US-Asean summit: Will Duterte attend?

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    MALACANANG sounded very piqued by the unsolicited advice of former Foreign Affairs secretary Albert del Rosario that for the good of the nation, President Duterte should honor the invitation of US President Donald Trump to attend the US-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Summit in Las Vegas, Nevada this March.

    Instead of just saying the President knows what he is doing, Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo hurls an insult and said the Palace does not need the advice of someone who lost part of the country’s territory to China, and that Del Rosario should just “stay retired.” It is another way of saying “keep your mouth shut.”

    To be fair, it was true that Del Rosario was secretary of foreign affairs and Benigno Aquino III was president when China was able to outmaneuver the Philippines in a standoff that resulted in our losing part of areas we had been claiming in the South China Sea.

    But the particular issue the former foreign secretary was commenting on was US-Philippines relations. He earlier said that the summit proposed by Trump, to be hosted by the United States, would be an opportunity for President Duterte to express his full expectations pertaining to the country’s bilateral relations with the US, following his order to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement.

    Panelo’s argument is that Duterte does not need to attend any special summit to tell the Americans about his concerns. “These issues can always be brought up between countries that are affected by it. You don’t need a special summit for that,” Panelo said.

    A somewhat contrary position, aired also yesterday by Communications Secretary Martin Andanar, underscored the importance of the summit both to the US and the Asean regional community, so that “both parties may build stronger relations.” Andanar noted that the United States is a big market for Asean while the US can benefit from the more than 600 million people living in the ten countries of the Southeast Asian region. To Andanar’s mind, good relations translate into good and beneficial trading and security, and both camps will benefit together from enhanced cooperation.

    With the Communications and Information secretary talking like this, there is still hope for those who support Del Rosario’s advice that Duterte may yet take that US trip. Andanar said if the President can’t attend, he might send Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. to represent the country in that summit.

    Whether the President attends or not, it is important for Malacanang to explain — as Panelo did at yesterday’s press briefing — that Duterte’s decisions to skip the US-Asean Summit and to terminate the VFA were not a knee-jerk reaction following the cancellation of Sen. Ronaldo Dela Rosa’s US visa. “It was not a decision on a whim. It is a studied response to acts the President deems to be not only an intrusion but an assault to the sovereignty of this country,” the presidential spokesman said.

    There had been some developments in Washington that got President Duterte’s ire, among them the demand of several American senators to release Sen. Leila de Lima, which he considered as an intrusion and insult to the Philippine judicial system. The other is the controversial travel ban provision signed by Trump in the 2020 United States budget.

    Duterte may just change his mind and decide to go at the last minute, so there is nothing else to do but trust the wisdom of the President’s sound judgment.