Duterte hosts US leader in the Philippines
Duterte hosts US leader in the Philippines, it’s the final act of Donald Trump’s marathon Asia tour and it could be the showstopper.
Touching down in the Philippine capital Manila on Sunday, the US president arrived in a country run by a man regularly described as the “Donald Trump of Asia” for his shock rise to power and volatile temperament.
Months before Trump was elected, Rodrigo Duterte proved the strength of anti-establishment populism in the Philippines by taking the presidency in a campaign filled with black-and-white promises to wipe out crime by killing drug pushers.
And when his administration did indeed start killing hundreds of suspected drug pushers and alleged addicts, US-Philippine relations – historically one of the strongest alliances in Asia – plummeted. At its lowest point, Duterte called former president Barack Obama a “son of a whore” for criticising his human rights record.
For Trump, however, the Philippines is bringing out the red carpet.
“President Trump will definitely receive a very warm welcome in Manila,” said the foreign affairs secretary, Alan Peter Cayetano, who added relations were on an “upward vector”.
On Saturday, at the regional Apec summit in Vietnam, the two leaders were introduced for the first time before a scheduled bilateral meeting in Manila. “Albeit short, it was very warm and cordial,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque said when asked by the Guardian if the pair had rapport.
For the US leader, the Philippines visit is a chance to show he can win back estranged allies, said Richard Javad Heydarian, the author of The Rise of Duterte.
“He also sees in Duterte a fellow populist and decisive leader besieged by liberal internationalist elite, so there is some element of personal rapport and ideological solidarity,” he added. “I expect a convivial hobnob between the two in Manila.”
That is possible because Trump appears to have abandoned his predecessor’s focus on rights, even praising Duterte’s bloody crackdown by saying he was doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem”.
Trump does not appear to care, as Obama did, with “advancing rule of law globally and advancing democracy globally”, according to Christopher Primiano, a teaching fellow based at the China campus of the University of Nottingham.
“I just don’t think Trump is interested in any of this – these are non-issues for Trump,” he said. “Trump and Duterte, given that both of them are authoritarian in terms of their governance, have much more in common than say Duterte and Obama.”
There is a lot of work to be done. Duterte has moved the Philippines swiftly away from its former colonial power on several fronts. Increasingly looking to Beijing and Moscow as new backers, especially for weapons shipments, he ended joint war games with the US military last year.
“He has pivoted to Asia, veered away from [the] traditional political relationship between the Philippines and the United States,” Duterte’s spokesman Roque said.
And in steps to boost ties with China, the 72-year-old leader has played down territorial disputes in the South China Sea, which has worried Washington as it wants the vital shipping route to remain outside of Chinese control.
However, the academic Primiano warns, there is one major caveat that makes it hard to concretely predict a jovial US visit to Manila.
“Trump is a complete wild card,” he said. “He says one thing one minute, maybe he’ll tweet something this morning, and then say something totally different in the afternoon.”
Philippine protesters are preparing to burn an effigy of Trump on Monday outside the US embassy, which could sour the US leader, especially at the end of a tiring trip.
Duterte, too, has sent mixed messages and has a famously changeable mood, even berating close allies at a moment’s notice.
The Philippine president had promised to be on his best behaviour as the host of the Association of South-east Asian Nations leaders’ summit, saying he would deal with Trump “in the most righteous way, welcome him as an important leader”.
so diplomatic. During the Philippine election campaign, he shunned the Trump comparison, saying the then-candidate was a “bigot” for his proposals to ban Muslims entering the US.
And despite being invited by Trump to visit Washington, Duterte said in July he would never visit the “lousy” US after Congressman James McGovern announced he would protest any such trip.
Some Philippine media reports even suggest Duterte might not meet with Trump one-on-one at all during the visit, which could certainly lead to an outburst from the prickly US leader.
“[Trump] is completely unpredictable,” said Primiano. “We all need to keep that in mind.”