AS far as public perception is concerned, President Rodrigo Duterte scored big when US President Donald Trump called last week to invite him to come to the White House for talks on the future of US-Philippine relations. He was clearly the big winner. No timetable was set for the visit, but it could happen before Trump comes to Manila for the East Asia Summit and the US-Asean Leaders Summit in November and after DU30 visits Beijing and Moscow this month. Trump also invited the Prime Ministers of Thailand and Singapore to come, but it’s his invitation to DU30 that has attracted the most reaction in Washington.
The US press was incredulous. They had been bashing DU30 for his brutal war on drugs, which was reported to have already killed some 8,000 drug suspects, without any documentation. Last December, the New York Times ran several pages of photographs showing 57 victims of this drug war, under the headline, “They Are Slaughtering Us Like Animals.” These pictures just won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography for Daniel Berelhulak, a free-lance photographer. After the Mindanao lawyer Jude Josue Sabio filed a 77-page “communication” before the International Criminal Court at The Hague accusing DU30 of killing 9,400 victims from 1988 up to the present, the NY Times suggested in an editorial that DU30 should be stopped, and that the ICC should act swiftly on the complaint.
Bad news turns good
Had Trump been listening to the US press, he would have considered DU30 the last person on earth to invite to the White House. He was simply bad news. But Trump delights in never paying much attention to what the press says about him; in fact, his latest famous act vis-a-vis the Washington press has been to accuse it of fake news and to snub the annual White House correspondents’ dinner, where the US President was the traditional honored guest. Trump must have an extremely important reason for wanting to talk to DU30 before their November meeting for him to risk all negative reactions to it.
The tone of the Times reporting was clearly condemnatory. It described Trump’s invitation as an “embrace” with a “murderous” president, who has killed thousands, and suggested that Trump brace himself not only for “an avalanche of criticism” from human rights groups, but even for some “internal” dissent from within his own government, notably the State Department and the National Security Council. It quoted John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch, as saying, “By essentially endorsing Duterte’s murderous war on drugs, Trump is now morally complicit in future killings. Although the traits of his personality likely make it impossible, Trump should be ashamed of himself.”
It also quoted Democratic Senator Christopher Murphy of Connecticut, a member of the Senate foreign relations committee, as saying on Twitter, “We are watching in real time as the American human rights bully pulpit disintegrates into ash.” The report sought to point out that “embracing” DU30 was part of Trump’s policy of getting close to questionable political characters like President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, whom he had congratulated earlier for winning in a disputed referendum, Egyptian leader Abdel Fattach el-Sisi, who had come to power through a coup, and of course Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Bonded by adversity
Clearly, the proposed meeting of the two Presidents will not make either of them any more “acceptable” to the American media than they are right now. But their common attitude towards the American media could be the starting point of a political bonding, which could be most helpful in constructing better security and economic ties between their two countries and, especially, in dealing with China. Closer and stronger ties between the US and China have become indispensable in the face of the troublesome nuclear threat posed by North Korea. After DU30 decided to go easy on China on the South China Sea issue during the just-concluded Asean summit, Trump might have seen an opportunity to pursue a more vigorous modus vivendi with Beijing, through DU30’s good offices. This would allow him to continue whatever initiative he had wanted to pursue during his summit meeting with President Xi Jinping in Florida, which came under the shadow of his missile strike on Syria.
DU30 as diplomat
This could create a new role for DU30. Instead of chasing drug suspects and warding off charges of extra-judicial killing wherever he goes, he would now be shoehorned into the hitherto unfamiliar world of big-power diplomacy. This is probably the break he really needs. It would certainly require a new presidential demeanor and a new presidential discourse; but the just-concluded Asean summit showed that he is capable of making the necessary adjustments, if and whenever needed.
He even managed to dress right during the summit.
In fact, without his apparently being aware of it, he may have already begun his long-intended metamorphosis. He raised some eyebrows among the Asean heads when he decided to squeeze two state visits—one for the Sultan of Brunei and another for the President of Indonesia—into the run-up to the summit; but he calmly took it in stride when the Prime Minister of Singapore skipped the final Asean dinner and official picture-taking before the summit formally ended. Which means he’s learning fast on his feet.
So far, he has said the right things about North Korea. He had sought to caution Trump not to threaten Kim Jong-un with nuclear firepower and risk an unpredictable response. These were among the most reasonable words coming from Asean, and Trump is probably right to exploit the possibility of cementing a deal with China and North Korea through DU30’s good offices. If that is indeed the real plan, it is hoped it finally works out.
The play at sea
The US is an old and tested ally, but it may have some catching up to do with DU30 as far as foreign and security relations are concerned. Ever since he announced his economic and military “separation” from Washington during his state visit to China last October, he has taken no concrete steps to implement that separation. The Mutual Defense Treaty, the Visiting Forces Agreement, and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement—the three treaties that define the Philippines’ defense and security ties with the US—all remain undisturbed, and the regular Balikatan joint military exercises also continue. But the rhetoric and the symbolic environment have changed, while Russia and China have tried to develop closer military ties with the Philippines.
Out at sea, the USS Carl Vinson, the US Navy’s third Nimitz-class super carrier, accompanied by Carrier Air Wing Seventeen, Destroyer Squadron 1 and guided missile carrier Bunker Hill, represents a superior naval presence in the area. But its coming and going is hardly celebrated by the friendly media. In May 2011, when Carl Vinson visited Manila, it elicited some mild concern after then President B.S. Aquino 3rd, together with most of his senior Cabinet members and the Armed Forces chief of staff, boarded the aircraft carrier from a US military helicopter before it entered Philippine territorial waters, without the nation knowing anything about it.
This happened after the execution of Osama bin Laden and the US Navy buried his body from the deck of Carl Vinson into the Indian Sea. The question some observers raised then had to do with the propriety of the President and his Cabinet members boarding the foreign aircraft carrier while at sea, and its implications to the nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Some pointed out that on board a foreign military vessel at sea, the commander of the vessel exercises superior authority over all on board, and that by boarding the vessel, the President of the Philippines placed himself under the commander’s authority.
The visit of the Russian large anti-submarine ship Admiral Tributs in January, and that of the guided missile cruiser Varyag this month both made quite a splash in the friendly media without igniting any controversy. The same with the current visit of the Chinese naval flotilla. The Chinese flotilla was originally scheduled to hold a reception in Manila, but had to cancel and relocate everything to Davao, where it was welcomed by the President’s daughter, Mayor Sara Duterte Carpio. On board the Tributs, the Varyag and the Chinese flotilla, DU30 posed for photos without anyone raising any question of protocolar propriety. What Malacañang has sought to underscore is DU30’s personal diplomacy.