Trump and Duterte
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.
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