Duterte Warms to Trump, but Keeps His Focus on China
The president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, seldom holds back.
His antidrug crusade has led to the extrajudicial killings of thousands of people. He is fond of boasting about how he has personally killed criminals and even strangers. He unleashes profane diatribes about countries and world figures he dislikes, with the United States often on the receiving end.
But more quietly, he seems to have warmed to the United States and President Trump, who also has a notably provocative style.
As his country hosted a summit meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, on Sunday, the more charming side of Mr. Duterte’s personality was on display, both in his meetings with Mr. Trump and in his foreign policy goal of closer relations with China.
One big reason for his shift in rhetoric when it comes to the United States is clear: President Trump is a marked improvement in Mr. Duterte’s eyes over Barack Obama, who urged the Philippine leader to follow the rule of law in tackling the illegal drug trade.
On Saturday, Mr. Trump and Mr. Duterte met for the first time on the sidelines of an economic summit meeting in Vietnam. The two shook hands and spoke warmly about having a longer discussion over the next two days, Philippines officials said.
“These two are talking as friends,” said Ramon Casiple, the executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, a nonprofit promoting democracy in the Philippines. “I don’t see any reasons when they meet face-to-face that there will be any big problems.”
But the longer-term game for Mr. Duterte has been his determination to court China. Since his election, he has backed down from contentious territorial disputes with Beijing — last week, he halted a construction project in the South China Sea that brought Chinese complaints — despite an international ruling early in his presidency that backed the Philippines.
Harry Roque, a spokesman for Mr. Duterte, described his policy as a deliberate turn toward closer relationships with countries in Asia, and with China in particular.
Mr. Duterte hopes his strategy will bring billions of dollars in Chinese investment, though the money has been slow in coming, said Richard Javad Heydarian, an assistant professor of political science at De La Salle University in Manila.
Still, the United States and its former colony are treaty allies with a long history of cooperation. And it is clear that Mr. Duterte’s and Mr. Trump’s styles seem to mesh more than clash.
Mr. Trump set the stage for improved relations when he called Mr. Duterte in April and congratulated him for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem.” The United States also provided valuable military assistance — including drones and intelligence — that proved instrumental in defeating Islamic extremists during a five-month siege of Marawi City, which ended last month.
Last year, Mr. Duterte called for a “separation” from the United States, threatened to expel American troops and accused the Central Intelligence Agency of plotting to kill him. When asked how he would respond if the American president were to criticize his antidrug campaign, Mr. Duterte replied with a vulgar epithet to describe Mr. Obama, who was president at the time.
Mr. Roque, the spokesman, said that Mr. Duterte changed his tune after seeing the value of United States help in Marawi.
“He hasn’t been criticizing the United States lately,” Mr. Roque said. “He looks forward to closer ties with the United States.”
Mr. Trump landed in the Philippines on Sunday to protests by leftist activists, rights groups and students in the streets. The two presidents were scheduled to hold bilateral talks in Manila on Monday, and Mr. Trump attended a gala dinner hosted by Mr. Duterte on Sunday night.
The two leaders shared a warm handshake, and were seated side by side at the dinner. They were seen leaning in to chat animatedly at the start of the evening.
On Monday, following a meeting with the leaders of Australia and Japan, Mr. Trump did not respond to questions shouted by reporters about whether he planned to press Mr. Duterte on human-rights issues at a face-to-face session with him later in the day.
Mr. Trump has been tied to the Philippines for years through his business dealings, and before this trip, his brand had arrived well ahead of him. Trump Tower at Century City, a $150 million, 57-story residential building, has been under construction since 2012 in metropolitan Manila. It is one of several international business deals that pose potential conflicts of interest for Mr. Trump.
The tower is being built by Jose E.B. Antonio, a Manila developer. Days before Mr. Trump was elected, Mr. Duterte named Mr. Antonio an envoy to the United States for trade, investment and economic affairs.
“I’ve always loved the Philippines. I think it’s just a special place, and Manila is one of Asia’s most spectacular cities,” Mr. Trump was quoted as saying on the Trump Tower website last year. The comment has since been removed.
But no words could please Mr. Duterte more than Mr. Trump’s support of the Philippines’ antidrug campaign.
Mr. Duterte won election on a vow to kill drug users, and said the fish in Manila Bay would grow fat feeding on their corpses. In the early months of the antidrug campaign, the police said that thousands of drug users had been killed. But as the extrajudicial killing has continued, they have refused to release the death toll.
Mr. Duterte won election last year with 39 percent of the vote, but his popularity soared after the killings began. While his support rating has declined in recent months, it still stood at 67 percent in September, according to a survey by the nonprofit Social Weather Stations.
While past American presidents have used meetings with foreign leaders to promote human rights, activists have little expectation that Mr. Trump will raise the extrajudicial killings with Mr. Duterte.
“I strongly suspect we will see an alpha-male bromance between the two,” said Phelim Kine, the Human Rights Watch deputy director for Asia. “A lot of the issues that underpin the U.S.-Philippine relations will go unaddressed, and one of those will be rule of law.”
Mr. Duterte has bristled at any criticism of his drug war. Speaking to Filipino workers in Danang, Vietnam, on Thursday, he lashed out at Agnes Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.
“This rapporteur, I will slap her in front of you. Why? Because you are insulting me,” he said in a speech sprinkled with expletives.
He also boasted of killing a man, as he often has in the past. Typically, there is little evidence to support his claims.
“At the age of 16, I have already killed,” he said. “A human. I stabbed him because he stared at me.”
Mr. Duterte also offered to host an international summit on human rights and compared himself to Satan. “I am the new toughie here in hell,” he said.
But for a more international audience, Mr. Duterte is likely to talk about how he can take a bigger role in the region’s most important issues. As chairman of Asean, Mr. Duterte wants to be a regional power broker who can help negotiate with North Korea, said Mr. Heydarian, the political scientist.
“He is trying to punch above his weight, but everyone should welcome that,” Mr. Heydarian said. “Asean is one of the last bridges North Korea has to the international community.”