PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte is set to hold closed-door meetings with nine heads of the state, including US President Barack Obama, who is expected not to pull punches in bilateral talks, and Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, at the sidelines of the upcoming Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Vientiane, Laos.
In a press conference, Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose said Duterte will hold one-on-one talks with leaders of Australia, India, Japan, Laos, New Zealand, Russia, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam.
Jose also said that there are other several heads of the state who have requested him for a pull-aside meeting but due to his tight schedule, the President was able to accommodate only the nine countries.
“The Asean summit has only a few days of important meetings wherein [the President] is expected to attend all under a very tight schedule. Several heads of state have requested him for a pull aside bilaterals and has already said yes to 9 including Asean members and key dialogue partners,” Jose said.
Jose, on behalf of Duterte, asked the other leaders to understand his inability to meet with all of them.
“Please understand that he cannot accept them all and no one should impute any negatives on those he could not accommodate,” Jose said.
Jose also said that there is a possibility that Duterte will tackle the territorial disputes in the South China Sea and his war against drugs with the nine leaders.
During the summit, Duterte’s first since he assumed office on June 30, the President will promote the Philippines’ top priorities, which is a “drug-free Asean.”
Aside from his campaign against the proliferation of drugs, Duterte will also called on the Asean communities and other involved International leaders to respect for the rule of law, under the legally binding code of conduct, emergency response and disaster management, protection of migrant workers, combating trafficking in persons, peace and reconciliation efforts, combating terrorism, and ensuring inclusive economic growth and connectivity.
Since he assumed office and declared his war against alleged drug pushers and users on July 1, there are 2,446 people have died.
Of this figure, 929 drug suspects have been killed in legitimate police operations while 1,507 have died in apparent extra-judicial killings.
His other agenda during the meetings, Jose said, is to strengthen relations with other Asean states.
Jose also said that Duterte will formally accept the chairmanship of Asean for 2017, which will begin on Jan. 1 next year.
Jose said that Duterte will not insist on raising the South China Sea issue during the summit, in contrast to his predecessor.
However, Jose said, once the sea dispute is raised in the Summit, Duterte is ready to discuss the matter.
Despite the soft stance of the new administration, Jose said the Philippines will continue to advocate the rule of law and the legally binding code of conduct in the South China Sea.
The Philippines, including Asean members Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia, has territorial disputes with China over the overlapping claims over the sea.
China claims 90 percent or the South China Sea, citing its nine-dash line policy based on an ancient map.
On July 12, a tribunal in The Hague has ruled in favor of the Philippines invalidating China’s excessive claims.
Despite the victory, the Duterte administration has kept a “low-key” stance and is seeking bilateral talks with China to solve the matter.
The White House said Friday that Obama would not pull any punches when he talks to Duterte.
“The President is going to speak quite directly about our shared interests with the Philippines. Both countries benefit from effective cooperation on a variety of issues, including maritime security. But the President is certainly not going to pull any punches in raising well-documented and relevant concerns when it comes to human rights,” US Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in a press briefing.
“Listen, the Philippines is a treaty ally of the United States. And the President values the important relationships that we have not just maintained, but strengthened with our treaty allies around the world. There are a variety of benefits associated with being a treaty ally of the United States. And certainly as the Philippines deals with some of the maritime security situations in the South China Sea, they benefit from a close relationship with the United States.”
The Department of Foreign Affairs, however, played down the newest statements of Washington, saying that the President is ready to answer any allegations of human rights and extra-judicial killings that will be raised by the country’s closest strategic ally.
“I think the President is prepared. That’s why his first statement is to ask President Obama to listen to him. So he can discuss and explain to him the problem that we face as far as the drug problem is concerned. So I think he’s prepared for it,” Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Maria dela Vega told reporters in a Malacañang press briefing.
On Wednesday, Duterte said that he is ready to discuss any issues with Obama when they meet in Laos next week, adding however that Obama must listen to him first before bringing up the question of human rights. With John Paolo Bencito
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