PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte's trip Laos for the ASEAN summit gave him the opportunity to unveil his foreign policy as he takes his inaugural trip outside the Philippines.
In what turned out to be his initial influential trip where aside from the overwhelming greetings and support of the Overseas Filipino Workers, this trip saw even his counter parts wanting to have a selfie with what U.S. President Barrack Obama described as a colorful man, or a popularity resembling that of former Senator Robert Kennedy simply having Rock Star status.
He began his regional tour with a visit to Brunei Darussalam on the 4th of September before heading to Laos for the summit from September 5 to 7, before proceeding He to Indonesia for a two-day visit as part of the traditional ASEAN visits for leaders.
Duterte is rapidly becoming the country’s most popular president in recent years. But will his popularity guarantee success at the international forefront despite what political analyst's description of his foreign policy as highly divisive?
Whether or not he may be famous or infamous, President Duterte have achieved what other foreign leaders only dream of being that popular, or the most talked about leader in ASEAN and around the globe.
Proof of which is the eagerness of several leaders from neighboring countries to meet with this new generation rock star.
But be it as it may, President Duterte's concern for the OFW in this part of ASEAN is proof of his nationalism. His personal meeting with Brunei Sultan Hassanai Bolkiah saw him thanking the Sultan for taking care of the Filipino migrant workers.
In his arrival at Vientiane, President Duterte addressed many issues aside from taking the ASEAN chairmanship to the Philippines which will host the leaders’ summit and related meetings next year giving his administration the opportunity to engage on subregional and regional fronts.
It will be interesting to see whether there is any movement on other specific items like the Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area Initiative (BIMP-EAGA), a subregional initiative founded in 1994 in Duterte’s hometown of Davao City.
The Growth Area, consisting of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines benefits agri-industry, fisheries, tourism, transportation, and shipping, as well as energy.
Security issues was also high on the agenda; though perhaps not the developments in the South China Sea. “Part of [the discussions] is the security agreements which have been raised in the Indonesia, Malaysia and Philippines [tripartite talks]—addressing terrorism, and addressing economic possibilities which were some of the talking points.
However, the shadow of his country’s territorial dispute with China looms large over the talks. In recent remarks, Duterte said he prefers to discuss the territorial dispute directly with China rather than bring up the matter during the summit.
The recent developments saw a discussion of a possible China trip. The President is also eyeing “working visits” to other ASEAN countries. This aside from the confirmation of his first trip outside the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Lima, Peru with a possible side trip to San Francisco, California in the United States to meet with the Filipino community there.
Being the most popular Philippine President of all time, Duterte will serve at one of the most challenging periods in his country’s history.
The task ahead for the new president is to now turn interest in his administration into support for his country’s national interest.
Not only must he seek cooperation for regional security initiatives, such as joint South China Sea patrols with Indonesia and Malaysia, but kickstart economic initiatives that will help him deliver on his promises at home.
The countries "man of the people" in his upcoming tour will offer the first insights into the approach of Duterte, being the international diplomat. He will need to manage a careful balance between the two, else his popular support could be lost to unpopular decisions on the world stage.
The world, and its leaders are watching this new rock star.