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Trump Courts Duterte, Duterte Courts Xi

Trump Courts Duterte, Duterte Courts Xi

President Duterte poses with Chinese sailors during yesterday’s tour of the Chinese warship Chang Chun docked at the Sasa Port in Davao City. (The Philippine Star)

A Labor Day weekend phone call by U.S. President Donald Trump to his counterpart in the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, sparked criticism from human rights groups—one of which accused Trump of “essentially endorsing Duterte’s murderous war on drugs” while adding, “Trump is now morally complicit in future killings.” 
Critics have also questioned Trump’s comments on May 1st that he would be “honored” to meet with North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, under the “right circumstances.” While his choice of words were not the best, American presidents oftentimes feel compelled to chose dialogue over outright avoidance in the hope of improving relations.

During the call to Duterte, Trump invited him to visit the White House and apparently expressed Washington’s commitment to the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951. Trump’s call represents an effort to improve relations after Duterte called the previous U.S. president a ‘son of a whore’ and told him to ‘go to hell’ following criticism of his war on drugs.

Duterte may accept (he says he may be too busy) the offer from Trump—a leader whom he said he shares similarities with: “Things have changed, there is a new leadership. He wants to make friends, he says we are friends so why should we pick a fight?”

While Duterte seems to be warming toward Washington, he is also keen to show friendship toward Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Earlier this month he visited three Chinese warships in his home town of Davao City on Mindanao island—the first Chinese navy port call to the country since 2010. The three Chinese naval ships, the Changchun (DDG-150), a guided missile destroyer; the Jinzhou (FF-G532), a guided missile frigate; and the Chaohu (890), a replenishment ship, were in Davao City for a three-day visit from April 30 to May 2.

Interestingly, his visit to Chinese warships came a day after issuing his chairman’s statement in Manila on behalf of the latest round of talks among the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Manila, involving Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Perhaps mindful of the coming warships, his statement on April 29 failed to mention an international tribunal ruling last year against China’s maritime claims, and did not use previous ASEAN language calling for a “respect for legal and diplomatic processes” in resolving the dispute. Rather, in his watered-down statement, Duterte alluded to “concerns expressed by some leaders over recent developments in the area”.

Statements such as this (and others) by Duterte, which downplay his nation’s claims to disputed maritime territory in the South China Sea, are dangerous, and for some, constitute a cause for impeachment. On Monday, a Congressional panel of Philippine lawmakers found a request for impeachment (which also accused Duterte of concealing assets and supporting extrajudicial killings), to lack substance and recommended its dismissal by Congress.

Right now, the “strongman” Duterte seems hard-pressed between appeasing his nationalistic citizens and military by asserting claims to the disputed islands while holding off an increasingly aggressive China. After visiting the Chinese warships, Duterte repeated that joint military exercises between the Philippines and China were a possibility.

However, his evolving friendships with Trump, and especially Chinese President Xi Jinping, are cause for worry among the other littoral states of the South China Sea, as they fear being left out of any grand compromise between the two major Pacific powers and the Philippines.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666