What’s more, in a press availability with the two leaders, Trump also just ignored reporters’ questions about human rights in the Philippines, according to the Los Angeles Times. The U.S. president further said nothing as Duterte called reporters “spies” during a press availability. This was a chilling comment given that Duterte has in recent years warned that journalists could be targeted for assassinations, and that the Philippines in recent years has had some of the highest annual rates of journalists being murdered of any nation in the world. It may help keep the Trump-Duterte bromance going, but as I explore in the next post, the value of that bromance remains limited.It is not wrong that the White House is eager to prioritize counterterrorism in its relationship with the Philippines—this is an issue where real, win-win cooperation is possible. In addition, Trump and Duterte both share goals of reducing piracy in the Sulu-Celebes Sea, a highly lawless area that is rife with pirates, human traffickers and Islamist militant groups—including organizations that combine all three activities.
But in the White House’s vision of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” in which the United States and its partners would defend freedom of navigation, among other interests, it is hard to see how Duterte and his South China Sea approach would fit in. For the past year, nearly every time China has applied pressure on Duterte to take a relatively accommodating position regarding the South China Sea, Duterte has complied.
Most recently, earlier this month the Philippines’ defense chief announced that Manila would end any work on a sandbar at Sandy Cay, near Thitu Island—after pressure from Beijing. Earlier in the year, Duterte also canceled a planned visit to Thitu, probably after pressure from Beijing, telling China he’d done so because he valued Beijing’s friendship.
The Philippine leader, who this year serves as the chair of ASEAN, also has done little to rally ASEAN nations to come up with a coherent position on the South China Sea. He has, in some ways, seemingly been an obstacle on any ASEAN unity on the South China Sea. And, despite Duterte’s desire for greater U.S. assistance on counterterrorism and other domestic security challenges, there is little evidence that Duterte plans to move Manila back, even modestly, toward the Aquino administration’s tougher approach to the South China Sea.