Trump boasts of 'great relationship' with Philippines' Duterte at first formal meeting
President Trump toasts with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte at an ASEAN Summit dinner in Manila on Nov. 12, 2017. (Andrew Harnik/AP) November 13 at 1:37 AM
MANILA â" President Trump met here Monday with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte amid questions from human rights advocates about whether Trump would confront his counterpart over a bloody drug war that has resulted in thousands of extrajudicial killings.
Trump had praised Duterte for doing an âunbelievable jobâ in combating the illicit drug trade during a private phone call in April that focused mostly on North Korea. In that call, the contents of which were first revealed in detail in May by The Wash ington Post, Trump also invited Duterte to visit the White House.
The two leaders met for the first time briefly on Friday at an economic summit in Danang, Vietnam, and were photographed raising wine glasses together in a toast at the opening dinner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations forum on Sunday. Images of them appearing to at ease with one another and, like other leaders at the summit, wearing traditional barong tagalong shirts, were published in Philippines newspapers.
On two occasions, however, Trump declined to answer shouted questions from reporters about whether he had pressed Duterte on human rights.
âWeâve had a great relationship,â Trump told reporters, sitting with Duterte at the start of the bilateral meeting. âThis has been very successful.â He praised Duterteâs handling of the summit and said, âIâve really enjoyed being here.â
As Trump pivoted to talking about the nice weather in Manila, Duterte cut off the American reporters who tried to press Trump on human rights.
âWhoa, whoa,â he protested. âThis is not a press statement. This is the bilateral meeting.â
Duterte at one point called reporters âspies,â prompting Trump to chuckle.
âYou are,â Duterte repeated. A spokesman for Duterte said after the meeting that human rights did not come up, although the Philippines leader did raise his efforts in the âdrug menace.â
Ahead of his visit here, Trump boasted that he expected things to go a lot better than during the last trip to the Philippines by President Barack Obama. However, Trump appeared to mix up his references. Obama canceled a bilateral meeting with Duterte in Sept. 2016 after the Philippines leader made derogatory comments about him and the United States, a longtime treaty ally. Obamaâs 2015 visit to Manila went smoothly â" before Duterte had been elected.
âI have a sense that he is not going to address human rights, la rgely because he is trying to build a relationship with Duterte. This 10-day trip is about building alliances in response to North Korea,â said James Zarsadiaz, director of the Yuchengco Philippine Studies program at the University of San Francisco.
White House aides said Trump routinely brings up human rights in his private conversations with world leaders, and in a couple of notable instances he has addressed the matter in public on his five-nation Asia trip. In a speech to the South Korean parliament, Trump called North Korea âa hell no person deserves,â and he laid out in sometimes gruesome detail the abuses Pyongyang has perpetrated â" including purportedly killing babies and carting the bodies away in buckets.
In Tokyo, Trump met with the families of Japanese citizens who were abducted by North Korean agents four decades earlier. Other presidents, including Obama and George W. Bush, also met with the families.
âWeâll work together and see if we can do something, now the spotlight is on,â Trump said at a news conference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, calling the abductions a âvery, very sad thing.â
Yet Trump has not talked about human rights more broadly outside the context of North Korea. He has yet to make any public statement in the two months since the Burmese military escalated a brutally violent campaign against the Rohingya ethnic minority, Muslims who have been systematically slaughtered by the Buddhist majority in a campaign the United Nationsâ top human rights official called a âtextbook exampleâ of genocide.
In Vietnam, Trump embraced the communist nationâs leaders, paying a state visit to Hanoi, without publicly raising the ongoing crackdown on political speech and independent journalists. Obama also embraced Hanoi, but his administration insisted on the release of hundreds of prisoners and had sought to use a 12-nation trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to enact new protecti ons for workers in Vietnam and elsewhere. Trump, on his third day in office, removed the United States from that deal.
On Friday, as Trump flew from the economic conference in Danang to Hanoi for the state visit, a White House official told reporters aboard Air Force One that Trump has been âquite concernedâ about Burma.
âItâs come up in a number of his conversations with Southeast Asian leaders, and certainly heâll be discussing it, and publicly as well,â said the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record. As of Monday afternoon, Trump had yet so do so.
The question of whether Trump will press Duterte on human rights is often talked about as a test of U.S. power, both in the Philippines and in the region as a whole.
Though the Obama administration promised a âpivotâ to Asia, in part structured on human rights and U.S. values diplomacy, there has long been a sense that U.S. influence in the Asia-Pacific region is waning wh ile Chinaâs is on the rise.
Over the last decade, China has stepped up trade, investment and tourism in Southeast Asia, becoming a major economic player with close ties to the political and military elite.
All 10 ASEAN member states joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a Chinese-led multilateral financial institution that is issuing billions in loans. An authoritarian state that sharply curtails free speech and political dissent, Beijing has not tied human rights reforms or worker protections to its economic largesse.
The Obama administration sought to align ASEAN around common values that include human rights. But the 10 regional member countries have widely disparate political systems â" some democratic, some authoritarian â" and economic systems.
Aides, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, said Trump believes it is more effective to discuss such human rights issues in private; Trump has helped gain the release of a number of Ame ricans who had been detained in Asia and the Middle East. The president railed on North Koreaâs mistreatment of American college student Otto Warmbier, who died shortly after being released from 17 months of captivity in Pyongyang.
Across both East and Southeast Asia, U.S. allies are uncertain about what Trump stands for and nervous about what he does next, said Richard Heydarian, a security analyst and author of âThe Rise of Duterte.â
âThey see a total collapse of American soft power, largely because of Trump, and also American structural decline, especially relative to China,â he said. But itâs a mistake to see this as a clear win for the Chinese, he added. Despite Chinaâs spending in Southeast Asia, countries are not ready to align with Beijing, which is seen as a bully over its military-led maritime expansion in the South China Sea and its economic pressure.
Absent a clear leader in the region, middle-power countries, including Japan, Australi a and India, are stepping up their own diplomacy. Trump was scheduled to meet with the leaders from each of those countries on Monday amid talk that they would form a âquadâ of powers to help hedge against China in the Indo-Pacific.
Duterte made his frustration with the United States clear, lashing out at Obama for criticizing the anti-drug campaign and threatening to curtail U.S.-Philippine military ties.
He announced that he wanted a divorce from the U.S. and planned to align himself with Chinaâs âideological flow.â China, in turn, promised money for major infrastructure projects and military upgrades.
But, despite protests against Trump in Manila during his visit, a majority of Filipinos are more comfortable with the U.S. than with China and are certainly not prepared to cast their lot with Beijing alone.
Duterteâs administration has continued to work with the U.S. on a range of issues and still takes money for counternarcotics work, po lice training and other things. In the run-up to Trumpâs visit, Duterte has struck an almost conciliatory tone.
The upshot is that U.S. influence in the Philippines is not over, and Trump probably has the political capital to nudge Duterte on the drug war, should he choose, experts said.
âThe credibility of the U.S. is at stake because of Trumpâs unsophisticated ways in diplomacy,â said Zarsadiaz, the Philippine studies director. âIn the grand scheme of things, in Asia, there is still this sense that the U.S. is an arbiter of justice .â.â. Time will tell whether Trump will follow the lead of congressional leaders, of the U.N., of Amnesty International, and stand behind what are seen as American principles.âSource: Google News