MANILA. President Rodrigo Duterte, discarding the angry rhetoric, called himself the “humble friend” of the United States even as his generals weighed an alleged offer by the Pentagon to unleash missile-firing drones against Maute militants in Marawi.
The Philippine leader met with US State Secretary Rex Tillerson in Malacanang on Aug. 8, at the end of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) that drew 28 countries, including China, Russia, India and perhaps most significantly, representatives from South and North Korea.
Pres. Duterte holds the chair of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) this year, and the country hosted the ARF conference.
The conference comes amid rising tensions in the Korean peninsula following a pair of recent tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that reportedly put parts of the US within rage of a feared nuclear attack.
But in the Philippines at least, some eyes were trained on the meeting between Pres. Duterte and Sec. Tillerson. “I am your humble friend in Southeast Asia,” Duterte assured the American official.
Just weeks earlier, Pres. Duterte angrily denounced America as “lousy” after Capitol Hill heard testimony about extrajudicial killings and alleged human rights violations in the Philippine’s “war on drugs”.
Pres. Duterte has faced intense international criticism for a bloody drugs crackdown that has reportedly claimed the lives of over 7,000 people since July 2016, many of them blamed on the police and alleged vigilantes.
Mr. Tillerson had said before arriving in Manila that human rights would be on the table when he goes to Malacanang. When asked by reporters later what had been he discussed during his meeting with Sec. Tillerson, Pres. Duterte refused to answer.
“Human rights, son of a bitch,” he said, arguing he shouldn’t be questioned about alleged violations given the challenges he’s facing. “Policemen and soldiers have died on me. The war now in Marawi, what caused it but drugs? So human rights, don’t go there.”
The Trump administration has signaled it wouldn’t be as hard on human rights concerns and focus instead on security cooperation, especially counter terrorism.
U.S. diplomat for Asia, Susan Thornton, who traveled to the Philippines, told reporters before the trip that alongside counter-terrorism, Tillerson would also be addressing human rights abuses with Duterte.
“There will be a chance for, to have a very good, robust bilateral program with the Philippines while we’re there on the margins of the ministerial meetings,” said Susan Thornton, Asst. State Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
“It’s one of our very important and oldest friends and partners in the region, and we are looking forward to being able to furnish the relationship and restore those bonds of friendship,” she added.
The meeting between Pres. Duterte and Sec. Tillerson was the highest-level contact so far for both administrations. The fact they focused on the two countries’ historic ties and a united front against the North Korean threat show some promise relations haven’t frayed as many believed after Pres. Duterte’s rhetoric and vow to “pivot” to China.
Mr. Tillerson assured the Philippines about continued US support, especially in beefing up the capabilities of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) that’s mired in a nearly three-month battle with the ISIS-inspired Maute group in Marawi City.
He said there was “no big contradiction” in providing assistance to the Philippines in spite of human rights concerns. “We see no conflict at all in our helping them with that situation and our views of the human rights concerns we have with respect to how they carry out their counter narcotics activities,” Sec. Tillerson explained.
He said the US has been providing the Philippines with surveillance capabilities, training, information and aircraft to help it fight the militants. He said the equipment includes a few Cessna aircraft and a few drones.
The aircraft are part of the more than $300 million in military aid granted to the Philippines in the last five years.
“I think our next steps on the global war to defeat ISIS are to recognize ISIS is a global issue. We already see elements of ISIS in the Philippines, as you’re aware, gaining a foothold. Some of these fighters have gone to the Philippines from Syria and Iraq,” he said in Washington earlier this month, before he left for the ARF summit in Manila.
Nearly 700 people have died in intense fighting in Marawi, including 528 militants and 122 soldiers and policemen,
Although Mr. Tillerson said he believed the Philippines was beginning to regain control of the violence-hit areas, he added the real challenge would come when the fighting was over and “creating the conditions on the ground to ensure it does not re-emerge.”