MANILA, Philippines – Rodrigo Duterte went “out on a limb” to secure a key invitation for Justin Trudeau to attend a prestigious Asia-Pacific security event alongside powerful world leaders, government officials say.
But one senior insider insists the Philippine president’s helpful gesture won’t have any impact on whether Trudeau confronts him about human-rights violations in the southeast Asian country that have shocked people around the world.
Trudeau has hinted he might bring up the issue of human rights with Duterte, if he gets the opportunity.
The leaders have no one-on-one meetings planned while the prime minister is visiting the Philippines for summits related to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Thanks to Duterte’s effort, Trudeau will have a coveted opportunity Tuesday to participate in a working lunch in Manila ahead of an ASEAN-affiliated meeting known as the East Asia Summit. Trudeau will join leaders from 18 countries, including China, Russia and the United States, to discuss security issues.
It remains to be seen if Trudeau will challenge Duterte face to face over his violent drug war. Duterte’s bloody crackdown has included extrajudicial killings by his government that have left thousands dead.
“There are a range of issues that I could bring up with him, that I may bring up with him, if we have an opportunity,” Trudeau said Saturday in Danang, Vietnam. “There’s always human rights concerns to bring up with a wide range of leaders.”
Trudeau’s ticket to Tuesday’s luncheon is a breakthrough because no other Canadian prime minister has ever been invited. He’s expected to discuss North Korea and the violent attacks on Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
Eventually, Canada hopes to become a permanent member of the East Asia Summit.
Trudeau will also be the first Canadian leader to participate in a one-hour exchange at the ASEAN summit, during which members will ask him questions and debate the depth of Canada’s co-operation in the region.
The opportunity arrives at a time when Trudeau is making efforts to raise Canada’s international profile and demonstrate it can wrestle with complicated challenges, at home and abroad.
Without the invitation from Duterte, who is the summit’s chair, Trudeau wouldn’t have made it through the door.
“It is the prerogative of the chair each year of ASEAN to invite guests,” said one senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t permitted to discuss the matter in public.
“Traditionally, there have been very few of those, so in a way the Philippines have gone out on a limb, let’s say.”
Looking to the future, the official said Canada hasn’t received any signals that the East Asia Summit is accepting new members.
But it’s still viewed as an excellent opportunity for Trudeau to deliver a sales pitch on why Canada would make a good member and how it can contribute as a Pacific nation itself.
Carlo Dade of the Canada West Foundation said joining the group would mean a long-term commitment.
“It also has the Canadian PM sitting around a table where he or she will be called upon by Canadian human rights groups to yell and point fingers with a group that doesn’t want to discuss human rights issues and certainly doesn’t want to be lectured by Canada,” Dade said in an email.
He said sitting with Duerte could mean political headaches, especially for a prime minister who has tried to stress human rights.
“This makes a mockery of (the Liberal government’s) whole ‘progressive’ agenda,” he added.
Dade said he thinks Canada should join the group, “but only if doing so does not do more harm than good.”
Under Liberal and Conservative governments, Ottawa has taken steps in recent years to engage more actively with ASEAN.
The East Asia Summit brings together 10 ASEAN members plus eight additional countries: China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, India, Russia and the U.S.
On Monday, Trudeau held a bilateral discussion, which included talk of regional security issues, with recently elected New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on the sidelines of the ASEAN meetings.
Before the meeting began, Trudeau said he hoped they could dig deeper about their shared values such as progressive trade, climate change, Indigenous issues and the development of international feminist policy.
Her liberal Labour Party formed a government following New Zealand’s September election and she was sworn in late last month.
Ardern, a young leader herself who’s been compared to Trudeau, said they’ve discovered they have a lot in common – not just in terms of their countries’ interests and challenges, but on a personal level as well.
She also said, “I’m going to put you in the awkward position of inviting you to New Zealand in front of the media, so it’s on public record that I’ve done that.”
A grinning Trudeau nodded in acknowledgment of her invitation.