Six weeks after President Donald Trump honored Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte with an invitation to the White House, the strongman dubbed “our Trump” by his countrymen returned the favor—with an invitation to American troops to help in the fight against ISIS-linked militants.
Or did he?
With Duterte, as with Trump, the rift between past rhetoric and present action—and vice versa—can be as deep as their popularity amongst their base.
On Saturday, CNN reported that Duterte, who is responsible for the deaths of thousands of people in an organized campaign of extrajudicial murder, had requested the presence of U.S. Special Operations Forces on the island of Mindanao (MIN-duh-now), the president’s home region. Mindanao, the second-largest island in the Philippine archipelago, has been the site of clashes between Philippine government security forces and Islamic terrorists for decades.
Those years-old battle lines have become a pet project of ISIS. Three weeks ago, the Philippine military attempted to launch an offensive in the city of Marawi to capture Isnilon Hapilon, leader of Abu Sayyaf, which has dubbed itself the “Philippine Province” of the Islamic State. The resulting firefight has turned into a protracted series of conflicts over control of the city, dubbed the Marawi Crisis.
The Philippine military publicly backed up the reports of American military aid, stating that the U.S. military was currently providing “technical assistance” to the Philippine troops.
“We have an agreement with our U.S. counterparts in terms of combating terrorism,” Lieutenant Colonel Jo-Ar Herrera told Reuters, although he clarified that there were no American “boots on the ground” in Mindanao. “These are all pertaining to exercises, training, technical assistance. That's our cooperation with our U.S. counterparts.”
The U.S. embassy in Manila even obliquely nodded to the assistance in a release detailing the completion of the 33rd Balikatan joint training exercises between the U.S. and Philippine militaries.
“As we have in the past, we routinely consult with our Filipino partners at senior levels to support the Duterte administration’s counterterrorism efforts,” the embassy said. “The United States is a proud ally of the Philippines, and we will continue to work with the Philippines to address shared threats to the peace and security of our countries, including on counterterrorism issues.”
But in a press briefing on Sunday, Duterte said that if the U.S. was helping his government’s attempts to quell militants in Mindanao, he hadn’t heard of it.
“I am not aware of that until they arrived,” Duterte told reporters.
Duterte’s coy response is the latest step in an increasingly complicated dance between the Philippines and the United States. In the early days of his presidency, Duterte publicly pondered distancing the Philippines from the U.S., threatening to boot American special forces from the country and openly contemplating a complete removal of U.S. forces from the archipelago.
But after Trump—or “your Duterte,” in Filipino political parlance—was elected, the former real-estate tycoon has made numerous overtures to Duterte.
In the “very friendly conversation” at the end of April that ended with the White House invitation, Trump enthusiastically congratulated Duterte on his “war on drugs,” a coordinated campaign of legalized execution of suspected drug dealers.
“I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem,” Trump said, unprompted. “Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that.”
The killings, carried out in large part by police officers who receive cash payouts in exchange for executing suspects on the street, have claimed more than 9,000 lives—many of them bystanders who did nothing more than have the misfortune of standing near a suspected drug dealer or user when the police arrived.
On the call, the transcript of which was first reported by the Intercept, Trump also casually revealed the location of two nuclear-powered submarines to Duterte.
“We have two submarines—the best in the world,” Trump said, in a conversation about increasing pressure on North Korea in the wake of increased saber-rattling from the nuclear-armed rogue state. “We have two nuclear submarines, not that we want to use them at all.”
The White House has pointed to concerns over North Korea’s pursuit of advanced missile technology as the reason for Trump’s coddling of Duterte.
“We need cooperation at some level with as many partners in the area as we can get to make sure we have our ducks in a row,” Reince Priebus told ABC’s Jonathan Karl in May. But John Sifton, the Asia advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, told the Daily Beast that the proposition is “entirely bogus.”
“Even if you were to secure Duterte’s unconditional help and support in promoting [North Korean disarmament], it’s not that meaningful because the Philippines is not that powerful a player on the global stage,” Sifton said.
“The real issue is tightening the enforcement of sanctions on North Korea, and that’s a matter of bilateral outreach to key countries that are either not enforcing the sanctions or are violating them—Malaysia, Nigeria, Uganda—not the Philippines.”