When it comes to understanding the foreign policy priorities of any given world leader it helps to examine the trade and security deals such a leader makes. But it is also critical to analyse which nations a leader chooses to visit and with what amount of frequency. While Duterte has stated that he does not particularly enjoy travelling, especially over long distances, as part of his drive to turn the attention of major prospective economic and security partners towards The Philippines, Duterte became the most travelled Philippine leader during the first year of a presidential term.
US President Donald Trump’s first foreign visits as his nation’s leader were to America’s closest Middle East allies Saudi Arabia and Israel while after his re-election earlier this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to travel to Austria to engage in discussions with its new multipolar minded government before heading to Russia’s most important partner China. This helps give a clear indication of both the symbolism and real world importance of the countries a leader decides to visit.
President Duterte has travelled to every single state in ASEAN at least once while he has visited Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia twice. Duterte’s first visit to a non-ASEAN state was to China. It was at this meeting that President Xi Jinping proclaimed “a golden period” in Sino-Philippine relations. President Duterte has also visited Japan two times while in total he has visited China three times. Duterte has also visited South Korea where he secured further investment into Cebu’s port while Duterte also made an historic visit to Russia which helped secure the provision of free weapons to The Philippines.
As Duterte currently wraps up his historic Middle East trip to Israel and Jordan, Duterte has previously also visited Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain – all home to a sizeable number of OFW (overseas Filipino workers), while Duterte also travelled to India with fellow ASEAN leaders.
Duterte’s itinerary contrasts sharply with his predecessor Noynoy Aquino. While Aquino’s first foreign visit as President was to the United States, Duterte has vowed not to travel to the US calling the country “lousy” in spite of considering Donald Trump a friend. Likewise, Duterte turned down invitations to travel to Europe while his predecessor made four European trips. President Duterte also turned down an invitation to attend the ASEAN-Australian summit in spite of being personally invited by the Australian Prime Minister.
But while travelling to fellow ASEAN nations is a given for most leaders of The Philippines, it is noteworthy that after just over two years in office, President Duterte has travelled to China more times than his predecessor did in six and yet he has not travelled to a single nation that is considered to be politically “western”. Indeed, while Israel has many western cultural characteristics, one of the reasons that Israel is the most westernised of nations that Duterte has visited is precisely because its weapons selling policies are decidedly different than those of the US, EU and Canada.
In this sense it is clear that Duterte prioritises relations with fellow Asian states as well as Middle Eastern countries who happen to be close US partners but nevertheless take a different attitude to geopolitics than the leadership in Washington, Ottawa, Paris, and Canberra. While Duterte is perfectly happy for western leaders to come to him, when it comes to reaching out to new partners, Asia and the Middle East form the core of nations that Duterte seeks to cooperate with whether on trade, investment, security issues or matters of OFW safety.