Trump makes friends by putting America first and ignoring human rights in Asia

President Donald Trump with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at a gala dinner marking Asean's 50th anniversary in Manila.

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President Donald Trump with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at a gala dinner marking Asean’s 50th anniversary in Manila.
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Thomson Reuters

  • President Donald Trump didn’t press Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on human-rights issues in the Philippines, where thousands are believed to have been killed by the police in a raging drug war.
  • Instead, Trump praised Duterte and stressed that the two were friends.
  • Trump has a history of making nice with strongman leaders like Duterte, and it shows how his “America First” platform puts little emphasis on human rights.

When President Donald Trump met with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on the last leg of his trip to Asia, the pair “really hit it off,” Duterte’s communications secretary, Martin Andanar, told Reuters.

“Upon the orders of the commander-in-chief of the United States,” Duterte serenaded the world leaders at the Association of South East Asian Nations summit with a Filipino love song. Trump praised the summit as “very successful” and “handled beautifully” by Duterte.

The two men reaffirmed their countries’ alliance, which came under strain during Barack Obama’s presidency, and parted as friends.

At the same time, some things went unmentioned. Human-rights advocates would have liked Trump, like Obama before him, to press Duterte on the alleged extrajudicial killings of thousands of people in the government’s crackdown on drugs.

In a phone call in May, Trump lauded the “unbelievable job” Duterte had done in combating drug trafficking.

But Trump’s administration has made it clear that international human rights take a backseat to US national interests.

If US loses the Philippines, it may lose Asia

Scarborough shoal map south china sea philippines manilla subic bay

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US Senator Dan Sullivan

The Philippines – because of its location in the South China Sea and in the Pacific and its utility as a host to massive US military bases – serves as a regional stronghold of US influence, which many see as having declined in comparison to a rising China.

In 2015, the Philippines seemed set to head an internationally backed check on Beijing’s unilateral land-and-sea grab in the South China Sea after The Hague ruled in Manila’s favor in a border dispute. But in June 2016, Duterte, often regarded as a Trump-style politician, took power and took a hard look at the realpolitik of the situation.

Rather than rely on US power to mediate the dispute between China and the Philippines, Duterte started bilateral talks with Beijing, essentially seeking favor from the world’s second-largest economy to sweep the dispute under the rug.

When China pushed Duterte by announcing it would develop islands just outside the Philippines’ maritime borders, the brash Filipino backed down. “What do you want me to do? Declare war against China? I can’t. We will lose all our military and policemen tomorrow and we (will be) a destroyed nation,” Duterte said of the incident.

So with Duterte capitulating to China, it became essential for the US’s standing in the Pacific to bring the Philippines back into the fold.

America first

A US Navy sailor watching the USS Juneau arrive from the flight deck of the USS Essex at the former American Naval Base Subic Bay, northwest of Manila, in 2006.

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A US Navy sailor watching the USS Juneau arrive from the flight deck of the USS Essex at the former American Naval Base Subic Bay, northwest of Manila, in 2006.
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REUTERS/Darren Whiteside

In May, around the time when Beijing made a show of pushing around Duterte, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson explained what Trump’s “America First” platform meant for foreign policy: The US would no longer push its values on other countries but would instead focus on promoting its policies.

“If you condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals or our national security interests,” Tillerson said.

Abandoning an emphasis on human rights theoretically frees the US to seek strategic gains without pressuring countries to live up to the US’s cultural values.

The result is that the US prioritizes the national interests of its citizens over the human rights of citizens outside its borders. In August, national security adviser H.R. McMaster struggled to explain why Trump sanctioned Venezuela ostensibly for defying its own constitution yet praised Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for doing basically the same thing.

Those reactions were consistent with Trump’s America-first policy. Turkey is extremely important to US national interests as a NATO partner, a gatekeeper to the Syrian refugee crisis, and the controller of the Bosphorus Strait.

Venezuela isn’t as important to the US. It doesn’t trade much, lacks strategic value, and has a struggling economy. The US can push its values on Venezuela because it can’t push back.

Ignoring human rights is the norm

Trump at the opening ceremony of the Asean Summit in Manila.

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Trump at the opening ceremony of the Asean Summit in Manila.
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Thomson Reuters

Among the leaders at the Asean summit, Trump is not alone in turning a blind eye to human rights.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the former president and current state counselor of Myanmar, attended the summit amid a burgeoning refugee crisis in her country. The UN has dubbed the Myanmar military’s actions against the Muslim Rohingya minority as “textbook ethnic cleansing.”

But even though more than half a million refugees flooded into Bangladesh from the violence in Myanmar, many of whom would later become victims of human trafficking, it hardly got a mention at Asean.

China previously said it “understands and supports” Myanmar in its struggle against the Rohingya, to whom it does not extend citizenship.

With human rights on the back burner, Trump seemed to genuinely make friends with leaders like Chinese President Xi Jinping and Duterte. In contrast, in September 2015, after Obama criticized the reported extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, Duterte responded “son of a bitch – I will swear at you.”

Asia may be above the law with human rights

With China rapidly growing its military and economic might, experts have said it could displace the US as the dominant power in the Pacific and then in the world within a few decades.

The conventional way of dealing with rising authoritarian powers is multilateralism, in which many nations rise against a single hegemon. The US does not want war or a showdown with China; instead, it wants a peaceful solution to the South China Sea and for international law to be upheld.

But international cooperation comes at a price, and the Trump administration seems content making nice with governments that don’t hold US values.