TO many’s eternal dismay, President Rodrigo Duterte won unquestionably big for hosting the just concluded 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), East Asian, and 13 other Asean bilateral (Asean-US, Asean-China, Asean-Japan, Asean-Korea, Asean-India, etc.) summits, even though it set back the Filipino taxpayers by at least P15.5 billion, according to initial reports.
Aside from giving the visiting 19 world leaders a treat they will not soon forget, DU30 succeeded in avoiding two mighty issues he clearly dreaded the most: a formal denunciation of the summary killings in his war on drugs and an attempt to pressure him to take a more aggressive stance vis-a-vis China on the South China Sea maritime and territorial issues.
US President Donald Trump played a key role in both, for which he has now been roundly excoriated in the American press. Trump’s prior conversations with China’s President Xi Jinping in Beijing, where he literally fawned upon the latter and avoided all mention of human rights when asking him to take care of North Korean President Kim Jong-Un, who has threatened to unleash missiles on the US, and then with Vietnamese President Tan Dai Quang in Hanoi, where he offered to mediate in the overlapping maritime and territorial claims between China and some of its Asean neighbors, set the stage for Trump’s meeting with DU30, which the US President later reviewed in superlative terms.
Responding to questions from the press after the Trump-DU30 meeting, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “human rights briefly came up in the context of the Philippine fight against illegal drugs.”
This was quickly contradicted by Harry Roque, DU30’s spokesman, who said, “the issue of human rights did not arise; it was not brought up.”
However, DU30 later referred to human rights in his opening address to the lead summit, and upon Trump’s return in Washington, D.C., the White House announced a $2-million grant for DU30’s anti-drug program, along with $14.3 million for the rehabilitation of Marawi City, which had gone through five months of fighting between government troops and the IS-influenced Mautes.
There’s obviously more to it than meets the eye. On his way to Asia, where he also attended the APEC Economic Leaders Meeting in Danang, Vietnam, Trump had been under pressure from civil society groups and some members of the US Congress to raise with DU30 the “extrajudicial killings” in the 16 months-long drug war.
It is hard to believe Trump would just completely shut down such demands; it is easier to believe Trump did mention the human rights issue in passing—which accounts for the White House press secretary’s statement-but the two presidents decided not to make it a public issue by announcing it to the press anymore—which could account for Roque’s statement.
Even EU was silent
What about the European Union’s failure to raise the issue too?
The EU had long been the source of running condemnations of the extra-judicial killings. On numerous occasions, it had drawn strong epithets and expletives from DU30 for its statements. DU30 even renounced all EU economic aids and grants. Yet DU30 claims that during the Asean-EU summit, he himself tried to lead the discussion on the killings, but European Council President Donald Tusk brushed the subject aside. Why?
From the very beginning China, Russia, Japan, India, South Korea and all the Asean partners had shown no eagerness in publicly raising the issue against DU30, but when the US, the EU, Australia, and even the UN Secretary General decided not to raise it too, one had to wonder what geo-strategic game was at play?
What’s the real play?
Of course, nobody wanted to embarrass the host and put him on the defensive; given DU30’s well-known character flaws, he could go ballistic and rogue, if publicly criticized or provoked. So, they tried to avoid anything that could lead to such unpleasantness. But there had to be something more substantial and strategic than this.
On the part of China and Russia, they did not have to do anything anymore to draw DU30 closer; he has already started to gravitate towards them through various programs of cooperation that now include grants and investments, and the supply of some weapons.
For Trump, however, the challenge was far more complex. His predecessor Barack Obama had managed to win DU30’s personal antipathy for showing “undue interest” in the drug killings; and the man’s personal feelings against Obama, which he expressed in colorful slur, quickly translated into a decision to separate economically and militarily from the US and to align himself with China and Russia “against the world.”
Although Trump and DU30 had spoken a couple of times or more on the telephone before, and they were reported to have established instant rapport, a personal meeting was needed to cement the new “friendship.” Although they had a brief exchange of greetings in Danang earlier, this had to happen at the Asean summit. Trump had to win DU30’s personal trust and confidence first before he could put US-Philippine political and military alliance back on track.
At the Asean gala dinner before the summit, Trump instantly warmed up to DU30 and his partner Cielito “Honeylet” Avanceña. With her, the US president had the longest handshake of the evening—15 seconds, according to Pia Ranada of Rappler.
DU30’s own handshake with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was the longest among the dignitaries—but only for seven seconds, according to the same reporter. Twice Trump placed his other hand on Avanceña’s butterfly sleeve, to show his admiration, the reporter observed. The bonding between DU30 and Trump reached its climax when at Trump’s request, DU30 crooned a Filipino love song.
Trump described his Philippine visit a great success, saying the two countries security alliance, which had been threatened by DU30’s decision to “separate,” was “back on track.” No dissent was heard from the other side. This alliance is anchored on the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, which has remained in force despite the expiration of the Philippine-US military bases agreement, and the dismantling of Clark Air Force Base and Subic in 1991. The MDT was subsequently reinforced by the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement of 2014.
When the Maute terror group struck in Marawi on May 23, DU30’s immediate response was to declare martial law for 90 days all over Mindanao. He was then visiting Moscow, so he had to cut short his visit to attend to the emergency at home. The first group that extended assistance to defeat the Mautes was the US government. The extremists proved to be formidable, but with US support the AFP was able to recover Marawi after five months. It cost over 1,000 dead, 360,000 displaced, and an entire city destroyed.
Partners in Marawi
DU30 thanked Trump for the role the US played in ending the siege, and Trump assured DU30 of continued assistance. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who stayed on for an official visit after the summits, also pledged P1 billion for Marawi. So has Japan committed substantial assistance.
The normalization of military relations is expected to reenergize the inter-military cooperation between the Philippines and the US. This includes the conduct of joint military exercises, and military supplies and sales.
There was a time when the US was the sole supplier of arms and equipment to the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Under the 1953 US-Philippines Military Assistance Agreement, the Philippines shall procure arms, ammunition, military equipment and naval vessels from sources other than the US only on the basis of mutual agreement between the US and the Philippine governments. This agreement has long expired.
Although the US continues to be the main arms supplier of the Philippine military, DU30’s new relations with China and Russia have enabled him to receive weapons from Beijing and Moscow. Japan has also proved to be a steady donor of aircraft and seacraft to patrol Philippine waters.
Time to end the killings
Trump’s friendship with DU30 offers new opportunities for both parties. But it is not without its risks and dangers. Just because Trump has said nothing about the drug killings, DU30 might be led to believe his human rights problem is over, and that the drug killings could continue, as though opposition to it had been completely crushed or silenced.
After all, only Canadian Premier Justin Trudeau and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had tried to rain on his parade. But they tried to do this by telling the press that they had talked to DU30 about human rights, not by making a full statement on human rights for all the world to hear during the summit. This would be a serious mistake.
DU30’s human rights problem is far from over. But the silence of the summits gives him a full opportunity to end it once and for all. Now that those who should be talking about it have decided to keep their peace, let him go hammer and tongs against the most notorious drug dealers, with the global community cheering him on, but let him permanently end all the killings.