President Trump's Asian tour took him to Manila, Vietnam this week, where numerous world leaders were gathered to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit.
Trump met with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday, saying the two leaders have enjoyed a “great relationship.”
Duterte has come under fire for his violent anti-drug strategy, which has essentially been to kill or arrest all drug users and drug dealers. Between 6,000 and 9,000 people have been killed since Duterte took office in June 2016.
Duterte's war on drugs has featured extrajudicial killings, and the leader has even bragged about killing people with his own hands. This behavior has shocked human rights advocates, who have been pressuring Trump to use his Asian tour to shed light on the issue.
But unlike previous US presidents, Trump has refrained from publicly pressing foreign leaders on human rights. Instead, he shows a healthy respect for and a willingness to cooperate with strongmen like Duterte, Vladimir Putin, and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman.
“What is unquestionable here is that the US President has passed on a golden opportunity to publicly show solidarity with the Philippine people by expressing concern about those thousands of deaths and to reproach Duterte’s utter trashing of the concept of law,” argues Phelim Kine, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
I would argue that Trump's behavior is a sound strategy. The Philippines is an important ally, and embarrassing Duterte by publicly criticizing his war on drugs could push him right into the arms of China.
“If the administration is not going to care about human rights in China, why would you care in the Philippines?” asks Asia expert Gordon Chang. The “logical thing to do is keep them close and not let Duterte flirt with China. In our struggle with China, we need all the friends we can get.”
According to White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump and Duterte “briefly” discussed human rights during a private meeting, but “the conversation focused on ISIS, illegal drugs, and trade.” According to the Philippine press, the two leaders did not discuss human rights.
Trump's interaction with Duterte aligned with the two main goals of his Asia trip, which were to strike bilateral trade agreements with Pacific Rim allies and to increase pressure on North Korea to end its nuclear program. Trump plans to make a “major announcement” upon his return to the White House, and told reports that “we’ve made some very big steps with regard to trade – far bigger than anything you know.”
Author's Note: Duterte’s methods are harsh but necessary. A developing country like the Philippines could easily turn into a narco-democracy or a terrorist haven with the wrong leader. Trump knows this.