Getting real at ASEAN
But of course there were no discussions on human rights or extrajudicial killings in the Rodrigo Duterte-Donald Trump talks. Those who expected otherwise were naive to think so. Trump is no Barack Obama, who treated Duterte so high-handedly. Besides, any talk of human rights or extrajudicial killings would be inappropriate for a very public meeting such as the Asean Summit, whether in the main or on the sidelines. Only private calls between real men would suffice.
Trump also could not risk alienating Duterte further, especially at this time when it has a sticky thorn on its side in North Korea. If at all,America needs all the allies in can have in the region, regardless of whether their records are spotty or immaculate. If North Korea has to be isolated, then it is a numbers game for the United States, not a morality session.
There is also the matter of Trump being personally impressed by Duterte. They happen to share many characteristics that other people feel uncomfortable about but which have helped them in more practical ways than one. Both leaders, because of their unconventionality, are not being given the credit they deserve, especially by their critics who just could not accept why they became leaders in the first place.
Duterte,forexample,isbeingwidelycriticizedbyself-proclaimed nationalists for supposedly abandoning the Philippine claim to parts of the South China Sea. But Duterte has not abandoned the claim. He is just not pursuing it in the manner his critics want it pursued. In fact, he is using the claim to gain concessions from China even without having to state it.
Do you really think China would give the Philippines anything if it believes Duterte has already given up the country's claim? If the Philippines were to give up its claim, then China would owe the Philippines no concession anymore. What Duterte is doing is simply not mentioning the issue. By leaving it unsaid, he implies it. Which is fine with China because it is not embarrassed before the world. In exchange, China is being generous with its excess.
The other side of the coin would have been war. China made it very plain to Duterte. Xi Jinping told Duterte that to his face. When first they personally met, Duterte told Xi that there will be a time when the Philippines will come to collect. And Xi told Duterte "then we will go to war." Just like that. The way the message was delivered was more fearsome and scary than if Xi were to have perorated before the media like Obama used to do against China and against Duterte.
Xi is calm, collected and hardly speaks unless spoken to. He sports a perpetual grin that the more you look at it, the more unnerving it becomes. So when he says he will go to war without the superfluous verbiage to couch its impact, you believe he will. So, upon hearing that, Duterte changed tack. Given its present state, there was nothing the Philippines could do unless it wanted to commit suicide. Better to parlay the helplessness into something practically beneficial.
As for Trump, he knows America can no longer push its weight around in this neighborhood the way it used to without being seen as a hypocrite. The track record of the US in the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, even South Korea, is not really something to crow about as far as human rights is concerned. And that is just in our neck of the woods. Globally, America is the most consistent "propper-upper" of dictators until its interests no longer require it. Then it is to hell with proxies.
‘Do you really think China would give the Philippines anything if it believes Duterte has already given up the