TIME Laos

Obama-Duterte Dispute Risks Overshadowing Southeast Asian Summit

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has become the unlikely star of the event

VIENTIANE, Laos — A summit of Southeast Asian leaders to discuss issues ranging from terrorism to South China Sea tensions opened Tuesday, overshadowed by the Philippine president’s intemperate comments in his debut appearance at the annual meeting. The insult was made more egregious because of who the target was — President Barack Obama.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte occupied center stage on the eve of the summit Monday when he made comments about Obama that included a “son of a bitch” remark.

He was again in the spotlight Tuesday when he trooped into a conference hall in the Laotian capital of Vientiane wearing a traditional Filipino shirt with sleeves rolled up, and hands in pant pockets. The other male Southeast Asian leaders were dressed in dark business suits. Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi wore a mauve traditional dress.

Filipinos wear the “barong” shirt on formal occasions too, but with sleeves buttoned down at the wrists. Rolled-up sleeves are considered too casual for any formal setting, let alone a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN. Duterte rolled his sleeves down and buttoned them when Laotian President Bounnhang Vorachith gave a speech to open the summit.

“Multifaceted security challenges have occurred in many parts of the world, such as terrorism and extremism, natural disasters, climate change, migration crisis, trafficking in people, territorial disputes and armed conflicts,” Bounnhang said. “At the same time, although the global economy has gradually recovered, growth remains slow and fragile.”

“There is a need for us to closely follow these developments and continue to enhance ASEAN cooperation and collaboration with the international community,” he said.

The 10-nation ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The summit will be followed by a series of other meetings on Wednesday and a summit Thursday between leaders from ASEAN and other countries, including the United States, China, Russia, India, South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

Obama arrived in Vientiane on Monday night and will attend Thursday’s summit. Duterte also arrived Monday night.

But hours before his arrival, Duterte dropped a diplomatic bombshell by saying he doesn’t want Obama to ask him questions about extrajudicial killings that have occurred amid an ongoing crackdown on drug dealers in the Philippines. More than 2,000 people have been killed in the crackdown since he took office on June 30.

In his typical loose-tongued style, Duterte said: “I do not have any master except the Filipino people, nobody but nobody. You must be respectful. Do not just throw questions. Putang ina, I will swear at you in that forum,” he said, using the Tagalog phrase for “son of a bitch.”

Obama later canceled a bilateral meeting he was scheduled to have with Duterte in Vientiane. On Tuesday, Duterte expressed regret over the remarks, but the damage was already done.

Duterte is also planning to ask China’s premier at the Vientiane meetings whether China is trying to develop a disputed reef, Scarborough Shoal, off the Philippines’ northwestern coast, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said.

The shoal is part of the larger dispute in the South China Sea between China and some ASEAN countries. An international arbitration panel recently ruled that China’s expansive claims in the sea are illegal. Beijing has rejected the ruling as a sham.

Although ASEAN has the power of the ruling behind it, its summit is unlikely to mention it in its final declaration, a reflection of Beijing’s diplomatic clout.

But according to a draft of the final statement ASEAN is scheduled to release on Thursday, the region’s leaders will express strong concern about Beijing’s construction of man-made islands in the South China Sea, which Southeast Asian countries fear could destabilize the region.

Duterte said last week that the Philippine coast guard has sighted Chinese barges at Scarborough, which he said could presage the transformation of the Chinese-held reef into another man-made island. One of the Chinese vessels had what appeared to be a crane, according to a Philippine official who did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to discuss classified intelligence.

China sparked widespread alarm when it converted seven reefs in the Spratly Islands into islands that the United States says could be transformed into military bases to reinforce Beijing’s territorial claims and intimidate rival claimant countries.

Duterte has taken a more conciliatory stance toward China than his predecessor. But a confirmation of Chinese reclamation activities at Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground where Filipino fishermen have been forced away by Beijing’s coast guard, could impede relations.

U.S. officials have also expressed deep concern over the possibility of China developing Scarborough into an island or starting to erect concrete structures there, which could reinforce Beijing’s control over a swath of the South China Sea.

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