The Trump and Rody show

The Philippine Star - - OPINION - ANA MARIE PAM­INTUAN

Ac­tions speak louder than words, and in this part of the world, what’s left un­said is of­ten as im­por­tant, or even more so, than of­fi­cial state­ments.

Both Pres­i­dent Duterte and his US coun­ter­part Don­ald Trump have been crit­i­cized for in­co­her­ent mes­sages dur­ing the gath­er­ings of the Asia-Pa­cific Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion fo­rum in Viet­nam as well as the As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions and East Asia Sum­mit in Manila.

What both lead­ers did (or did not do), how­ever, and how they in­ter­acted with each other sent mes­sages that were clear enough. Trump hailed his “great re­la­tion­ship” with Duterte and the Philip­pines; Duterte said the coun­try is a “strong ally” of the United States.

Con­sid­er­ing the chill in bi­lat­eral ties be­fore Trump came to power, and the ver­bal abuse Duterte pub­licly heaped at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity both on Amer­ica’s pres­i­dent at the time, Barack Obama, and its am­bas­sador to Manila, Philip Goldberg, there are peo­ple who see Trump’s visit as an un­qual­i­fied suc­cess.

Re­mem­ber that be­fore the visit, Duterte had an­nounced he was turn­ing his back on Washington. He was also try­ing (with lit­tle suc­cess) to get his ad­min­is­tra­tion to pivot with him to China.

On Sun­day night at the gala din­ner cel­e­brat­ing 50 years of ASEAN, Duterte elicited laugh­ter from the con­stantly scowl­ing Trump, while the US com­man­der-in-chief got Duterte to sing the love song “Ikaw” on stage with Pilita Cor­rales. I don’t think Duterte was jok­ing when he said Trump egged him to do it. When was the last time we saw the Philip­pine Pres­i­dent do this? Duterte has to be in a truly good mood and en­joy­ing his present com­pany to do that.

Hu­man rights ad­vo­cates were aghast as the leader of the free world gave Dirty Rody the equiv­a­lent of a warm em­brace. As I pre­dicted, how­ever, Trump wasn’t on a mis­sion to lec­ture but to re­as­sure al­lies of US com­mit­ment to the re­gion.

If Trump had in­tended to harp on hu­man rights, he should’ve been an equal op­por­tu­nity critic. But he was silent on the is­sue with China’s Xi Jin­ping and Viet­nam’s Tran Dai Quang – not ex­actly cham­pi­ons of hu­man rights. In­done­sia’s Joko Wi­dodo has also launched a crack­down on drug traf­fick­ing with the same bru­tal­ity as Duterte’s war.

As Duterte has put it, why should he be sin­gled out? And Trump did not. By Mon­day, he was on a first-name ba­sis with “Ro­drigo.” Does Ro­drigo call him Don­ald? Such ca­sual ties work with Duterte, who ear­lier this year in­vited to his Davao home Ja­panese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe.

* * * It surely helped Philip­pine-US ties that Trump came to Manila (and ex­tended his stay by a day for the East Asia Sum­mit, although he skipped it any­way yes­ter­day) while Duterte’s idols Xi and Rus­sia’s Vladimir Putin sent their sec­ond-in-com­mand in­stead and snubbed the party.

Trump con­tin­ues to re­ceive flak for shak­ing the hand of the Philip­pine “killer” as crit­ics call Duterte. But the US has a long his­tory of work­ing with strong­men to ad­vance its strate­gic in­ter­ests.

ASEAN it­self was formed with US sup­port partly to stop the spread of com­mu­nism in South­east Asia. Look at four of the five found­ing ASEAN lead­ers: In­done­sia’s Suharto, Sin­ga­pore’s Lee Kuan Yew, Thai­land’s mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor Thanom Kit­tika­chorn and our very own Fer­di­nand Mar­cos. Tunku Ab­dul Rah­man, who presided over the cre­ation of Malaysia, was no au­to­crat, but it was Ma­hathir Mo­hamad who dom­i­nated the coun­try’s pol­i­tics and in­ter­ac­tion with ASEAN for over two decades.

Ron­ald Rea­gan propped up Mar­cos nearly all the way to the bit­ter end, un­til peo­ple power left the US pres­i­dent with no choice but to dump his ally.

Some of the staunch­est US al­lies in the Mus­lim world in fight­ing ter­ror­ism are no cham­pi­ons of hu­man rights.

* * * Cer­tain mem­bers of the Trump team may be try­ing to ad­vance demo­cratic ideals as the US pres­i­dent pro­motes his mis­sion of “MAGA” – make Amer­ica great again.

The Trump team, notably Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son, in­creas­ingly makes ref­er­ences to the “Indo-Pa­cific,” con­sid­er­ing the Pa­cific and In­dian Oceans as a sin­gle strate­gic area. “Indo-Pa­cific” also high­lights the strate­gic im­por­tance of In­dia, the world’s largest democ­racy and a nu­clear power like China. Trump has picked up the term.

The Aus­tralians, whose land mass faces the two oceans, be­gan re­fer­ring to their re­gion as the “Indo-Pa­cific” way back in 2013. Hil­lary Clinton re­port­edly used it oc­ca­sion­ally when she was sec­re­tary of state. The term is also used by the Ja­panese, In­done­sians, and of course In­dia. This re­gional group­ing could make a stronger push for demo­cratic ideals to­gether with free and fair com­pe­ti­tion, good gov­er­nance and ad­her­ence to international rules in­clud­ing the dec­la­ra­tion of hu­man rights.

Trump’s first foray as pres­i­dent into the Indo-Pa­cific, how­ever, seemed to be fo­cused mainly on fair trade, coun­tert­er­ror­ism and con­fronting the North Korean threat.

If ad­vanc­ing MAGA meant win­ning back his Philip­pine coun­ter­part, who was ex­tremely miffed with the pre­vi­ous White House oc­cu­pant, Trump could le­git­i­mately de­scribe his mis­sion at least in Manila as a suc­cess.

Trump even seems able to un­der­stand Pinoy jokes – the po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect ones for which Duterte is known. Some for­eign jour­nal­ists were not amused by Duterte’s re­mark to re­porters dur­ing the Philip­pines-US bi­lat­eral meet­ing that they were “spies” and it was time for them to get lost.

But Pinoy jour­nal­ists who have cov­ered lo­cal politi­cians un­der­stand the re­mark as a joke – ban­ter­ing be­tween a pub­lic of­fi­cial and the re­porters as­signed to the beat. Maybe Trump truly got the joke, or found it hi­lar­i­ous that Duterte could eas­ily get away with it.

Whether or not it was a laugh­ing mat­ter, the two lead­ers smiled to­gether. It was bet­ter than Duterte harp­ing on hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions com­mit­ted by US troops against Mus­lim Filipinos and rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies in Balangiga over a cen­tury ago.

This doesn’t mean Washington is go­ing to stop push­ing for hu­man rights and ad­her­ence to the rule of law in the Philip­pines. But it will be done through other chan­nels, and not in a way that would look like Un­cle Sam cas­ti­gat­ing his Lit­tle Brown Brother.

Trump re­port­edly liked “Ro­drigo,” find­ing him “a good guy.” Judg­ing from Duterte’s treat­ment of his US coun­ter­part, the feel­ing was mu­tual.

For those who were dis­mayed by the de­te­ri­o­ra­tion in bi­lat­eral ties last year, it was a great im­prove­ment.

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