Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte skipped three major events at the annual Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit on Wednesday and has announced he will not attend the summit’s traditional gala dinner, prompting concerns at home about his health and his willingness to confront China in the South China Sea abroad.
China began a campaign to colonize the South China Sea in 2013, building artificial islands out of reefs in the international waters around the Spratly and Paracel Islands. The Philippines and Vietnam claim parts of both island chains. Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, and Indonesia claim the rest of the territory Chinese officials insist have been sovereign Chinese land “since ancient times.”
Philippine news outlets noted late Wednesday local time that Duterte had failed to appear at “ASEAN summits with Australia and South Korea, a working lunch with ASEAN host and Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Summit,” according to ABS-CBN. Duterte reportedly sent Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. to attend the meetings on the Philippines’ behalf.
Duterte did attend a meeting of his officials and those of China, according to Rappler, and similar meetings with representatives from Japan and Russia, as well as a discussion with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, currently hosting the summit.
Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo told reporters Duterte skipped the meetings with senior officials of neighboring countries to take “power naps.”
“Last night, the President worked late and had only less than three hours of sleep,” Panelo said, insisting that the absences have “nothing to do with his physical health and well-being which have been the subject of speculation.” Instead, Duterte needed to sleep as a result of the “punishing work schedule” at the summit.
Panelo added that the government “finds it amusing that some quarters are making a big fuss of the president’s skipping a few meetings in today’s ASEAN Related Summits.” He went on to add that Duterte would skip this year’s gala. Last year, when the Philippines hosted the summit, Duterte used his hosting privileges to serenade American President Donald Trump with a Philippine love song that he joked Trump “ordered” him to sing. Trump is absent at this year’s summit, sending Vice President Mike Pence instead.
This year’s summit should be of particular concern to the Philippine president, however, given China’s efforts to establish a “code of conduct” in the South China Sea that would allow China to control most of the international waters in the sea. China’s constructions and behavior in the region violate international law, as confirmed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague in 2016. China responded to the ruling by declaring that it would ignore it entirely and continue illegally building military and surveillance facilities on Philippine and Vietnamese territory.
While the government of predecessor Benigno Aquino actively confronted China on the matter, filing the lawsuit that led to the Hague ruling, Duterte has refused to take a hardline stance against China, lamenting that the Philippine military is too small and that any challenge to China’s violation of international law would “result in a massacre” for the Philippines. Duterte’s stance has proven widely unpopular with the Philippine people, who, polls show, overwhelmingly favor challenging China on territorial claims.
The proposed ASEAN “Code of Conduct” (COC) is meant to replace international law in those waters with a contract all agreed upon by all claimants. Duterte praised the Chinese government in remarks at the summit Wednesday for helping draft the code.
“ASEAN and China have seen steady progress in the initial phase of the COC negotiations since the announcement of a Single Draft COC Negotiating Text, and looked forward to the completion of the first reading of the Single Draft COC Negotiating Text by 2019,” Duterte asserted. “In the meantime, ASEAN and China continue to reaffirm the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation and overflight.”
Duterte expressed more concern about the United States, a longtime ally that has repeatedly challenged China in the region, than Beijing.
“I am worried, I expressed it last night, because we have a Mutual Defense Treaty with the US and there’s some serious miscalculation because of the treaty,” he told reporters. “I’d like to tell China that is why at all cost we must have a COC so you’re there, you’re in position, you occupied it. Tell us what routes shall we take, what kind of behavior.”
U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, in Singapore for the summit, told reporters on Tuesday that Washington would firmly oppose any COC that blocks the right of passage through international waters in the South China Sea.