MANILA -- President Donald Trump said on Monday that he had a "great relationship" with President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, making little mention of human rights at his first face-to-face meeting with a leader accused of carrying out a campaign of extrajudicial killings in his nation's war on drugs.
In a break from past practice by American presidents, who have pressed foreign leaders publicly and privately about allegations of human rights abuses, Trump instead pursued his own transactional style of diplomacy, dwelling mostly on areas of common ground during his meeting with Duterte. On the sideline of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, Trump focused on fighting the Islamic State and illegal drugs as well as on trade issues, the White House said.
"Human rights briefly came up in the context of the Philippines' fight against illegal drugs," said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary.
But Duterte's spokesman denied that the subject of rights was ever broached, even as the Philippine president spoke about the "drug menace" in his country.
Trump "appeared sympathetic and did not have any official position on the matter and was merely nodding his head, indicating that he understood the domestic problem that we faced on drugs," said Harry Roque, Duterte's spokesman. "The issue of human rights did not arise; it was not brought up."
Despite all that, they later issued a joint statement saying that "the two sides underscored that human rights and the dignity of human life are essential, and agreed to continue mainstreaming the human rights agenda in their national programs."
Duterte's war on drugs has alarmed human rights advocates around the world who say it has allowed police officers and vigilantes to ignore due process and to take justice into their own hands. Government officials estimate that well over 3,000 people, mostly drug users and dealers, have died in the ongoing crackdown. Human rights groups believe the victim total is far higher, perhaps closer to 9,000.
The two presidents declined to answer questions during brief remarks to reporters at the start of the meeting. As they sat side by side, Trump and Duterte projected a friendly dynamic, ribbing members of the news media as they prepared to speak privately.
"We've had a great relationship," Trump said, heaping praise on Duterte's stewardship of the summit, including an elaborate gala dinner Sunday where they were seen chatting animatedly and a set of cultural performances Monday. "This has been very successful."
As journalists shouted questions about whether Trump would press Duterte on human rights, the Philippine president quickly silenced them.
"Whoa, whoa -- this is not the press statement," Duterte said. "We are in a bilateral meeting."
"You are the spies," he said to reporters, as Philippine security personnel jostled some of them roughly. The remarks elicited a hearty laugh from Trump before the journalists were led out of the room.
Roque later said Trump focused during the roughly 40-minute session on concerns about tariffs being imposed on American vehicles but not Japanese ones. Duterte, for his part, thanked the United States for its help in dealing with the conflict in Marawi, the southern city where Philippine forces clashed with militants trying to seize territory.
On the streets of Manila, meanwhile, a phalanx of about 100 riot police with shields and truncheons clashed Monday with about 300 protesters as they marched near the U.S. Embassy.
The protesters carried anti-American placards and a likeness of Trump with a Hitler-like mustache. They were later pushed back with water cannons.
White House officials have said Trump has a "warm rapport" with Duterte, with whom he has spoken and exchanged letters since taking office, and that he wants to mend the U.S.-Philippine alliance after strains during President Barack Obama's administration.
"President Trump specifically said he has always been a friend of the Duterte administration, unlike the previous administrations of the United States," Roque said on Monday. "He stressed that he can be counted upon as a friend of the Duterte administration."
At the summit, Trump looked to strengthen ties with Pacific Rim allies, aiming to strike one-on-one trade deals rather than multinational trade agreements, and increase pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear program.
He met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and highlighted their two nations' "deeper and more comprehensive" ties, looking to strengthen a relationship that is vital to the U.S. vision of an Indo-Pacific region that attempts to de-emphasize China's influence.
He jointly met with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, with whom he had a contentious phone call last winter, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who hosted the president in Tokyo earlier in the trip.
Trump's encounter with Turnbull was somewhat scratchier than with Duterte, albeit in a mostly playful way. As the two leaders stood alongside Abe, Trump repeated his vow to eliminate trade deficits that he said the United States ran with "almost everybody."
"Except us," Turnbull interjected.
"Except with you," Trump agreed, to titters in the room. "You're the only one. And if I check it, I'll probably find out that was ..."
"Oh, no," Turnbull said. "It's real."
The United States has run a $10.3 billion trade surplus with Australia in the first nine months of this year and has consistently exported more to Australia than it has imported for the last decade.
Trump raved about his accomplishments on his five-nation journey, particularly on trade and on North Korea, which the White House has suggested may be designated a state sponsor of terror.
Trump said he would wait until his return to Washington on Wednesday to elaborate with a "major statement" on those two topics but hinted at progress while in Manila.
"We've made some very big steps with regard to trade -- far bigger than anything you know," Trump told reporters, pointing to business deals forged between U.S. and foreign companies.
Trump also said the trip had been "very fruitful" for the United States and pointed to the warm welcomes he had received in capitals like Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing.
WANING U.S. INFLUENCE
The question of whether Trump would press Duterte on human rights is often talked about as a test of U.S. power, both in the Philippines and in the region as a whole.
Though the Obama administration promised a "pivot" to Asia, in part structured on human rights and U.S. values diplomacy, there has long been a sense that U.S. influence in the Asia-Pacific region is waning while China's is on the rise.
Over the past decade, China has stepped up trade, investment and tourism in Southeast Asia, becoming a major economic player with close ties to the political and military elite.
All 10 association member states joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a Chinese-led multilateral financial institution that is issuing billions in loans. An authoritarian state that sharply curtails free speech and political dissent, Beijing has not tied human rights efforts or worker protections to its economic largesse.
The Obama administration sought to align the association around common values that include human rights. But the 10 regional member countries have widely disparate political systems -- some democratic, some authoritarian -- and economic systems.
Middle-power countries, including Japan, Australia and India, are stepping up their own diplomacy in the region. Trump's meeting with the leaders from each of those countries on Monday came amid talk that they would form a "quad" of powers to help hedge against China in the Indo-Pacific.
Since taking office, Duterte has pivoted away from the United States, a longtime treaty ally, and toward China. He called for a "separation" between the countries and threatened to scrap an agreement that allows U.S. troops to visit the Philippines.
Trump administration officials have said Trump wants to improve relations with the Philippines as a bulwark against China's expansionism in the South China Sea. The Philippines has clashed with China over disputed reefs and shoals in the waterway, which the two countries share, and Trump has used this month's Asia tour to offer to, as he said Sunday in Hanoi, "mediate or arbitrate" such disagreements.
But neither side mentioned the issue in their readouts of the meeting on Monday, and Duterte has played down the disputes this week, saying that China's rapidly expanding economy has overtaken that of the United States and that a territorial confrontation would not be worthwhile.
Information for this article was contributed by Julie Hirschfeld Davis of The New York Times; by Jonathan Lemire, Jill Colvin, Ken Thomas and Laurie Kellman of The Associated Press; and by David Nakamura and Emily Rauhala of The Washington Post.
A Section on 11/14/2017
Print Headline: Trump praises relations with Philippines' Duterte