Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to visit Malaysia for talks with PM Najib

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte will be travelling to Malaysia for a two-day state visit.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte will be travelling to Malaysia for a two-day state visit. PHOTO: REUTERS

President Rodrigo Duterte will travel to Malaysia on Wednesday (Nov 9) for a two-day state visit to discuss with Prime Minister Najib Razak efforts to combat piracy in the Strait of Malacca and a plague of kidnappings by the brutal Abu Sayyaf group.

In a news briefing on Monday (Nov 7), the foreign ministry's spokesman Charles Jose said Mr Duterte would also thrash out Kuala Lumpur's role in the peace process between the Philippines and Muslim rebels in the war-torn southern island group of Mindanao.

Mr Duterte and Mr Najib are likewise expected to compare notes on their recent pro-China outreach.

Both leaders have witnessed unfriendly vibes from Washington - Mr Duterte for his controversial anti-crime drive while Mr Najib's stepson and a former aide have been accused of money laundering linked to state fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd.

The criticisms, analysts say, have caused them to drift closer to China.

Mr Jose said the twin nods towards Beijing were well within Asean's "common position when it comes to relations with China".

"I don't know if they are in coordination, but what I can say is that countries act on their national interests," he said.

During his visit, Mr Duterte will be hosted to dinner by the Malaysian Premier and his wife, Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor.

Mr Duterte is also expected to meet up with the Filipino community in Malaysia.

Malaysia said the Philippines was Malaysia's fifth largest trading partner in Asean and 10th largest trading partner globally.

"Malaysia and the Republic of the Philippines enjoy warm and cordial relations. Both countries also cooperate on various issues of common interests at the international level," Malaysia's Foreign Affairs Ministry said in a statement yesterday. 

Malaysia's total trade with the Philippines in the first eight months of this year rose by 5.4 per cent to RM13.15 billion (S$4.3 billion), as compared to RM12.48 billion in the January to August period last year.

Mr Jose, asked on the thorny issue of the Philippines' claims over Sabah state, said "it may or may not be raised", but that Mr Duterte "will be prepared to discuss the issue".

Mr Duterte had said he would press the Philippines' contentious claim to Sabah.

"What has been the policy will always be the policy of the government, especially those for the interest of the country. We have to stake our claim," he told reporters just after he was elected in May (2016).

The late "Sultan of Sulu and North Borneo" Esmail Kiram II, who quarreled with Malaysia over compensation, encouraged in 2013 a last-ditch, violent effort to regain Sabah. A militia of over 200 men landed near Lahad Datu on Sabah's east coast and began a siege of the neighbouring area.

The attack left more than 60 people dead, set off the most serious security crisis in Malaysia in more than a decade, and strained the country's relationship with the Philippines.

Mr Duterte's visit to Malaysia comes just days after the Abu Sayyaf, an Islamist group known for kidnapping and ransoming foreigners, abducted German sailor Juergen Kantner, 70, and killed his wife, as the couple were sailing off Sabah on Sunday (Nov 6).

The Abu Sayyaf has also been preying on Malaysians and Indonesians, snatching them from tugboats, fishing boats and resorts off Saban's coasts.

The Philippines and Indonesia have already agreed to jointly combat the Abu Sayyaf, with Mr Duterte telling Indonesian security forces they can pursue and "blow up" these bandits even when they are inside Philippine waters.

Mr Duterte said he would ask Mr Najib to join such efforts.

The president is also expected to discuss Kuala Lumpur's role in brokering a peace deal between his government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest Muslim secessionist group in the Philippines.

Mr Duterte will have to distance himself from comments made by Mr Nur Misuari, head of a rival Muslim group that he is trying to coax into joining the peace talks. Mr Nur Misuari last week accused Malaysia of hiring Muslims in kidnapping and other extortion activities and branding the MILF as "traitors and criminals".

"That was Nur Misuari's opinion, but the President himself did not voice that concern," said Mr Duterte's spokesman Ernesto Abella on Tuesday (Nov 8).

rdancel@sph.com.sg