Despite smiles and selfies, Canada’s prime minister irks Asian leaders
MANILA — A din of giggles, whispers and squeals greeted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as he strode into the hall where most journalists were confined during the recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations summits.
With media garrisoned about 2km from the Philippine International Convention Center where the main summit action was taking place, the photogenic 45-year-old Trudeau’s entrance around noon on Tuesday was a rare chance for the reporters to hear from one of the summit leaders in the flesh.
Around an hour later, after fielding questions mostly from Canadian news people, and delivering answers in English and French, Canada’s official languages, Trudeau made his way from the podium to the exit.
Mobbed by a mix of officials and journalists, some yelling, “Justin, Justin,” as they jostled to intercept the prime minister as he left the hall, anyone listening outside might have thought the Justin in question was Bieber, and that the audience a crowd of star-struck teenagers rather than hard-bitten reporters.
Trudeau’s news conference ran almost simultaneously with the East Asia Summit, a 18-country meeting usually held near the end of the annual ASEAN gathering and a parley that Canada wants to join.
However Trudeau’s pop-star persona was only a temporary distraction from the East Asia Summit, which in turn was overshadowed by U.S. President Donald Trump’s last-minute decision to skip that event. Trump’s cancellation was put down to a delayed meeting schedule, which put the summit on the same day as his planned departure for Hawaii.
Trump’s presence — even in his absence — overshadowed the regional summits in Vietnam and the Philippines, with much of the media attention focused on what was Trump’s first trip to Asia since his shock election win over Hillary Clinton a year ago, and the longest trip to Asia by a U.S. president in a quarter century.
Before arriving in Vietnam and the Philippines, Trump was feted in Japan, China and South Korea. He made sure to laud his hosts in return — skipping any mention of democratization in one-party states China and Vietnam. Trump drew criticism from some for his apparent eagerness to cozy up to strongmen such as Cambodia’s Hun Sen and his final host, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who, like Trump, is a volatile and brash grandfather in his 70s.
Trudeau, however, did better with his man-on-the-street photo-ops and selfie-sessions, pressing the flesh at restaurants in Manila and Danang, before rhetorically pressing Duterte over alleged human rights abuses in the Philippines.
That intervention earned him praise from human rights groups, in contrast to Trump, who, the Philippine government said, did not question Duterte over the drug war during their one-on-one meeting.
An accomplished public speaker, Trudeau usually appears well-briefed. What he lacks is the spark of Trump’s often-caustic unpredictability and talent for a headline-grabbing put-down or sneer.
Almost three decades younger than his American counterpart, Trudeau espouses views contrary to Trump’s on most political and economic issues — stances that in many cases echo Trump’s defeated Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
And while Trump has been excoriated for sexist remarks about women, including Clinton, Trudeau, as his reception at the news conference in Manila showed, plays the heartthrob well, rarely straying from socially liberal sound bites.
“Canada is committed to free and fair trade that creates good, middle-class jobs and better serves all of our citizens. We will continue to advocate for progressive trade agreements that recognize workers’ rights, the environment and gender equality, while standing up for Canadians and Canadian jobs,” read one of Trudeau’s statements following his visit to Vietnam for the APEC meeting.
But Trudeau’s loud, even Trump-esque, defense of Canadian jobs appeared to cost him points with the other 10 governments involved in the revived Trans Pacific Partnership, previously a wide-ranging U.S.-led trade deal but now effectively under Japanese leadership after Trump pulled the U.S. out.
As reported by the Nikkei Asian Review last week, the revamped TPP was nearly scuttled when Trudeau did not show up for a Nov. 10 leaders meeting in Danang, and when Canada objected to what it viewed as Japan prematurely announcing that an agreement had been reached.
With Trump criticizing multilateral trade deals, including the 23-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, Trudeau’s political instincts no doubt told him to play hardball in Asia — a signal to Trump and to Canadian voters that he will not be bullied when it comes to any NAFTA renegotiation.
But Trudeau’s no-show, though later resolved, came across as highhanded and a snub of the other leaders. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appeared irked with the Canadian prime minister while Australian media accused Trudeau of attempting to sabotage the deal.
And by the evening of Nov. 14, around nine hours after Trudeau had escaped the crush at the ASEAN media hall, another scathing put-down was delivered by the host government.
Trudeau had earlier told members of the media that he raised human rights concerns — particularly alleged extrajudicial killings in Duterte’s war on drugs — during a one-on-one meeting with Duterte.
According to Trudeau’s version of the encounter, the Philippine president did not object when he raised the issue. “The president was receptive to my comments, and it was throughout a very cordial and positive exchange,” Trudeau said. But if Duterte was cordial in person, he was the opposite when asked about the meeting later the same day.
Indeed, the memory of his meeting with Trudeau appeared to unsettle the Philippine president, setting off one of his trademark foul-mouthed diatribes.
In a lengthy riposte that went on to excoriate other critics of his drug crackdown, Duterte criticized not only Trudeau but the United Nations and the European Union, which was warned: “Don’t f— with my country about sovereignty.”
“I said I will not explain. It is a personal and official insult,” Duterte said of his meeting with Trudeau.
In language delivered with a venom that was the antithesis of the collective cuddle Trudeau received earlier in same day, Duterte rounded on his targets, saying, “I only answer to the Filipino [people]. I will not answer to any other bull—-, especially [from] foreigners. Lay off.”Show