Government News Analysis

Another piece of the jigsaw

Not one for letting the grass grow under his feet, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, transited from Lima, Peru where he attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum and met with Russian Federation President, Vladimir Putin – Summit within a summit – landing in Auckland, New Zealand where he was to hold informal talks with Murray McCully, New Zealand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade. No fuss, no fanfare; other than the Philippine flag being raised by the side of the New Zealand flag at the Langham Hotel where the president is staying, it was low key.

This meeting, likely arranged at the Apec gathering, which was also attended by New Zealand Prime Minister, John Key, marks Duterte’s 10th foreign trip in his 144-day-old presidency – that’s one overseas trip every fortnight which we believe makes Duterte the most travelled Philippine president during the first four months of office ever.

In fact, though, his trip average is even more impressive. Those 10 international visits were made in the course of just 79 days – from his first trip, Laos, on 5 September to his arrival in New Zealand on 22 November. That’s one overseas journey every seven and a half days.

But this isn’t about racking up air mile; this is about garnering as much foreign support as he can, early in his presidency, to bolster the Philippines image as a significant player on the world stage. And he’s certainly achieving that. For although much of the coverage his trips get from the foreign media is not flattering, the world has woken up to the fact that the Philippines is not just some muddled backwater ‘somewhere in the East … somewhere where they grow bananas’ – but a country with considerable political clout in a region with huge importance to global trade and the balance of power.

Duterte has cemented relations between his administration and those of other member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations(Asean) – none of which have criticised his policies; domestic or foreign. He’s ensured his country’s partnership with Japan remains strong going forward, having exchanged assurances with Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, and he’s restored friendly relations with China after four years of bitter disputes, gained the respect of the leadership in Beijing, and greatly expanding trade and investment ties with the Mainland. And all that in just over 11 weeks.

Although Auckland was just a brief stopover on his homeward flight to Manila, it was an auspicious one. This year marks 50 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries. And two areas of common interest – trade and law enforcement – would likely have been among topics which Duterte and McCully discussed.

In the area of law enforcement, there is already good cooperation between the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the New Zealand Police (NZP) with the NZP playing a role in combating the methamphetamine menace that has crippled whole sections of Filipino communities across the archipelago. NZP also provides police training for PNP officers. As Duterte’s war on drugs has intensified, however, it’s likely that he will be looking for additional support from the Kiwis.

Last year, two-way Filipino-Kiwi trade in goods and services topped US$1.3 billion – largely made up of: PH exports to NZ, horticultural products, predominantly fruit such as mangoes, pineapples and bananas along with electrical appliances and electronic goods; NZ exports to PH, dairy products, meat, confectionaries, wine and forestry products. And although bilateral trade has enjoyed a steady growth, both Wellington and Manila are pushing to boost their commercial ties further. One sector which both countries are keen to expand is tourism.

But yesterday’s news from the US will spur the Kiwis further to make trade deals. The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), the US-led trade grouping which threads a path right through East and Southeast Asia and to which New Zealand is a signatory, has been killed by US President-elect, Donald Trump. He has said he’ll tear up the deal on 20 January, his first day at his desk in the White House. New Zealand PM, Key, had gone to Peru expressly to lend his support to the TPP project.

This now opens the way for the China-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, an Asia-wide free-trade agreement between the 10 Asean states, plus Australia. China, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand. The global element will be picked up by China’s massive One Belt, One Road project – Oceans of potential. In the light of all this, critics of Duterte’s China deal might want to rethink their opposition to it.

Meanwhile, prior to the Apec trip there had already been speculation that Duterte would break his journey from Manila to Lima in New Zealand. Peter Tiu Lavina, Philippine Deputy Cabinet Secretary posted on his Facebook page that the NZ stopover would provide an opportunity “to extend our vigourous efforts to build friendship among nations down to the South Pacific region”. And the meeting with McCully will have helped those efforts.

The mainstream media – predictably – put there own spin on why Duterte would go to Peru via New Zealand rather than flying there via the US. In their opinion, the Philippine president wanted to avoid America because he didn’t want to set foot on American soil following his differences with US President Barack Obama. Trust them.

But although there was probably no one he needed to see in the US right now – though a meeting with Trump will need to be scheduled – the real reason he took the southerly route was to cut down the time he would have to spend in the air. Duterte is not a fan of long-haul flights. The fastest travel-time route is Manila-Auckland-Lima, 24 hour; via Los Angeles or Miami, it’s 27 hours; via New York, 34 hours.

So for Duterte, another week, another country; and for the Philippines another step along the way to becoming a full fledged independent state – rather in name only – playing its part in determining the shape of the word and its role in it.

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