MANILA – His lengthy Asia trip down to its final days, President Donald Trump once more pushed for equitable trade deals and opted to publicly prioritize strategic interests over human rights, declining to shine a spotlight on the violent drug war overseen by his Philippine host.
Trump repeatedly praised Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, pointedly calling him by his first name, sharing a joke about the media and even complimenting Manila’s weather. What he did not do was what many predecessors have done before: highlight human rights abuses while overseas.
Duterte has overseen a bloody drug war that has featured extrajudicial killings and has boasted about killing people with his own hands. But during brief remarks to reporters, Trump said he and Duterte have “had a great relationship” but avoided questions on whether he’d raise human rights issues.
The White House later said the two leaders discussed the Islamic State, illegal drugs and trade during the 40 minute meeting. Spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said human rights came up “briefly” in the context of the Philippines’ fight against illegal drugs. She did not say if Trump was critical of Duterte’s program.
That appeared to conflict with the Philippines’ version of the meeting. Harry Roque, a spokesman for Duterte, said “there was no mention of human rights. There was no mention of extralegal killings. There was only a rather lengthy discussion of the Philippine war on drugs with President Duterte doing most of the explaining.”
On the sidelines of an international summit, Trump looked to strengthen ties with Pacific Rim allies, aiming to strike bilateral, rather than multinational trade agreements, and increase pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear program. He met with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday and touted their two nations “deeper and more comprehensive” ties, looking to strengthen a relationship that is vital to the U.S. vision of an Indo-Pacific region that attempts to de-emphasize China’s influence.
He jointly met with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, with whom he had a contentious phone call last winter, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who hosted the president in Tokyo earlier in the trip. Trump raved about his accomplishments on his five-nation journey, including on trade and on North Korea, which the White House has suggested may be designated a state sponsor of terrorism.
Trump said he would wait until his return to Washington on Wednesday to elaborate with a “major statement” on those two topics but hinted at progress while in Manila.
“We’ve made some very big steps with regard to trade — far bigger than anything you know,” Trump told reporters, touting business deals forged between U.S. and foreign companies.
“We’ve made a lot of big progress on trade. We have deficits with almost everybody. Those deficits are going to be cut very quickly and very substantially,” Trump said.
“Except us,” Turnbull chimed in, to laughs.
“You’re the only one,” Trump responded. Trump also said the trip had been “very fruitful” for the United States and pointed to the warm welcomes he had received in capitals like Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing.
“It was red carpet like nobody, I think, has probably ever received,” Trump said. “And that really is a sigh of respect, perhaps for me a little, but really for our county. And I’m really proud of that.”
But it was Trump’s interactions with Duterte that drew the most scrutiny.
Advisers have said that while Trump was always unlikely to publicly chastise the Philippine president, he may offer criticisms behind closed doors. Trump would plan to hold his tongue in public in order not to embarrass Duterte, whom he is urging to help pressure North Korea and fight terrorism, and to avoid pushing him into the arms of China. Duterte has seemed less committed to the strategic partnership with the U.S.
Duterte’s war on drugs has alarmed human rights advocates around the world who say it has allowed police officers and vigilantes to ignore due process and to take justice into their own hands. Government officials estimate that well over 3,000 people, mostly drug users and dealers, have died in the ongoing crackdown. Human rights groups believe the victim total is far higher, perhaps closer to 9,000.
The opening ceremonies of the Association for Southeast Asian Nations conference began with pageantry, including a group photo of the leaders and the summit’s traditional handshake. That cross-body handshake, during which each leader shakes the opposite hands of those next to him or her, briefly baffled Trump, who then laughed as he figured out where to place his arms.
Meanwhile, Southeast Asian nations were set to announce that they would not take a relative calm in the dispute over the South China Sea for granted, according to a draft of a statement that was to be issued during the summit Monday.
The statement will be issued after a meeting between China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the Philippines capital, a diplomatic source said.
“While the situation is calmer now, we cannot take the current progress for granted,” said the draft.
It is “important that we cooperate to maintain peace, stability, freedom of navigation in and over-flight above the SCS (South China Sea), in accordance with international law,” the draft read. “It is in our collective interest to avoid miscalculations that could lead to escalation of tensions.”
Almost all of the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest waterways, is claimed by China. Taiwan and four ASEAN nations — Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei — have competing claims.
Leaders from China, the United States and seven other nations are joining ASEAN at its annual summit.
Trump said on Sunday he was prepared to mediate between claimants to the disputed South China Sea.
Asked about his comments, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said that China upheld resolving the issue via talks with the countries directly involved and to uphold the peace and stability of the South China Sea.
The situation in the South China Sea was generally stable and heading in the right direction with the joint efforts of China and ASEAN countries, he said.
China has been angered in the past by freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea, and comments on the issue, by the United States which it sees as provocative.
On Sunday, Duterte suggested that, despite their differences, the leaders should not discuss the South China Sea.
“We have to be friends. The other hotheads would like us to confront China and the rest of the world on so many issues,” Duterte said at a business conference.
“The South China Sea is better left untouched. Nobody can afford to go to war. It can ill-afford a violent confrontation.”
China’s Premier Li Keqiang, speaking in Manila during a summit with ASEAN member nations, said Beijing was “committed to working with ASEAN to be good neighbors, good friends and good partners, and to always stand together rain or shine.”
At the meeting’s formal opening on Monday, Duterte made no mention of the South China Sea and pointed to other triggers for a threat of violence in the region.
“Terrorism and violent extremism endanger the peace, stability, and security of our region because these threats know no boundary,” he said.
Duterte has grown closer to China since he took office last year and Vietnam has emerged as Beijing’s main challenger in the area. China’s move to pressure Vietnam to stop oil drilling in a disputed area in July brought relations between the communist neighbors to a low.
But on Sunday, Vietnam’s state television said Chinese President Xi Jinping had told Vietnam’s General Secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, he wanted to work with Southeast Asian nations on a code of conduct in the sea. China’s Xinhua News Agency said China and Vietnam had agreed to properly handle maritime issues and strive to maintain peace and stability.
Yet some observers think underlying risks remain.
“Despite reduced tensions in the last 12 months, the dispute could erupt again at any moment,” said Singapore-based South China Sea expert Ian Storey.
“Hence the emphasis on concluding a “substantive and effective” Code of Conduct as soon as possible to prevent incidents at sea from occurring and escalating into a serious crisis.”