MANILA (Reuters) – Mutual praise, warm handshakes and even an impromptu love song at a lavish dinner suggest U.S. President Donald Trump and Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte want a fresh start after the biggest breakdown in U.S.-Philippine ties in years.
Their meeting on Monday during a summit of Asian leaders in Manila was arguably the most anticipated of the three-day event and went off well, with Duterte’s aides talking up the rapport the two had, and Trump boasting of his “great relationship” with the similarly mercurial Philippines leader.
It came a little over a year after Duterte announced his “separation” from the United States and sought new alliances with China and Russia. Angered by Barack Obama’s criticism of his war on drugs, he told the then-U.S. president to “go to hell”, shocking American businesses and a Philippine military heavily reliant on the help of the Pentagon.
Central to the rapprochement this week was Duterte holding his tongue, and Trump not expressing concern about Duterte’s centerpiece policy – the crackdown on drugs that has killed thousands of Filipinos.
“Tensions and damage inflicted during the Obama administration has somehow been repaired, looking at the executive relationship, it has essentially been normalized,” said Richard Javad Heydarian, an author and a political science professor at Manila’s De La Salle University.
“The modus operandi is, Trump doesn’t openly criticize Duterte’s war on drugs and Duterte tones down his direct attacks on the U.S.”
Even with Trump in the White House, Duterte had repeatedly railed at the “hypocrisy” of his country’s former colonial ruler. He has accused Washington of treating the Philippines like a dog and said he would not visit the United States, because it was “lousy”.
But there was none of Duterte’s trademark hostility this week and some indications that both countries had taken a calibrated approach to ensure the two leaders hit it off.
Contrary to traditional seating protocol for a summit of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the two were seated next to each other at Sunday’s gala dinner.
Duterte sang a hit Filipino love song at that event, and joked it was “on the orders of the U.S. commander-in-chief”.
Although Duterte’s fallout with Obama was acrimonious, the fissures between the two long-term allies did not run deep, with joint programs across various sectors largely intact.
That included dozens of annual joint military exercises over the past year. This year, the Philippines military relied on U.S. technical support in its biggest-ever urban battle, ending a five-month occupation of a southern city by rebels loyal to Islamic State.
There were no signs of an exodus of American business under Duterte either, with $353 million of investments from the United States recorded in the first eight months of this year, compared to $90 million in the same period in 2016, according to the Philippines central bank.
There were conflicting accounts of what was discussed between Trump and Duterte on Monday, however.
A White House spokeswoman said human rights was talked about, in the context of the drugs war. Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, said that was not the case, although Duterte had explained his anti-drugs campaign to Trump, who nodded and “seemed to be in agreement”.
“The relationship appears to be very warm and very friendly, getting very candid,” Roque said. “They have similar feelings toward former U.S. President Barack Obama.”
Duterte had said last week he would tell Trump to “lay off” if he talked about human rights.
But according to a senior White House official, Duterte raised the issue himself.
“He had an explanation and he pre-emptively brought it up,” the official said, estimating Duterte did 90 percent of the talking.
The two leaders agreed to further strengthen the decades-old defense alliance between them, one that Duterte had previously threatened to abort.
Heydarian, the professor, however said that even with improved ties, Trump would be powerless to stop moves by Duterte to diversify foreign relations beyond the United States to include China and Russia, and tap them for anything from loans and infrastructure to rifles and jeeps.
“I don’t think that the Trump-Duterte convivial hobnob will ever be enough to change Duterte’s strategic orientation,” he said.
“We have stopped the hemorrhaging of the alliance, but it will never go back to being special and sacred as it was before Duterte came to power.”
Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Enrico dela Cruz; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan