Government Media News Analysis

Warmth in the air

US President Donald Trump and Philippines President Rodrigo Roa Duterte

What embittered, and still embitters, Western media about Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (photo, right) is that he slighted their prince and champion – former US president Barack Obama. He didn’t show Obama due deference, according to them; he had the impertinence to tell him to remove his nose from Philippine affairs. He was, to their mind, disrespectful of the office of the US president.

Now, though, they’re even more embittered – and the reason for that is that Duterte “is” showing respect for the US president. The only problem is; the media now don’t want him to. For the current occupant of the Oval Office, US President Donald Trump (photo, left), is not their prince and champion. In fact, they loathe him with the same blind passion with which they adore Obama.

On Sunday, Duterte described Trump as an “important leader” – and one he’s looking forward to meeting face to face in a couple of weeks time when the US president visits Manila for the Asean-US summit. Here’s what he said: “I would deal with President Trump in the most righteous way, welcome him as an important leader. I would have to also listen to him; what he has to say”. Previously, he’d referred to Trump as a “kindred spirit” – a huge departure from his earlier unflattering characterisation of Obama.

Stubbornly too, as far as the mass media are concerned, Duterte describes the rows between him and Obama as “water under the bridge”. In other words, all that’s in the past; now there are real prospects for close Manila-Washington ties. This, of course is the last thing the media and their friends in the US Democratic Party want to hear. They need these two men at each other’s throat; certainly they don’t want Duterte to show any respect for the office of the US president – not while Trump’s occupying it –  and they certainly don’t want a warming of relations between these two nations right now either.

They support discordance, diplomatic breakdown, public spats – anything but an entente cordiale. They want to see two of the leaders they detest more than any on the planet – with the possible exception of Russian president, Vladimir Putin – destroy each other if possible. They wish to isolate both of them and create difficulties for them with their own electorates.

After all, the Philippines turned out to be the graveyard for Obama’s “Pivot to East Asia” strategy – his ill-fated attempt to increase the US sphere of influence in the region; something that depended heavily on gaining Manila’s compliance with US regional ambitions. Furthermore, Trump compounded the fracture by withdrawing the US from Obama’s flagship Trans-Pacific Partnership – the mega-trade bloc that was to have been his legacy.

But there has been a warming of relation between the two countries. In fact, it started just as soon as Obama vacated the White House on 20 January this year. The point is, Duterte never had a problem with the US, any more than he had a problem with the American people, though that was the narrative of those in the opposing camp. That, of course, was to throw doubt on his leadership and sow confusion – not least among American expats living in the Philippines.

What Duterte had a problem with was Obama’s interference in his country’s sovereignty and in the attitude of past American presidents who’d regarded the Philippines – for all practical purposes – as a vassal state of America. Such a view was wholly unacceptable to Duterte as it is to the vast majority of Filipinos. Duterte was always going to end that to give his people a new pride in their country. He was always going to pursue an independent course. And he has done.

By contrast, Trump has shown no inclination to subvert Manila to Washington’s will – in fact, as a nationalist-style leader he respects Duterte’s independence path for the Philippines. In short, while Obama tried – and failed – to perpetuate the Philippines’ “little brother” role, Trump has shown no such interest.

Of course, he wants the two countries to enjoy strong bilateral relations – that’s something the two leaders will be exploring further when they meet – but Trump won’t be compromising US sovereignty and won’t expect Duterte to be compromising that of his country either. What that does, then, is to put the Philippines in the healthiest position it has ever been vis-à-vis the US.

It’s now becoming a strategic partner – not just in name, but in reality – and no longer simply a junior associate. And after 70 years of dancing to Washington’s tune, that’s a big deal and shouldn’t be diminished. Of course there’ll always be quid pro quos as there are with all bilateral relationships – they exist between the Philippines and Japan and all the states in Asean.

But the two leaders also think alike in other ways; they have similar views of dealing with the drugs scourge which is sweeping both their countries, for example. Both also share a hard-line approach to tackling crime. They also have a similar world view with respect to the sanctity of a country’s domestic affairs – something Trump’s predecessors never had.

Similarly, both also tolerate the United Nations, but, unlike many of their respective predecessors, they don’t fawn after the UN. And, of course, both foster a deep suspicion of the mainstream media and regularly call them out for their bias in favour of the agendas of both the US Democrats and the Liberal Party movement in the Philippines.

Such views will cement their relationship – and probably nowhere more so than in their mutual distrust of and disregard for the media, which for very similar ideological reasons attack both men relentlessly. In fact, ironically, if any entity can bring these two men closer together it will be the Liberal-Left media.

More annoying for the anti-Trumpists is that the Philippine president sees the US president as a “deep man” – pointing out that Trump couldn’t have become a successful businessman if he was “stupid”. But the respect runs two ways – Trump has praised Duterte for doing “an unbelievable job on the drug problem”. And so, when these two men get together – and the microphones are off – they’re likely to find considerable common ground.

At the same time, these two leaders have some very serious matters to discuss. North Korea – and the threat of a regional conflagration emanating from there – will be high on the agenda, but so too will ‘radical Islamic terrorism’. For Trump, these two issues rank above any considerations in this region right now. The security of the US homeland and its interests overseas comes ahead of everything. For Duterte also, the twin threats of Pyongyang and Islamist terror outweigh other unresolved problems.

Last week, US Defense Secretary, Jim Mattis, attending the Asean Defense Ministers Meeting at Clark, Pampanga, commended Filipino troops for recapturing Marawi – the city in Lanao del Sur in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao which was stormed and seized by jihadists at the end of May – and doing so in a professional manner.

This is what he said: “Here’s an army that had to go in a fight like that, and they had not one human-rights allegation against them with any credibility”. But notably, he said something else. When asked for comment on a delivery of Russian arms to the Philippine military his response was: “I don’t attach very much significance to it … it’s a sovereign decision by the Philippines”.

Equally noteworthy is what he had to say about his meetings with Duterte, which was this: “It was a very good discussion with the president and we talked about the way ahead and we’re on the same team”.

Trump will be assuring Duterte that he can rely on Washington’s full assistance in handling its terrorism problems. Right now – given the extent of Islamist activity in Mindanao – the Philippines is seen as a major player in the global war on terror, and so any assistance it needs from Trump it will get. In short, Trump will not be attaching pre-conditions to the supply of arms as the US Congress did at the end of Obama’s administration when the US State Department halted the sale of 26,000 assault rifles to the Philippine security forces.

And so, the meeting in Manila might also provide an opportunity for Duterte to deal with some other issues – one of which is the flow of funds from certain US official channels, sent to undermine his administration.  Duterte will want Trump to put a stop to that sort of meddling which started during the latter part of Obama’s term, post Duterte’s election victory.

He might well ask him to look into allegations that the Central Intelligence Agency and elements of the US State Department are involved in covert activities in the Philippines – an ironic situation given the apoplexy the US media and the Democrats in the US Congress are exhibiting over alleged Russian involvement in the internal affairs of the US. Evidently, this is another case of US “Do as we say, not as we do”.

Whether that is broached or not remains to be seen – but what we can depend on over the next couple of weeks is that the anti-Trumpist and anti-Duterteist media won’t miss a single opportunity to show these leaders in a bad light. They – along with the US Democrats and the Liberal Party in the Philippines, and all their associates and affiliates within the NGO sector – will be doing their utmost to undermine those these men and everything they’re trying to achieve.

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