President Trump’s bromance with Manila’s Duterte

President Trump’s bromance with Manila’s Duterte

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The president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, seldom holds back.

His antidrug crusade has led to the extrajudicial killings of thousands of people. He is fond of boasting about how he has personally killed criminals and even strangers. He unleashes profane diatribes about countries and world figures he dislikes, with the United States often on the receiving end.

But more quietly, he seems to have warmed to the United States and President Trump, who also has a notably provocative style.

As his country hosted a summit meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, on Sunday, the more charming side of Mr. Duterte’s personality was on display, both in his meetings with Mr. Trump and in his foreign policy goal of closer relations with China.

One big reason for his shift in rhetoric when it comes to the United States is clear: President Trump is a marked improvement in Mr. Duterte’s eyes over Barack Obama, who urged the Philippine leader to follow the rule of law in tackling the illegal drug trade.

On Saturday, Mr. Trump and Mr. Duterte met for the first time on the sidelines of an economic summit meeting in Vietnam. The two shook hands and spoke warmly about having a longer discussion over the next two days, Philippines officials said.
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“These two are talking as friends,” said Ramon Casiple, the executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, a nonprofit promoting democracy in the Philippines. “I don’t see any reasons when they meet face-to-face that there will be any big problems.”

But the longer-term game for Mr. Duterte has been his determination to court China. Since his election, he has backed down from contentious territorial disputes with Beijing — last week, he halted a construction project in the South China Sea that brought Chinese complaints — despite an international ruling early in his presidency that backed the Philippines.

Harry Roque, a spokesman for Mr. Duterte, described his policy as a deliberate turn toward closer relationships with countries in Asia, and with China in particular.

Mr. Duterte hopes his strategy will bring billions of dollars in Chinese investment, though the money has been slow in coming, said Richard Javad Heydarian, an assistant professor of political science at De La Salle University in Manila.

Still, the United States and its former colony are treaty allies with a long history of cooperation. And it is clear that Mr. Duterte’s and Mr. Trump’s styles seem to mesh more than clash.

Mr. Trump set the stage for improved relations when he called Mr. Duterte in April and congratulated him for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem.” The United States also provided valuable military assistance — including drones and intelligence — that proved instrumental in defeating Islamic extremists during a five-month siege of Marawi City, which ended last month.

Last year, Mr. Duterte called for a “separation” from the United States, threatened to expel American troops and accused the Central Intelligence Agency of plotting to kill him. When asked how he would respond if the American president were to criticize his antidrug campaign, Mr. Duterte replied with a vulgar epithet to describe Mr. Obama, who was president at the time.

Mr. Roque, the spokesman, said that Mr. Duterte changed his tune after seeing the value of United States help in Marawi.

“He hasn’t been criticizing the United States lately,” Mr. Roque said. “He looks forward to closer ties with the United States.”

Mr. Trump landed in the Philippines on Sunday to protests by leftist activists, rights groups and students in the streets. The two presidents were scheduled to hold bilateral talks in Manila on Monday, and Mr. Trump attended a gala dinner hosted by Mr. Duterte on Sunday night.

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