Over the weekend, after what the White House called a “very friendly” conversation, Donald Trump invited Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, a man who has openly bragged about committing multiple murders, to the White House. Asked to defend the gesture, chief of staff Reince Priebus told ABC News that it was all part of the administration’s North Korea strategy:
This is a different level of problem that we need cooperation among our partners in Southeast Asia. The issue on the table is North Korea, and there is nothing right now facing this country and facing the region that is a bigger threat than what’s happening in North Korea.
But what about the thousands of extrajudicial killings that Duterte has either encouraged or, allegedly, directly taken part in? Here’s Priebus again:
It doesn’t mean that human rights don’t matter, but what it does mean is that the issues facing us developing out of North Korea are so serious that we need cooperation at some level with as many partners in the area as we can get to make sure we have our ducks in a row.
If we don’t have all of our folks together, whether they’re good folks, bad folks, people that we wish would do better in their country, doesn’t matter. We have got to be on the same page.
This is an irritating straw man that Trump and his officials are fond of: hardly anyone disputes that the U.S. must sometimes cooperate with regimes that commit human rights abuses. But if you’re going to use national security as an excuse to put aside human rights concerns, you need to actually explain the national security priority involved. Priebus’s North Korea excuse for the Duterte call echoes the way Trump used to talk about ISIS during the campaign. Sure, Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad might be bad guys, Trump would argue, but we have to work with them to “knock the hell out of ISIS.” Moral issues aside, the all-consuming focus on ISIS blinded Trump to questions of whether Russia and the Syrian regime were actually acting in America’s best security interests. Now, Trump has apparently decided that Syria is a little more complicated than he realized, and North Korea has replaced ISIS as the dominant existential threat that must be confronted immediately at any cost. It’s leading to some similarly dubious calculations.
For one, it’s not clear why the Philippines is so central to Trump’s North Korea strategy that it necessitates inviting a mass murderer to the White House. It’s true that the Philippines, more than 1,800 miles from North Korea, is not entirely irrelevant to efforts at pressuring North Korea. The two countries have some limited diplomatic relations, though virtually no trade. A North Korean cargo ship was impounded in the Philippine port of Subic last year in compliance with UN sanctions. And the Philippines hosted a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations over the weekend at which North Korea was on the agenda. But Duterte has little to no leverage over North Korea and rolling out the red carpet for him isn’t going to have much of an impact on the situation.
Moreover, if keeping all our ducks in a row and focused on curbing North Korea is such a priority, why does the president seem to be going out of his way to offend the country that has by far the most to lose from confrontation with North Korea—South Korea—by suggesting that they should pay for a missile defense system that had already been negotiated, and threatening to pull out of a trade agreement? Apparently, “nothing right now facing this country” is more important than North Korea’s nukes… except maybe the trade deficit with South Korea.
In recent interviews, Trump has also used North Korea as the explanation for why he is not pressuring his new best friend Xi Jinping over China’s non-existent currency manipulation and abandoned his early openness to revising the U.S. stance on Taiwan’s sovereignty. Trump spent his campaign and the first two months of his presidency bashing Chinese leaders at every opportunity, but apparently, as long as Xi is “helping” with North Korea, China gets what it wants. Trump’s outreach to the increasingly pro-Beijing Duterte may also be part Trump’s new strategy of placating Xi.
Last fall, amid frustrations with President Obama, who he repeatedly referred to as a “son of a whore,” Duterte told Chinese leaders during that he wanted to abandon the Philippines’ longstanding close military and economic ties with the United States in favor of closer relations with China: “America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself to your ideological flow,” he said at the time.
While the Philippines is a bit peripheral to the North Korea issue, it’s absolutely central to another ongoing Asian security issue: control of the South China Sea. As China has sought to assert its control over most of the sea by fortifying artificial islands, the Philippines has been one of a number of Southeast Asian nations that has been challenging China’s claims, with U.S. support. But since he took power last year and began cozying up to Beijing, Duterte has seemed ambivalent about the issue, saying it was pointless for the Philippines to challenge China, given its military might. True, he later reversed course and ordered his troops to occupy disputed islands—like Trump, consistency is not one of Duterte’s virtues—but at the very least, he seems open to discussion in the issue. The Philippines-hosted ASEAN summit issued only a milquetoast statement on the South China Sea, which many experts see as a sign of China’s growing political influence in the region.
The Trump administration once rattled many by suggesting it would be willing to use military force to challenge China’s island-building and defend the Navy’s freedom of navigation in the region, but the issue was relegated to the sidelines at last month’s Mar-a-Lago summit and since Trump’s “very special” relationship with Xi began to develop, it seems to be much less of a priority. It wasn’t even mentioned in the read-out of the call with Duterte, despite it being one of the main issues in U.S.-Philippine relations for years now.
I have no idea if Trump’s friendliness to Duterte was directly inspired by Xi, who would like nothing more than for the U.S. and the Philippines to both just drop their objections to China’s control of the South China Sea. What I do know is that Priebus’ North Korea explanation makes no sense, and that Trump seems to be taking everything that China’s president tells him at face value.