2 leaders at crossroads of Asian history

Manila hosts important international meetings this month as Asean marks its 50th anniversary, including the Asean-US Summit on Nov. 13 and the East Asia Summit on Nov. 14.

The summits are being held at a significant point in history for the region. Central issues include the rise of radicalized terrorist groups, the nuclear threat posed by North Korea, and the disputes in the South China Sea, as well as transboundary pollution and climate change, the rise of authoritarian tendencies, the war on drugs, migration and maritime security.


The prevailing socioeconomic and political issues make the idea of strong leaders attractive. In these historic times, the respective leaderships of President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea are noteworthy, along with the roles that their countries play in regional developments.

With almost 70 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries, their partnership goes beyond extensive trading and investments. Both countries have experienced growth and increased imports and trade of goods in the past five years. Tourism and migration between them are quite dynamic, with annual increases being recorded. South Korea recognizes the Philippines as an “old friend” that extended help during the Korean War. Culturally, K-Pop in the form of TV series and music band groups has swept the Philippines.


With the two countries facing similar challenges and sharing history and culture, it is no surprise that their leaders share and display qualities that endear them to their constituencies.

Both are lawyers and thus understand the legal limitations their countries face. But they do not allow these limitations to prevent them from being innovative leaders and have not hesitated to introduce in their legislature proposed reforms in taxes and government accountability.

Mr. Moon and Mr. Duterte are strongly opposed to corruption. They both campaigned and won election on a platform that included a pledge to fight and stop corruption in the government.

They both come from a left-leaning political ideology. Mr. Moon, from the Democratic Party of Korea, has described bribery and abuse of power as “deep-rooted evil” and wants to protect small businesses from the powerful “chaebols” or business conglomerates of Korea. Mr. Duterte, from the PDP-Laban, a remnant of the opposition party during the Marcos dictatorship, has initiated peace talks with the communist and Moro rebel groups. He has also called for the dismantling of the oligarchy, publicly assailed corrupt officials, and dismissed ranking officials on corruption charges.

The two leaders’ respective backgrounds partly explain their tendency to be more understanding of the struggles of the poor, and to address poverty in more creative ways. Thus, both are seen as anti-establishment and bringing a fresh face and voice to current mainstream politics.

Mr. Moon and Mr. Duterte are also described as “strongman” leaders. But they are also viewed as “very relatable” and appear to enjoy the company of ordinary citizens. Both appear to find it easy to address the media, although Mr. Duterte has been quite controversial with his “no holds barred” manner of talking with the media.

In terms of foreign policy, both recognize that China has an important role to play in regional politics, and have decided to open up a more constructive and productive engagement with Beijing.


The two leaders also share the view that North Korea is a serious problem:

Mr. Moon favors a less hostile approach, while Mr. Duterte has called Kim Jung-un a crazy leader. Both welcome the role of the United States in the region, but are also conscious that it has less influence now.

As Asean and East Asia confront the complicated politics of the region, both South Korea and the Philippines appear prepared to rise to the challenge. History will judge whether the Presidents of the two countries will deliver on their promise. But right now, the road to development is a bright one.

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Alin Ferrer-Garganera is a public service radio anchor, a member of the Asian Journalists Association, and a graduate of the University of the Philippines.

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TAGS: Asean, ASEAN-US Summit, Asian history, East Asia Summit, Inquirer Commentary, Moon Jae-In, Rodrigo Duterte
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