The Real Reason Trump Shouldn’t Meet With Duterte
U.S. presidents and Cabinet officials have met with worse than Duterte, but the Philippine leader is all but invigorating China's rise.
President Donald Trump has no business inviting Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to the White House, but not necessarily because Duterte has been running a counternarcotics operation that has resulted in thousands of vigilante deaths, or because he himself has boasted about killing purported drug dealers in cold blood. As a leader, Duterte is apparently criminal, certainly foulmouthed, and hardly principled.
Yet U.S. presidents and their Cabinet or subcabinet officials have met with worse — think Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader who pursued the “ethnic cleansing” murder of thousands of Bosnian Muslims and Croats, or even Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, with whom Trump met recently despite U.S. human rights concerns. The paramount reason the United States government and people should not host the Philippine president is because he is advancing policies in Asia that run counter to U.S. national security interests.
Duterte is coming close to forfeiting Philippine claims in the South China Sea and is deliberately fostering a spirit and policy of capitulation to China on the disputed territories and freedom on navigation in the Asia-Pacific. On Monday, just days after his call with Trump, as Duterte wrapped up his chairmanship of a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) he commented, “We cannot stop China from doing its thing.” Indeed, his ASEAN chairman’s statement failed to include language expressing concern about “land reclamation and militarization” which was included in last year’s statement and reportedly in the draft version of his statement. This comes on top of his own government’s public distancing from a 2016 international tribunal ruling in favor of the Philippines claim to the Scarborough Shoal and against China’s competing claim and its island-building campaign.
Duterte spoke boldly as a candidate about jet-skiing to the disputed Spratly Islands to plant the Philippine flag, but in office tacked towards China, declaring he wants a “separation” from the United States. He appears to have settled on maintaining the military alliance and operational defense relationship between the United States and Philippines, including cooperation on counterterrorism, while directing his diplomatic energy towards China. His immediate response to Trump’s invitation — “I cannot make any definite promise,” mentioning potential trips to Russia and Israel — reflects this stance.
Since at least 1907, when President Teddy Roosevelt sent his “Great White” naval fleet around the world, the United States has aggressively defended U.S. interests in the Pacific (which at the time included the Philippine territories). Today, in the face of an assertive Chinese military backing China’s claims to the Spratly and Parcel Islands, American interests are solidly focused on the principle of international freedom of navigation of the high seas and open commerce. The South China Sea is a major passage for international trade; in 2015 a Defense Department report estimated 30 percent of U.S. trade flows through the sea, at a value of about $1.2 trillion annually.
Last year, Japanese government officials told a visiting U.S. delegation (including this author) that China was on the verge of controlling maritime access to the sea. Through its island-building and military buildup, Beijing already controls two strategic points in the South China Sea. In 2012, China seized the Scarborough Shoal, effectively closing a geographic triangle in the sea. If China succeeds in establishing a military base on the Scarborough Shoal, Beijing would control the trade route. Ignoring statements by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that such action would be illegal, the Chinese government declared last month that it was establishing an environmental monitoring station on the shoal, a likely first step towards land reclamation and militarization.
The U.S. policy response under the Obama administration was to defend and exercise freedom of navigation through deployments of the U.S. Navy and diplomatic statements. This was insufficient to stop Beijing. Chinese maritime incursions have likewise continued in Japanese waters in the East China Sea around the Senkaku islands — which are recognized as sovereign Japanese territory by the United States, with a resulting alliance commitment recently reiterated by Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Even if reports are accurate that the current administration is taking a pause in freedom of navigation operations by the U.S. Navy — in the interest of gaining Chinese assistance dealing with North Korea — it is hard to imagine any United States government persistently abandoning our interest and those of our allies and partners.
There is no benefit the Philippine government can extend to the United States to compensate for relenting to Chinese policy in the South China Sea. Duterte has no influence over North Korea, despite an odd attempt by White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus to justify Trump’s invitation as an attempt to forge a united regional front against Pyongyang’s nuclear program. And if, as some observers have speculated, the private Trump family interests in the Philippines were included in the president’s calculus, that would be sheer abuse of position, something for legal — not foreign policy — experts to ponder.
To select Duterte out of the almost 200 heads of state Trump could host at the White House — given his reprehensible rhetoric, policies, and actions — he should at least be required to support the top U.S. national security objective in Southeast Asia. The Philippines should have to get firmly in line with the United States, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and other East Asian allies in opposing Chinese attempts to resolve centuries-old disputes by use of military power. Ideally, of course, Duterte would stop shooting his own people, and shooting his country’s national security interests in the proverbial foot.
Photo credit: WU HONG/AFP/Getty Images)