“There is no diplomacy like candor,” the British essayist Edward Verrall Lucas once famously said.
Last weekend, US President Donald Trump came under heavy criticism, including from officials within his own administration, for extending a formal invitation to his Filipino counterpart, Rodrigo Duterte.
According to the White House, the two controversial leaders had a “very friendly conversation”. To the chagrin of human rights groups, the American president went so far as to praise the Duterte administration’s brutal crackdown on illegal drugs as “[a] very hard [effort] to rid its country of drugs, a scourge that affects many countries around the world”.
In fact, during their first phone conversation in December, Duterte claimed that Trump “was quite sensitive also to our [concerns] about drugs”, and “was wishing me success in my campaign against the drug problem”.
According to the media and civil society groups, Duterte’s “war on drugs” has reportedly claimed an average of a thousand lives every single month. The anti-crime campaign, however, is popular at home, where the majority of the population has expressed trust and approval for their unorthodox leader.
A human rights lawyer recently sought to initiate a formal complaint against the Filipino president at the International Criminal Court, accusing Duterte of committing crimes against humanity. Amid concerns over the human rights situation in the Philippines, the European Union is considering imposing sanctions on the country, while the US State Department is expected to cancel a $434m development aid package.
To be fair, Trump’s invitation to the Filipino leader makes perfect geopolitical sense, given growing concerns over the Philippines’ lurch into the Chinese sphere of influence in recent months. Moreover, both Trump and Duterte seem to have developed an unusual rapport, given their almost identical populist, anti-establishment bent.
It’s geopolitics, stupid!
A hundred days into office, Trump has struggled to boast of any major achievement, whether at home or abroad. If anything, he still suffers from the lowest approval rating (44 percent) of any American leader at this stage in their presidency. But desperation has bred diplomatic innovation.
Reaching out to controversial heads of state was a bold strategic move which could carry political dividends down the road for the embattled American president as well as strengthen his country’s leadership position in Asia.
To be fair, Trump didn’t only invite Duterte, but also Prime Ministers Prayuth Chan-ocha and Lee Hsien Loong of Thailand and Singapore respectively. This was part of a broader effort to reach out to smaller Asian powers, which have felt neglected by the Trump administration in recent months.
So far, Trump has already hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, while dispatching his Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Foreign Secretary Rex Tillerson to Northeast Asia and Europe. In April, Pence only briefly visited Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest country, en route to Australia.
Establishing robust military cooperation with Southeast Asian states such as the Philippines, the former site of the largest American overseas military bases, is crucial to the success of the Trump administration’s increasingly assertive defence policy in the region, particularly in the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea.
Trump needs maximum support from all major players. As the chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Duterte has huge sway over shaping the regional agenda. Moreover, inviting Duterte over to the White House made perfect sense since Trump is expected to visit Manila later this year for the East Asia Summit, a major annual event regularly attended by Asia-Pacific leaders.
Thus it was of paramount importance for Trump to invite Southeast Asian leaders over, reassure them of American commitment to the region, and develop a better understanding of their strategic dilemmas amid rising Sino-American rivalry in Asia.
New Best Friends
So far, Duterte has demurred from the invitation. While aboard Chinese warships, which recently visited Duterte’s hometown of Davao, the Filipino leader said that he “cannot make any definite promise”, since he is too busy with other scheduled trips, including Moscow and Beijing in the coming weeks. In reality, however, Duterte considers Trump someone he can work with, in spite of disagreements over human rights issues.
During his inauguration speech, Trump declared that America will no longer “seek to impose our way of life on anyone”. As for Trump’s chief diplomat, Rex Tillerson, he repeatedly refused to categorise Duterte as a human rights violator during his confirmation hearings.
A few months into office, Tillerson, in a dramatic break with tradition, snubbed the annual human rights report briefing at the State Department. These actions stand in stark contrast to the rhetoric, if not actual policy, of the Obama administration, which made human rights and democracy issues front and centre in America’s regional diplomacy.
In response, Duterte’s spokesman, Ernesto Abella, “welcome[d] President Trump’s [new] foreign policy direction”, and called for a more “placid and mutually beneficial relationship” between the two allies.
Trump’s relentless praise and admiration for authoritarian leaders the world over, from Russia’s Vladimir Putin to Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, indicates Washington’s growing emphasis on strategic interests over ideology and value promotion. And this is why a Duterte-Trump bromance could be on the horizon.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and authorof Asia’s New Battlefield: The USA, China, and the Struggle for the Western Pacific.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.