President Rodrigo Duterte on Saturday stressed the importance of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (Asean) time-honored tradition of noninterference in each other’s internal affairs to foster fruitful relations, calling on the regional bloc to value the supremacy of law and the peaceful resolution of disputes.
He also urged the country’s neighbors to be more forthright in pushing for the region’s interests on the international stage, as the Asean held its 30th summit and marked its 50th year.
Mr. Duterte, who has often bristled at comments and concerns from international groups and other countries about his bloody drug war, asked his regional neighbors to work together to fight the narcotics scourge and bring about a drug-free Asean.
But in an oblique swipe at Western governments which have lashed out at his tough anticrime policy, Mr. Duterte asked them not to meddle in the affairs of countries in the region even as his speech was couched in a formal, diplomatic tone.
He said ties could become stronger and more productive “if we learn to respect each other’s independence and treat each other as sovereign equals,” Mr. Duterte said. “Relations bear fruit when they are based on mutual respect and benefit.”
Mr. Duterte also cited the need for the 10-nation bloc to address security issues, including terrorism and piracy, but made no mention of touchy South China Sea territorial rifts, which China did not want to be highlighted in the daylong talks.
The long-simmering disputes, along with alarm over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and intensifying standoff with the United States, have taken attention away from the more benign topics of regional economic integration.
The summit is the first major international event Mr. Duterte has hosted since taking office 10 months ago.
Mr. Duterte again went back to his favorite topic, and warned that the drug problem threatens the gains of community-building and destroys lives, especially of the youth, he said.
“The illegal drug trade apparatus is massive. But it is not impregnable. With political will and cooperation, it can be dismantled, it can be destroyed before it destroys our societies,” he said.
In opening the summit, Mr. Duterte noted that the regional bloc was founded on the concepts of unity, solidarity and cooperation.
“The cornerstones form part of time-honored principles of international law: Mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, and national identity of all nations and noninterference in the internal affairs of one another,” he added.
Asean’s relationship with its dialogue partners, which includes the United States and the European Union, could be stronger if they respected each other’s independence and treated each other as equals, he said.
“Our engagement with dialogue partners allowed us to set the table for meaningful discussions on maintaining peace and stability, the pursuit of development goals, the peaceful resolution of disputes, and the promotion of our peoples’ welfare,” he said.
“Let me say again, relations bear fruit when they are based on mutual respect and benefit. Dialogue relations can be made more productive and constructive if the valued principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of Asean member-states is observed,” he added.
Law should reign supreme
Mr. Duterte also said the law must reign supreme in the region and disputes must be resolved peacefully. He did not directly mention conflicting claims of China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan over the South China Sea.
“Relations also remain solid if all stakeholders learn to respect and value the peaceful resolution of disputes. In an era where there can be much uncertainty, we must faithfully adhere to the supremacy of the law and rely on the primacy of rules as responsible members of the international community,” he said.
He made the call even after earlier nixing a proposal to bring up during the summit the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration that had invalidated Beijing’s claim to nearly the whole of the South China Sea. The ruling, he had said, was a nonissue in the Asean and was just between China and the Philippines.
He said yesterday that both traditional and nontraditional security issues hinder efforts to promote peace, stability,security and prosperity in our the region.
He also sought continued vigilance to address security threats, including piracy, armed robbery, terrorism and violent extremism.
“Eternal vigilance is the price that we must pay to keep our citizens safe. We can only achieve this through advancing cooperation at the bilateral, regional and multilateral levels,” he said.
The Philippines’ priorities as it chairs the Asean this year include promoting the bloc as a model for regionalism and as a global player.
It must be more forceful in pushing for its interests, Mr. Duterte said.
“History will judge us on how we are able to help our people and our region become even better and stronger based on the values and heritage we hold dear. In this milestone year, the time is ripe—and indeed it is right—to make our decisions count. It is time for Asean to finally assert, with conviction, its position in the international arena,” he said.
Under the Philippine chairmanship, the Asean will continue to work toward becoming a “proactive, relevant and transformative” bloc, he said.
The other priorities of the group this year are building a people-oriented and people-centered Asean, maintaining a peaceful and stable region, cooperating in maritime security, advancing inclusive and innovative-led growth, and promoting the region’s resiliency.
Mr. Duterte said citizens of Asean members have the same aspirations, which is that their rights and welfare as a people are protected and promoted. They also want a stable source of livelihood, shelter, quality education, affordable healthcare, a peaceful and stable government and a dynamic economy.
The Asean must do all it can to provide these for them, he said.
Mr. Duterte kicked off the opening of the Asean summit after welcoming the bloc’s leaders and spouses at the Philippine International Convention Center.
Among the guests at the event were former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, former first lady and Ilocos Norte Rep. Imelda Marcos, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, United States Ambassador Sung Kim and Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua.
Following a cultural presentation, Mr. Duterte posed for the traditional family photo with the Asean leaders. —