TO United States President Donald Trump, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines must be not just another “pretty smart cookie” and that is why he invited him to visit him at the White House this November.
Behind the surprisingly gracious invitation, however, is Trump’s apparent belief that Duterte can help him fulfill the unfinished business—pivoting to Asia—of his immediate predecessor Barack Obama, in addition to keeping at bay North Korea, which has been provoking the West these past few weeks with unbelievable threats of nuclear annihilation.
But hardly had Trump presumably completed drafting the letter of invitation to Duterte when his equally loquacious Philippine counterpart on Monday told him: “Mr. President [Trump], I do not think that you can scare Kim Jong-un [the North Korean leader]with firepower.”
Early in the Duterte presidency, the Philippine position was to engage China once the emerging superpower crosses the line over a maritime row between Manila and Beijing.
That boast has been overtaken by events and the Philippine President can even deny that he had promised during the election campaign last year that he would jet-ski to the South China Sea to plant the Philippine flag on the territories there claimed by Manila.
Give Duterte an A for audacity, for giving the unsolicited advice to Trump to try diplomacy with Pyongyang, not couched saber-rattling as was the wont of Obama.
Few Asian leaders, if any, have told off a sitting US President what to do because the time-honored practice was to listen to whatever America tells them to do, with the former Soviet Union and now the Russian Federation, or Russia, for example, even when the Cold War ended many years ago.
But Duterte is not just some regional leader anymore, having gotten the attention of other world shakers for the good and the allegedly bad that he has done in the Philippines since he became President in 2016.
For all the ugly but for the most part unsubstantiated accusations that The New York Times and other vociferous critics here and overseas have been hurling at Duterte and his administration, Trump is apparently unperturbed.
The guy is still a businessman, after all, having earned his spurs and his billions by taking risks. And this time, he is putting his money on Duterte, as well as on Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the army commander who staged a coup in 2014 and heads the military junta that now rules Thailand.
Trump’s betting on the Philippine President, in particular, did not come by accident, with the US leader set to exploit Manila’s 2017 chairmanship of the Asean.
Already, the Southeast Asian regional bloc has stood pat on consensus as conflict settler, not arbitration by an international court, to the delight of China.
This stance has begun to sit well with Trump, who early in his young presidency indicated that North Korea should be punished for its supposedly reckless nuclear build-up but who has since been realizing the virtues of dialogue over diatribe.
The gamble he took apparently earned frowns from South Korea, which has deployed a “now operational” but controversial missile defense system which is meant to be more than a deterrent against trigger-happy Kim Jong-un, and which move has reportedly angered China.
But then, Trump has not hidden his “empathy for strongmen with spotty [human]rights records”.
Still, his “embrace of Rodrigo Duterte shows he still has the power to shock,” or so went a report on Tuesday.
Trump knows that his “friend” is not just another “pretty smart cookie.”
Actually, he echoed Obama’s description of Duterte as a “colorful guy.”
If Duterte plays his cards right, he might just establish himself as a Third World leader whose views will be sought by First World “friends” other than Trump.
And he can even claim that he pulled it off without joining The Apprentice.