Duterte’s First Year in Foreign Trips: What His Travels Abroad Reveal
by Rebecca Matias
Walking 10,000 miles, according to an old Chinese proverb, is better than reading 10,000 scrolls. So perhaps, in the same vein, an individual’s travels can help us learn lessons about him, especially if that person happens to be current Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
From stirring world opinion during his debut on the international stage at Laos after his provocative remarks against then-President Barack Obama in September of last year, to cutting short his official visit to Russia in response to the terrorist siege of Marawi City back in May, Duterte has had a hectic and eventful calendar of foreign trips during his first year as President.
By The Inquirer’s count, Duterte has taken 21 international trips, visited 17 countries, and racked up a total of more than 77,542 travel miles since taking office. In the same period, he made seven state visits, participated in four summits, and shook hands with 20 foreign leaders abroad.
This puts Duterte well ahead of any Philippine president in terms of the number of foreign trips taken during the first year after inauguration. By comparison, President Corazon Aquino made four trips; Presidents Fidel Ramos and Joseph Estrada each recorded eight; President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo tallied 11; and President Benigno Aquino III also had eight.
That’s despite Duterte’s persistent complaints against traveling, claiming that it tends to tire him out. Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez labeled the septuagenarian Duterte as “a reluctant globe-trotter” who simply has to put up with the inconveniences that come with foreign travel as part of the job.
Naturally, the pace of Duterte’s international travels has led some to question the costs and necessity of the President’s frequent trips abroad. A cost breakdown released by the Malacañang in February shows that Duterte’s foreign trips in 2016 set Philippine taxpayers back by around Php 277 million (about $5.42 million at current exchange rates). A media report in June provides a more up-to-date set of figures and places Duterte’s travel expenses at Php 386.2 million (about $7.56 million at current exchange rates). This is three times that of past Presidents’ first-year travel spending, thanks mainly to a large delegation of businessmen and officials that typically accompany Duterte.
While administration officials do agree that Duterte’s presidential travel costs exceed those of his predecessors’, they also outline some reasons why this is the case. President Duterte himself justifies the frequency of his foreign trips, stating that he needed to visit the country’s neighbors in preparation for the ASEAN summit which the Philippines is hosting this year. Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar meanwhile cites stronger diplomatic ties and billions of dollars in pledges and agreements as the “ROI” of Duterte’s foreign visits. Duterte’s trips to China, for instance, have netted $24 billion worth of economic deals for the country, official figures report.
Speaking of deals and agreements, another thing that stands out from Duterte’s one year of foreign visits is his ability to cultivate relationships with foreign leaders, especially among Asian heads of state. In his 12 months of feverish diplomacy, he has built rapport with the Philippines’ neighbors and earned the admiration of several world leaders, such as Japan’s Shinzō Abe, China’s Xi Jinping, and even the United States’ Donald Trump.
But not every foreign trip ran smoothly for the famously brash Philippine president. Duterte had, of course, ruffled some feathers on more than a few occasions while attending international meetings. During the ASEAN Summit in Laos, Duterte veered off his speech and railed against American atrocities in front of world leaders that included President Obama. At the APEC Summit in Peru, Duterte once again drew criticism by skipping the conference’s traditional gala dinner and family photo session, blaming a severe bout of “jetlag” for his absence.
One foreign country, in particular, stands out in his first year of presidential travels, and it happens to be the only nation that’s conspicuously missing from his itinerary: the United States. Duterte has vowed never to set foot on U.S. soil while in office or even after his term ends. The Philippine president is so adamant about staying away from the United States that, on his way to Peru, he insisted on flying a longer route that added six hours to his travel time just to avoid making a stopover in Los Angeles.
It’s no secret that Duterte isn’t a fan of the United States. He openly harbors a deep distrust of the U.S., which some sources claim originates from his days as mayor of Davao City. In 2002, men who were believed to be FBI agents spirited a U.S. citizen out of a hospital in Davao right before local police were about to bring him in for questioning on possession of explosives. Duterte, who was city mayor at the time, saw this as a violation of Philippine sovereignty and has been fuming about it ever since.
However, the roots of Duterte’s opinions against the U.S., can be traced back over a century earlier when America began its occupation of the Philippines. Duterte feels particularly enraged at alleged American atrocities committed in His native island of Mindanao, a point which he tends to hammer home in many of his tirades, similar to what he did at the Laos ASEAN gathering.
Whatever the reasons Duterte has for his sentiments, they’re starting to reshape Philippine foreign policy—and the impact can be seen and felt in Duterte’s overseas visits.
It’s quite telling that, aside from purposely avoiding the U.S. and other Western countries, Duterte twice visited China and also went on an official visit to Russia. In his meetings with the Chinese leadership, Duterte mostly downplayed the Philippines’ maritime dispute with China and emphasized stronger ties with Beijing over Washington.
Still, Duterte appears to know he needs to tread lightly on any sudden changes in the Philippines’ relationship with the U.S. When asked to clarify what he means by “separating” from the U.S., Duterte explains that he’s not planning to sever diplomatic ties with Washington, saying “because the Filipinos in the United States will kill me.”
If there’s anything that Duterte’s year of foreign trips can teach us about the Philippine president, it’s that he faces a tough balancing act, like most world leaders today. It’s impressive to see this “reluctant” 72-year-old globe trotter play such an active role in Philippine diplomacy, although it’s also worth noting he could use a little refinement in his style. Duterte still has five more years of international travels ahead of him, giving ample opportunity to get to know the man better.
Trips made in 2016
1. Laos and Indonesia (September 5–9)
- his first international trip as president, Duterte traveled to Vientiane, Laos to attend the 28th and 29th ASEAN Summit and the Eleventh East Asia Summit
- in Laos. Duterte also paid a courtesy call on Laotian President Bounnhang Vorachith at the Presidential Palace
- Following his attendance at the ASEAN and East Asia summits in Vientiane, Duterte traveled to Jakarta, Indonesia for his first state visit as president, arriving on the evening of September 8
- He began his trip on September 9 when he met with the Filipino community in Indonesia and meeting with President Joko Widodo
2. Vietnam (September 28–29)
- Duterte traveled to Hanoi, Vietnam for a two-day official visit that coincides with the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the Philippines and Vietnam
- On September 29, Duterte laid a wreath at the Vietnam War Memorial and met with Vietnamese President Trần Đại Quang at the Presidential Palace
- Duterte also met with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúcand General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Nguyễn Phú Trọng
3. Brunei and China (October 16–21)
- Duterte paid a state visit to Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei on October 16–18 to meet with Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah and the Overseas Filipinos there.
- Duterte initially planned to visit Brunei in September as his first international trip as president, but was prompted to postpone it due to the Davao City bombing
- On October 18–21, Duterte traveled to Beijing, China on a state visit to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to discuss ways on improving ties and cooperation amid regional issues, specifically the territorial disputes in the South China Sea
4. Japan (October 25–27)
- On the evening of October 25, 2016, Duterte arrived at Haneda Airport for a three-day official visit to Tokyo to discuss “economic and defense concerns” with the Japanese government and business executives
- On October 26, Duterte met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence
- On October 27, Duterte visited the headquarters of the Japan Coast Guard in Yokohama, where he viewed the coast guard’s demonstration activities, he also expressed a possibility for joint military exercises with Japan instead of the U.S.
5. Thailand and Malaysia (November 9–10)
- On November 9, Duterte traveled to Bangkok, Thailand to pay his respects to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Grand Palace
- He later traveled to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for a two-day official visit to meet with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to discuss piracy in the Strait of Malacc
6. Peru (November 18–20)
- Duterte attended the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Lima on November 19–20, which was hosted by President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski
7. Cambodia and Singapore (December 13–16)
- Duterte traveled to Phnom Penh, Cambodia on December 13–14 for a two-day state visit to meet with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Senand KingNorodom Sihamoni
- Duterte then traveled to Singapore on the evening of December 14 for a three-day state visit
- On December 15, he met with Singaporean President Tony Tan and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
- On December 16, Lee treated Duterte to a nasi lemak lunch at Ann Siang Hill. Duterte also visited the Singapore Botanic Gardens, where a dendrobiumorchid was named after him
Trips made in 2017
1. Myanmar and Thailand (March 19–22)
- Duterte traveled to Naypyidaw, Myanmar to embark on an official visit to the country
- After his visit to Myanmar, he headed to Bangkok, Thailand to embark on an official visit to the country. In the afternoon of March 21, he was welcomed by Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha
2. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar (April 10–16)
- Duterte traveled to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for a state visit. His trip to Saudi Arabia is the first stop of his Gulf tour
- After his trip to Saudi Arabia, Duterte traveled to Manama, Bahrain for a state visit to the country. Bahrain is Duterte’s 2nd stop in his Gulf tour
- After his visit to Bahrain, he headed to Doha, Qatar for a state visit to the country. His visit to Qatar is the last leg of his Gulf tour
3. Cambodia and China (May 10–16)
- Duterte traveled to Phnom Penh, Cambodia for the second time, this time to attend the World Economic Forum as the chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations
- After his trip to Cambodia, Duterte flew to Hong Kong to embark on a working visit to the special administrative region
- After his trip to Hong Kong, President Duterte flew to Beijing, China to attend the One Belt One Road forum of Chinese President Xi Jinping
4. Russia (May 22–24)
- Duterte’s official visit to Russia, which was initially set for May 22–26, was shortened due to the clashes between government forces and the Maute group in Marawi. Duterte