Leaders from across Asia joined U.S. President Donald Trump at an extravagant gala dinner in the Philippines’ capital on Sunday, a show of amity in a region fraught with tensions that have lurked behind his marathon tour of the continent.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte set the tone of cordiality ahead of the two days of summit meetings he will host, suggesting that despite their differences over claims to the South China Sea, the leaders should not discuss the issue.
“We have to be friends, the other hotheads would like us to confront China and the rest of the world on so many issues,” Duterte said at a business conference, as planes carrying heads of state and government attending the summit landed in quick succession in Manila.
“The South China Sea is better left untouched, nobody can afford to go to war. It can ill-afford a violent confrontation.”
Hours earlier, during a bilateral visit to Vietnam, Trump offered to mediate in the dispute over the South China Sea, where four Southeast Asian countries and Taiwan contest China’s sweeping claims to the busy waterway.
All the claimants will be at the summit, except for Taiwan.
Trump will join leaders of Southeast and East Asian nations in Manila over the next two days, the last leg of a tour that has taken him to Japan, South Korea and China as well as Vietnam.
The sheer length of the trip – the longest to Asia by a U.S. president in more than a quarter century – may reassure some that, despite Trump’s “America First” policy, Washington remains committed to a region China sees as its strategic domain.
Leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), China, Russia, Japan, Canada, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand arrived one by one for a glitzy gala dinner where they were entertained by singers and dancers.
Each of the men sported a cream-colored barong, a traditional Philippines shirt made of fiber from the pineapple plant, embroidered and worn untucked.
They were served a four-course Filipino-Asian fusion meal curate and prepared by Chef Jessie Sincioco, who also designed the menu for Pope Francis when he visited the Philippines in 2015.
Police used water canon to prevent hundreds of protesters reaching the U.S. embassy in Manila ahead of Trump’s arrival.
Carrying placards declaring “Dump Trump” and “Down with U.S. Imperialism”, the left-wing protesters were blocked by police in riot gear with shields and batons, and then showered with jets of water from a fire engine.
U.S. President Donald Trump toasts with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte during the gala dinner marking ASEAN’s 50th anniversary in Manila, Philippines November 12, 2017.
The United States and its former colony, the Philippines, have been strategic allies since World War Two.
Trump is expected to try during the summit to shore up relations, which have been strained by the mercurial Duterte’s notorious anti-U.S. sentiment and his enthusiasm for better ties with Russia and China.
Duterte – sometimes described as the ‘Trump of the East’ because of his brash style – said last week he would tell the U.S. president to “lay off” if he raised the issue of human rights when they met.
More than 3,900 Filipinos have been killed in what the police call self-defense in a war on drugs declared by Duterte. Critics say executions are taking place with no accountability, allegations the police reject.
But Trump, who has been criticized at home for neglecting rights issues in dealings abroad, praised Duterte in May for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem”.
Trump’s tour comes against a background of tensions on the Korean peninsula following exchanges of war-like threats and insults between North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un and Trump over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile development program.
China has been urged by both South Korea and the United States to take a more active role in curbing North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions.
During his tour, Trump and his team have repeatedly used the term “Indo-Pacific” instead of “Asia-Pacific” for the region, which some see as an effort to depict it as more than China-dominated.