President Trump touched down in Manila in the Philippines Sunday night ahead of Monday’s summit with the man some have described as his Asian double – President Rodrigo Duterte.
Both are known for their populist rhetoric, outsized personalities and contempt for the niceties of diplomacy – but in person will the two clash or will the encounter lead to a renewal of U.S.-Philippine relations?
Newsweek reviews some of the main issues on the table as the leaders prepare for discussions.
The Philippines is traditionally one of the U.S.’ closest allies in Asia – with its location essential to the U.S.’ military reach in south-east Asia and regional trade links.
Relations deteriorated under the Obama administration, which criticized Duterte for his “war on drugs” that has seen thousands accused of being drug dealers or addicts killed in extrajudicial executions.
Duterte lashed out at Obama, calling him the “son of a whore,” however under Trump relations have improved with the new president even praising Duterte’s war on drugs in the first phone call between the leaders in January.
Trump is considered unlikely to press Duterte on human rights – and the first meeting between the two at the Apec summit in Vietnam was reportedly friendly.
“Albeit short, it was very warm and cordial,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque said when asked by the Guardian if the pair had rapport.
In recent years the Philippines has been torn between the influence of the U.S. and China.
China has invested massively in the Philippines, and aims to pour in $9 billion more in investment in coming years. In return, the Philippines under Duterte has softened its stance over disputed territory in the South China Sea.
U.S. influence is seen as on the wane, with the Philippines ending joint naval drills with the U.S. last year.
However the U.S. has not quite lost the battle for influence in the Asian sphere. “The U.S. helped the Philippines fight the Islamic State in Marawi and that has kept them in the game,” Carl Thayer, director of Thayer Consultancy in Sydney, told the BBC.
Trump has made no secret that North Korea’s has been a key priority on his Asia tour – threatening to cut trade with countries that do business with North Korea.
And Philippines has shown itself willing to play ball – cutting off its $53 million annual trade with North Korea as Trump threatened trading partners of North Korea in September.
Experts believe the move shows that Duterte is unwilling to endanger the Philippines’ $8 billion trade with the U.S. – and there is room for the U.S. to rebuild influence.
In a September article in Foreign Policy, Michael Mazza, a research fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, emphasized the strategic importance of the U.S.’ relations with the Philippines.
“China is positioning itself to challenge freedom of navigation, to exert control over the region’s waters, to coerce its neighbors, and to more easily project power into the Indian Ocean region and the Western Pacific,” he wrote.
“Over the longer term, in an Asia dominated by China, Beijing would do far more damage to the cause of human rights than will Rodrigo Duterte, a democratically-elected president limited by law to a single, six-year term.”
But in a letter to Trump, members of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on Capitol Hill urged Trump to address the extrajudicial killings and not to abandon the U.S. commitment to a world order based on human rights and democracy.
“Human rights are fundamental,” they wrote. “It is paramount that human rights violations not be the consequences of the Philippines’ war on drugs.”