UNITED States President Donald J. Trump repeatedly thanked President Duterte for hosting world leaders at the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit and did his best to avoid questions on human-rights issues, which made the Philippine leader “infamous” globally due to the war on drugs.
Trump told the leaders of Asean member-nations gathered in Manila that he’s “here to advance peace, to promote security and to work with you to achieve a truly free and open Indo-Pacific.”
Trump said Duterte provided “incredible hospitality” to the leaders during their visit, including entertainment at a dinner last Sunday night that reportedly featured Duterte singing Trump a song.
Trump is also once again touting US economic gains since the election, saying the country has been moving ahead “brilliantly.”
After Trump’s remarks, Duterte instructed “the media to leave us alone.”
Trump ignored questions about human-rights abuses as he met with the President of the Philippines. Trump said he and Duterte have “had a great relationship.” He’s also applauding the Philippines on their staging of the conference. “We very much appreciated the great treatment you’ve given.”
Duterte has come under fierce criticism from human-rights groups for overseeing a violent drug war complete with extrajudicial killings.
Trump has previously praised Duterte’s handling of his nation’s drug problems.
Trump did not respond to shouted questions about whether he’d raise the issue. Duterte said their bilateral meeting was not a news conference.
Trump said he’ll be delivering a “major statement” on Wednesday when he’s back in Washington to discuss what he’s accomplished on his big Asia trip.
“We are your ally,” Duterte said to Trump. “We are an important ally.”
Presidential Spokesman Harry L. Roque told reporters afterward that the issue of human rights didn’t arise during their 40-minute meeting. Duterte informed Trump of the drug menace in the Philippines, and the US president “appeared sympathetic,” Roque said.
Trump asked why US cars face higher tariffs than Japanese automobiles, Roque added, and said he would study a potential bilateral-trade deal with the Philippines.
US Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that human rights came up briefly in the context of Duterte’s fight against illegal drugs. The conversation also focused on the Islamic State and trade, she said.
The bonhomie between the leaders stands in contrast to a year ago, when Duterte cursed out former President Barack Obama for criticizing his war on drugs that has left thousands dead. He subsequently pivoted toward China, de-escalating tensions with Beijing over their competing South China Sea claims and winning $24 billion worth of Chinese loans and investment into the Philippines.
Ties with the US, a longstanding Philippine security ally, improved after Trump took office. Following an April phone call between Trump and Duterte, the White House said the Philippines is “fighting very hard to rid its country of drugs.” The tough-talking Duterte, famed for his profanity-riddled outbursts, has spoken warmly of Trump, saying this month that their mouths move “in the same cadence.”
At a gala dinner last Sunday night, Duterte sang a Filipino love song “upon the orders of the commander in chief of the United States,” according to a video posted on Twitter by a Philippine government official.
While the meeting between Trump and Duterte wouldn’t solve all the problems between the nations, it will “move our relationship forward,” Foreign Secretary Alan Peter S. Cayetano told reporters last Sunday.
“There is no doubt that there were some ill feelings, there were some hills and valleys in our relationship with the US, especially at the latter end of the Obama administration,” Cayetano said. “But it’s been repaired and strengthened by President Trump.”
Trump on Monday held a three-way meeting with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, both US allies. Trump said he has made “big progress” on trade during the trip, and would make a statement on North Korea and trade when he returns to the US.
Last Sunday Trump offered to help resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea involving the Philippines, Vietnam, China and other claimants. He has primarily focused his attention on North Korea’s nuclear program, a shift from the Obama administration’s more aggressive stance against China’s activities in the South China Sea.
‘Very good mediator’
“I am a very good mediator and a very good arbitrator,” Trump said last Sunday in Hanoi ahead of a meeting with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang. “If I can be of help in any way, let me know.”
Vietnam’s Quang didn’t answer directly when asked about Trump’s offer at a news briefing, while Cayetano from the Philippines said any effort would need to be coordinated among other countries in the region. China opposes US involvement in resolving the disputes, preferring to settle them through one-on-one talks with other nations.
It’s a “very kind and generous offer because he is a good mediator,” Cayetano said of Trump. “He is the master of the art of the deal.”
Both the Philippines and Vietnam have recently seen China disrupt oil-and-gas exploration in contested areas of the South China Sea. While the US doesn’t take a position on territorial disputes, it has criticized China for land reclamation and other moves to assert control over areas also claimed in part by Southeast Asian countries.
Duterte warned last Sunday that a war over the waterway would devastate the region. He said that Chinese President Xi Jinping told him last Saturday that he also didn’t want to “waste the lives of my countrymen for a useless war that cannot be won by anyone.” “The South China Sea is better left untouched,” Duterte said. “Nobody can afford to go to war.”
The 10-nation Asean is set to announce on Monday the start of negotiations with China on a code of conduct for the South China Sea, the Philippines said in a statement. The talks have made little progress since the nations agreed formally to work toward a code in 2002.
Asean and China on Monday plan to tout “positive developments” in the waters, according to a draft joint statement seen by reporters.
“While the situation is calmer now, we cannot take the current progress for granted,” parties to say,” the draft says.