Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is slated for a number of meetings with fellow heads of state next week, but none appear to appeal more to the newly minted president than his one-on-one with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Putin, he says, is a kindred spirit, “perhaps when it comes to girls.”
Duterte is also meeting with President Barack Obama, a meeting about which he appears significantly more lukewarm.
Asked about meeting Putin at a summit bringing together the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) heads of state with international leaders, Duterte appears much more enthused than his meetings with other leaders. “That I look forward to,” he said. “I like Putin. … We have similarities,” he added, specifying, “When it comes to girls” when asked what kind of similarities he meant.
Duterte and Putin are expected to discuss bilateral relations, though the specific items on the docket remain unclear. The same is true of his meeting with President Obama, though two topics are casting looming shadows over U.S.-Philippine relations: the South China Sea territorial dispute and Duterte’s ongoing war on drugs.
“He [Obama] can raise any topic at all. I am ready to talk to him,” Duterte told reporters before catching a flight. He noted that he did not personally expect to bring up the South China Sea dispute because, he said, “I’m talking to China and China wants to talk to me bilateral.”
“It’s good and if it’s to the advice of my team, the military, the police and these guys, then good work,” he added.
China is claiming most of the South China Sea, including parts of the sovereign territories of Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Manila took Beijing to international court last year and won the case in July, with The Hague ruling that China must allow other nations to freely travel through its own territory. China has insisted on ignoring the ruling entirely, blaming Japan and the United States for “rigging” the tribunal. Under Duterte, the Philippines has agreed to bilateral talks with China “for now.” He has revealed that China is willing to partially buy off Manila by investing in drug rehabilitation facilities, a major pillar in Duterte’s war on drugs.
The White House, meanwhile, has expressed an interest in bringing up the South China Sea dispute with Duterte, as the U.S. is treaty-bound to help defend the Philippines in the event of a Chinese invasion.
Duterte also expects President Obama to bring up the war on drugs next week, and has insisted that he must be allowed to discuss the problem before being chastised for human rights violations. “They must understand the problem first before we talk about human rights. I would insist, ‘Listen to me. This is what the problem is.’ Then we can talk. No problem,” Duterte said.
An estimated 1.3 million Filipinos are addicted to drugs, with 600,000 surrendering to police and entering rehabilitation facilities since Duterte took office. Seventy-eight percent of those in rehabilitation facilities are addicted to “shabu,” or methamphetamine, according to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA).
Multiple American spokespersons have expressed concern that the war on drugs, which has taken an estimated 1,800 lives since July 1, will deteriorate respect for human rights in the nation. “We are concerned by these detentions, as well as the extrajudicial killings of individuals suspected to be involved in drug activity in the Philippines,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau has said.
Duterte’s relationship with the United States has been sensitive since he issued a tirade of insults against U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg, who condemned a joke Duterte made about a gang rape victim. Discussing Secretary of State John Kerry, Duterte said Kerry was “okay,” adding, “But I had an argument with their ambassador, that bakla [homosexual]. Son of a bitch, he really annoys me.” Duterte also called Goldberg a “pest.”
Duterte has also threatened to “whack” any “stupid” UN Human Rights Committee observers “in the head” if they attempt to observe the drug war, and threatened to walk out of the UN altogether, though a presidential spokesman dismissed this comment as the product of Duterte’s being “hungry” at the time.