indicating he is open to direct talks with China.
"The country watching Duterte most closely is probably the U.S.," said Christian Lewis, a Southeast Asia risk analyst with Eurasia Group. "From China’s perspective, Duterte is at worst neutral and at best a positive change from Aquino. From the U.S. perspective, Duterte is at best neutral and at worst a negative change from Aquino.”
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay did not say how Duterte would approach his time in Laos. "I do not want to speculate on that other than to assure you that he will do what is right and in the paramount national interest," he said in an interview last week.
The area where Duterte has bristled most has been criticism of his drug war. He’s lashed out at statements from the United Nations and the U.S., threatening to leave the UN and responding to comments from U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg by calling him a homosexual.
Speaking to reporters on Monday before his departure, Duterte blasted the U.S. for its own record on human rights, having previously criticized it for a high death rate among black Americans.
“I don’t want to pick a quarrel with Obama but certainly I would not appear to be beholden to anybody,” he said. “Nobody but nobody should interfere. This is an independent country.”
“Nobody has a right to lecture me,” Duterte added. “God, do not do it. We will end up disrespecting each other if you do that to me.”
Duterte declined a request to meet UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in Laos, even as he clarified that his threat to leave the UN was just a joke. On the campaign trail, he had raised eyebrows by insulting the pope for causing traffic jams during a visit to the Philippines.
“Duterte is always ready for criticisms,” said Benito Lim, a political science professor from Ateneo de Manila University. "He could get back at other Asean leaders who criticize him, including Obama, by citing human rights violations in their own countries.”
Still, Yasay said there was no reason to think that Duterte would change his persona in the presence of other world leaders.
"I am sure the president will be the same warm, engaging and charming leader that he is," Yasay said. "He will continue to be his unpretentious self."