US President Donald Trump said he had a “great relationship” with Rodrigo Duterte while they ignored shouted questions about alleged abuses carried out under the Philippine leader’s deadly battle against narcotics.
“This has been very successful,” Trump said in remarks with Duterte before their first formal meeting in Manila, where they are attending summits hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. When reporters asked the leaders about human rights, Duterte said: “This is not a press statement.”
“We are your ally,” Duterte said to Trump. “We are an important ally.”
The issue of human rights didn’t arise during their 40-minute meeting, Duterte spokesman Harry Roque told reporters afterward. Duterte informed Trump of the drug menace in the Philippines, and the U.S. president “appeared sympathetic,” Roque said.
Trump asked why U.S. cars face higher tariffs than Japanese automobiles, Roque said, and said he would study a potential bilateral trade deal with the Philippines.
The bonhomie between the leaders stands in contrast to a year ago, when Duterte cursed out former President Barack Obama for criticizing his war on drugs that has left thousands dead. He subsequently pivoted toward China, de-escalating tensions with Beijing over their competing South China Sea claims and winning $24 billion worth of Chinese loans and investment into the Philippines.
Ties with the U.S., a longstanding Philippine security ally, improved after Trump took office. Following an April phone call between Trump and Duterte, the White House said the Philippines is “fighting very hard to rid its country of drugs.” The tough-talking Duterte, famed for his profanity-riddled outbursts, has spoken warmly of Trump, saying this month that their mouths move “in the same cadence.”
At a gala dinner on Sunday night, Duterte sang a Filipino love song “upon the orders of the commander-in-chief of the United States,” according to a video posted on Twitter by a Philippine government official.
While the meeting between Trump and Duterte wouldn’t solve all the problems between the nations, it will “move our relationship forward,” Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano told reporters on Sunday.
“There is no doubt that there were some ill feelings, there were some hills and valleys in our relationship with the U.S., especially at the latter end of the Obama administration,” Cayetano said. “But it’s been repaired and strengthened by President Trump.”
Trump on Monday held a three-way meeting with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, both U.S. allies. Trump said he has made “big progress” on trade during the trip and would make a statement on North Korea and trade when he returns to the U.S.
On Sunday, Trump offered to help resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea involving the Philippines, Vietnam, China and other claimants. He has primarily focused his attention on North Korea’s nuclear program, a shift from the Obama administration’s more aggressive stance against China’s activities in the South China Sea.
‘Very Good Mediator’
“I am a very good mediator and a very good arbitrator,” Trump said Sunday in Hanoi ahead of a meeting with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang. “If I can be of help in any way, let me know.”
Vietnam’s Quang didn’t answer directly when asked about Trump’s offer at a press briefing, while Cayetano from the Philippines said any effort would need to be coordinated among other countries in the region. China opposes U.S. involvement in resolving the disputes, preferring to settle them through one-on-one talks with other nations.
It’s a “very kind and generous offer because he is a good mediator,” Cayetano said of Trump. “He is the master of the art of the deal.”
Both the Philippines and Vietnam have recently seen China disrupt oil-and-gas exploration in contested areas of the South China Sea. While the U.S. doesn’t take a position on territorial disputes, it has criticized China for land reclamation and other moves to assert control over areas also claimed in part by Southeast Asian countries.
Duterte warned Sunday that a war over the waterway would devastate the region. He said that Chinese President Xi Jinping told him on Saturday that he also didn’t want to “waste the lives of my countrymen for a useless war that cannot be won by anyone.”
“The South China Sea is better left untouched,” Duterte said. “Nobody can afford to go to war.”
The 10-nation ASEAN is set to announce Monday the start of negotiations with China on a code of conduct for the South China Sea, the Philippines said in a statement. The talks have made little progress since the nations agreed formally to work toward a code in 2002.
Asean and China on Monday plan to tout “ positive developments” in the waters, according to a draft joint statement seen by reporters.
“While the situation is calmer now, we cannot take the current progress for granted,” parties to say,” the draft says. — Bloomberg