The Philippines

Mending ties, but at a cost

US President Donald Trump and his Philippine counterpart, Mr Rodrigo Duterte, at the opening ceremony of the Asean Summit in Manila on Monday.
US President Donald Trump and his Philippine counterpart, Mr Rodrigo Duterte, at the opening ceremony of the Asean Summit in Manila on Monday.PHOTO: REUTERS

President Donald Trump has mended the United States' ties with long-time ally the Philippines, but it has come at the expense of the US' standing as a champion of human rights. Despite pressure from rights groups for him to take a tough line on the thousands killed by police and vigilantes in Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's bloody war on drugs, Mr Trump instead settled for mutual flattery.

He spoke of his "great relationship" with Mr Duterte, who responded by serenading him with a Filipino love song at a gala dinner.

Mr Duterte has come under intense international criticism for his drugs war, which has led to the police killing more than 3,900 suspects since he took office last year.

White House spokesman Sarah Sanders said Mr Trump briefly discussed human rights with Mr Duterte. But Mr Duterte's spokesman Harry Roque told a news conference "there was no mention of human rights, no mention of the extrajudicial killings".

Bilateral ties were strained under former president Barack Obama, who raised concerns over Mr Duterte's human rights record. The latter had rained profanities, even racial slurs, at Mr Obama.

Last year, Mr Duterte called for a "separation" from the US, threatened to expel US troops, and accused the Central Intelligence Agency of plotting to kill him.

But there was none of his trademark hostility with Mr Trump. Political commentator Ana Marie Pamintuan said: "Trump wasn't on a mission to lecture but to reassure allies of US commitment to the region."

VIP TREATMENT

It was red carpet like nobody, I think, has probably ever seen.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP, commenting on his Asia trip in Manila.

What Mr Trump brought with him to Manila was his push for fair trade. He reiterated the message he sent during last week's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Danang, Vietnam, "that it's high time the US practise reciprocity".

There was, however, no clear assurance from Mr Trump that South-east Asia remains central to US foreign policy. He did not follow through on his offer to mediate in disputes over the South China Sea in Danang. And he said he was concerned over the arms build-up in the contested waters, but did not single out any country.

Political analyst Richard Heydarian at De La Salle University in Manila said: "Allies have shown their willingness to move past America and actively construct a post-American world, partly to expand regional trade as well as to keep China's rising influence in check."

He added: "Absent of any tangible economic alternatives from America and its allies, a growing number of regional states will have no choice but to accept Beijing's economic offensive. What is at stake isn't only American hegemony but also the autonomy of smaller states, as well as the survival of a rules-based order in Asia."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2017, with the headline 'Mending ties, but at a cost'. Print Edition | Subscribe