From December 13-14, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte continued his regional tour of Southeast Asian states ahead of his country’s ASEAN chairmanship next year with a trip to Cambodia before moving on to Singapore.
As I noted previously, since coming to office in June, Duterte has visited six of the nine other ASEAN states – Laos, where he was for the ASEAN Summit, along with Indonesia, Brunei, Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia. (See: “Philippines’ Duterte Continues ASEAN Tour With Singapore, Cambodia Visits”). This comes just as the Philippines is about to officially begin its ASEAN chairmanship in 2017, an annually rotating position that now lies with Laos.
Duterte’s engagements included a summit meeting with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, engagements with the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce President Kith Meng and Philippine and Cambodia businessmen and executives, a meeting with Filipinos in Cambodia, and a royal banquet with King Norodom Sihamoni at the Royal Palace.
Reflecting on the visit in general, Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay highlighted the fact that the Cambodian side had rolled out the red carpet for Duterte, upgrading the visit from a working visit to a state visit, with Sihamoni taking the time to meet him even though it was a Buddhist holiday. Yasay added candidly that he was “amazed” that Duterte had “measured up” to the meeting with the King in spite of traditional reservations about his behavior in formal diplomatic engagements.
Substantively, four agreements were signed: a memorandum of understanding on transnational crime involving the police forces; two memoranda of agreement on labor and sports cooperation; and a implementation program of tourism cooperation out to 2020 that would include establishing more direct flights between the two countries and exchange programs for students (currently, tourism arrivals to the Philippines from Cambodia are quite low).
“These agreements are important to deepen bilateral cooperation between the two countries,” Eang Sophalleth, a spokesman for the prime minister, told reporters after the meeting.
Apart from the agreements themselves, Duterte also used the visit as a way to help spur Cambodian investment into the Philippines. Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez said at a press conference that Cambodian businessmen had expressed interest in some areas, such as finance and tourism.
Hun Sen also congratulated Duterte on the Philippines’ assumption of the ASEAN chairmanship for 2017, the same year that the two countries will commemorate the 60th anniversary of their bilateral relationship. Duterte emphasized that both countries had a “common stake” in keeping ASEAN “strong, relevant, and responsive,” especially when forces were shaping the regional architecture in the Asia-Pacific. This is despite Cambodia’s role in dividing ASEAN on the South China Sea issue, and concerns about how Duterte’s rebalancing of ties between China and the United States may affect unity in the regional grouping next year (See: “The Limits of Duterte’s China-US Rebalance”).