WHITE House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said it all. The American equivalent of the Philippines’ Executive Secretary told ABC News: “There is nothing right now facing this country and facing the [Asian] region that is a bigger threat than what is happening in North Korea. Whether they’re good folks or bad folks — people we wish would do better in their country — doesn’t matter. We’ve got to be on the same page.”
That’s how Priebus explained the invitation by United States President Donald Trump for his Filipino counterpart Rodrigo Duterte to visit the White House. It was conveyed in a phone call last Saturday night during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit state dinner for Asean heads of state and delegations in Malacañang Palace.
That invitation is now getting a grilling from American media hostile toward President Duterte not only for the thousands of suspect deaths in his war on illegal drugs, but more so for his cussing at then-US President Barack Obama for expressing grave concern over the killings.
Duterte unleashed his “son-of-a-whore” line at Obama days before the latter’s last summit conference with Asean in September, prompting the US to cancel the bilateral meeting between the two leaders.
American media has itself suffered Duterte’s diatribes, most recently CNN and The New York Times, along with international human rights entities like New York’s Human Rights Watch, London-based Amnesty International, the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva; and UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings Agnes Callamard.
And in just the last couple of weeks, two international organizations, Reporters Without Borders and Washington’s Freedom House, took issue with Duterte for his statements that were seen as encouraging or justifying violence against journalists.
Nor did he win media sympathy when he recently threatened not to renew the TV network franchise of ABS-CBN for allegedly refusing to air campaign ads in last May’s elections. Duterte also sought to press tax evasion and property eviction cases against firms of the family controlling the Philippine Daily Inquirer, a strong critic of the President.
Yet despite all that baggage and bad press burdening Duterte, Trump found reason to weather vehement criticism, and accord the Filipino leader the grand gesture of a presidential invitation to visit the White House.
And ever the flashy dealmaker, Trump timed his call for maximum prestige and publicity gain for Duterte, who could then let it be known to visiting Asean heads of state and government that the most powerful leader in the world rang him up.
What the Donald wants from Digong
To seasoned geopolitical watchers, Trump clearly wants something big from Duterte, and Chief of Staff Priebus indicated that it has something to do with North Korea.
On April 28, the day before the Summit, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho wrote Asean to seek its support in Pyongyang’s tussle with Washington. In his call the very next day, Trump brought up with Duterte the crisis over North Korean nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program.
The Asean chairman expressed grave concern over possible war and its devastating impact on Asia. “Who am I to say that you should stop?” Duterte said of his talk with Trump. “But I would say, ‘Mr. President, please see to it that there is no war because my region will suffer immensely.’ I will just communicate to [Trump], ‘Just let him [North Korean leader Kim Jong-un] play … Do not play into his hands’.”
That doesn’t sound like Trump got much out of his phone call, at least not enough to court media and human rights opprobrium by conferring on Duterte the ultimate White House honor. Nor is it likely that Trump pressed for a stronger Asean line on China’s maritime activities. That would have displeased Beijing, whose help Washington needs to restrain Pyongyang.
So, what did the Donald want from Digong?
Here’s one dumb answer: In case there is war in Korea, the Pentagon wants to station massive US forces in the Philippines under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement signed three years ago during then-President Obama’s visit to Manila. The EDCA would also allow the American military to use Philippine bases, of which five have already been picked by Washington.
But President Duterte has more than once expressed dislike for the EDCA, even threatening to abrogate it, which he can since the Philippine Supreme Court had ruled that it is an executive agreement not needing Senate ratification.
When Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced in January that the US would build facilities in selected bases over the next three years, Duterte erupted over the alleged entry of American nukes in the country. Nothing more has since been mentioned about the US using the bases.
Now, if there is another Korean war, the Pentagon may need to deploy more firepower in Asia than it ever did since the Vietnam or Korean conflicts, or even the Second World War. That’s because the forces America may face would certainly have far more powerful weapons and equipment than the Vietnamese, North Korean, Red Chinese, or Japanese adversaries did decades ago.
Without the Philippines to hold and provision substantial naval and air forces, the US military may have difficulty deploying a big enough armada of warships, subs and planes to intimidate North Korea and perhaps other states not to push their luck. Moreover, much of the Seventh Fleet would be in open ocean, far easier targets than vessels and aircraft hiding among our 7,000-plus islands and disparate waterways.
So, probably at the Pentagon’s behest, Trump is using his charm on Duterte, who has already professed admiration for him. He has invited Duterte to the White House, boosting the latter’s national and international prestige. And that makes it far more likely than ever to get the nod for American military assets to deploy in the archipelago if there is war.
Should Duterte take the bait and open the country to US might? Let’s talk about that next time.