President Donald Trump sat down with Rodrigo Duterte in Manila on Monday for the first substantive discussions with his Philippine counterpart. The American leader either showed masterful subtlety or completely missed the point of the meeting, yet the get-together looked like a roaring success for both of them.
Duterte, sometimes called “Trump of the East,” is colorful, saying whatever pops into his head at the moment, both delighting and infuriating Philippine voters.
But he has a dark side. Since his inauguration in June 2016, President Duterte has led a campaign of “extrajudicial killings”—“EJK” for short—of drug dealers and users. The death toll is unknown, but some believe it has topped the 12,000 mark.
“Endorsements of murder roll off his tongue casually,” wrote Kylie Atwood of CBS News on Sunday. “Duterte is fixated on extermination.”
No wonder the Philippine leader is sometimes called “The Punisher” or “Duterte Harry.” He has even compared his murderous campaign to the Holocaust and likened himself to the leader of the Third Reich. “Hitler massacred three million Jews,” he said last year. “There are three million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them.” He subsequently offered a half-hearted apology.
Many institutions in Philippine society, including the Catholic Church, have campaigned hard against Duterte on drug killings, and critics charge EJK is nothing but state-sanctioned murder.
President Barack Obama criticized the extermination campaign, and Duterte struck back quickly. “Son of a whore," he called the American leader last September. The previous month he slung a homophobic slur against then-U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg.
Relations between Washington and Manila reached a low point in October of last year. “I have separated from them,” said Duterte on a trip to Beijing, referring to America. “So I will be dependent on you for all time.”
The apparent defection of the Philippines to China was stunning. It was China, after all, that had for decades been trying to dismember Duterte’s country, and the U.S. was the only nation pledged to defend Philippine sovereignty.
Duterte, has been rabidly anti-American for all his adult life, but he had good reason to be upset with Washington. China, violating an agreement brokered by the State Department in early 2012 with the Philippines, seized Scarborough Shoal from Manila. The U.S. did nothing to enforce the pact, and Beijing, a few short months after its act of aggression, ramped up attempts to take other Philippine features in the South China Sea.
After Scarborough, Beijing pressured, most notably, Second Thomas Shoal.
And in February of last year, Beijing began eying other parts of the Philippine archipelago, such as Half Moon Shoal and Jackson Atoll, both close to Palawan, one of the main Philippine islands.
China has territorial designs on most of the South China Sea, and its expansive claims not only overlap those of neighboring countries—Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam in addition to the Philippines—but also challenge the United States. Beijing, by enclosing more than 80 percent of that body of water with its infamous nine-dash-line or cow’s-tongue claim on the map, essentially seeks to close off international waters and airspace. If Washington has had any one foreign policy for more than two centuries, it has been the defense of freedom of navigation. Trump referenced “open shipping lanes” in his speech to an economic summit in Vietnam on Friday.
By moving away from the U.S. and aligning himself with China, Duterte was making it especially difficult for American policymakers to keep the South China Sea in the global commons. The Philippine president’s move was made partly in anger over the U.S. not defending his country against Chinese encroachment, especially in the Scarborough Shoal incident.
In short, the South China Sea was the critical issue for Trump to discuss with the Philippine leader. Yet American officials summarizing the 40-minute Monday meeting with Duterte did not include the South China Sea in the list of matters discussed. The joint statement issued afterward contains only a formulaic statement on the South China Sea.
And Trump also went missing on Duterte’s anti-drug campaign. The joint statement hints there was some discussion of the issue and press secretary Sarah Sanders said the two leaders discussed human rights in connection with the killings, but Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque denied any such conversations took place.
So the two most important issues dividing Washington and Manila were discussed only in passing if they were discussed at all. But perhaps that was the smart move for Trump at this particularly sensitive time in relations.
Duterte was obviously impressed with Trump—they first met on Friday in Da Nang at the APEC summit—and the two seem to be on buddy-buddy terms. The Philippine leader in fact broke out in song on Sunday, belting out a local love tune titled “Ikaw.” Said Duterte, at his obsequious best: “Ladies and gentlemen, I sang uninvited, upon the orders of the commander in chief of the United States.”
The American president on Monday said he has a “great relationship” with his Philippine counterpart, and that may now be true, at least until the two Trumps begin talking about important issues.