Trump and Duterte

Philippine Daily Inquirer - - OPINION -

The long-awaited first meet­ing be­tween Philip­pine Pres­i­dent Duterte and US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump of the United States was on the side­lines of the Asia-Pa­cific Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion (Apec) Sum­mit in Viet­nam last week; by all ac­counts, it went well. But it was in Manila, for the 50th an­niver­sary gala of the As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions (Asean) on Sun­day and then dur­ing a bi­lat­eral meet­ing on Mon­day, that the warmth of their per­sonal re­la­tion­ship was on full dis­play.

They had cer­tainly worked at it; Trump has done his part to reach out to Mr. Duterte and counter his anti-Amer­i­can­ism. In one tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion, the US pres­i­dent had re­port­edly told his Philip­pine coun­ter­part “what a great job” he was do­ing in the con­duct of the so-called war on drugs. Mr. Duterte has re­turned the fa­vor, on oc­ca­sion even dis­miss­ing ques­tions about Trump’s in­tel­lec­tual ca­pac­i­ties by as­sert­ing that the bil­lion­aire busi­ness­man was “a deep thinker.”

They con­tin­ued at it dur­ing their meet­ings in Manila. At the gala din­ner Mr. Duterte hosted, Trump, who sat be­side him, was vis­i­bly pleased and in good spir­its. Mr. Duterte even stood up to sing a song, “on the or­ders of the com­man­der in chief of the United States,” he said—the per­fect host, with the per­fect com­pli­ment to the prin­ci­pal guest. Af­ter the 40-minute bi­lat­eral meet­ing on Mon­day, Trump hailed his “great re­la­tion­ship” with Mr. Duterte.

As an ec­static Pres­i­den­tial Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Sec­re­tary Martin An­da­nar told re­porters, the two lead­ers “re­ally hit it off.”

Trump and Mr. Duterte are un­likely po­lit­i­cal kin­dred spir­its: They are both un­con­ven­tional, pop­ulist lead­ers who prac­tice shock pol­i­tics. They use coarse or can­did lan­guage to drive their points home, they ad­mire au­thor­i­tar­ian lead­ers they know well and high­func­tion­ing au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes in gen­eral, and they be­lieve to dif­fer­ent de­grees that they need to re­build the poli­ties they in­her­ited, demo­cratic niceties be damned.

And de­spite the par­tic­i­pa­tion of the nine other Asean lead­ers and the pres­ence of lead­ers of the great pow­ers, in­clud­ing Ja­pan, In­dia, Aus­tralia and Canada, much of the of­fi­cial spot­light fell on Trump. This was a nec­es­sary mea­sure by the Philip­pine gov­ern­ment, which has pub­licly praised the Chi­nese and Rus­sian pres­i­dents for their min­i­mal or be­lated role in bring­ing the Marawi con­flict to a de­ci­sive end; in truth, the United States and Aus­tralia were the Armed Forces of the Philip­pines’ main sources of sup­port dur­ing the con­flict. Trump’s pride of place at the Philip­pines’ host­ing of Asean’s 50th, a mere year af­ter Mr. Duterte an­nounced his “sep­a­ra­tion” from the United States in a fo­rum in China, was not an ac­ci­dent.

It helped Trump that his main ri­vals for Mr. Duterte’s es­teem were not in Manila. Xi Jin­ping of China and Vladimir Putin of Rus­sia both opted to return home af­ter the Apec Sum­mit in Viet­nam, and send their re­spec­tive pre­miers to the Asean and East Asia sum­mits in the Philip­pines. That meant that Trump re­ceived all the at­ten­tion that might other­wise have gone to Xi and to Putin; he ob­vi­ously rel­ished the warm re­cep­tion.

But this was a metaphor, an apt one, for the cur­rent state of Amer­i­can in­flu­ence in the Asian re­gion. Only in the ab­sence of the most pow­er­ful Chi­nese leader since Mao Ze­dong and the most pow­er­ful Rus­sian leader since the last days of the Soviet Union can Trump hope to stand out. A year af­ter Barack Obama’s at­tempt to “pivot” Amer­i­can mil­i­tary forces and eco­nomic prow­ess to Asia, the United States, in Trump’s chaotic quest to make Amer­ica great again by plac­ing its in­ter­ests ahead of ev­ery­one else, finds it­self in­creas­ingly dis­placed by China and the other great pow­ers in the re­gion.

And the na­ture of Trump’s com­pli­ment and the ob­ject of his high praise—the re­la­tion­ship he en­joys with Mr. Duterte—show the lim­its of the cur­rent state of the Philip­pine-Amer­i­can al­liance.


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