Trump And Duterte Could Reset The Shaky U.S.-Philippine Alliance The Philippines has been an on-and-off U.S. ally. For his part, Trump could help reassure Duterte that the alliance is rock solid by guaranteeing U.S. commitment to help in the South China Sea.
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Trump And Duterte Could Reset The Shaky U.S.-Philippine Alliance

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Trump And Duterte Could Reset The Shaky U.S.-Philippine Alliance

Trump And Duterte Could Reset The Shaky U.S.-Philippine Alliance

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Trump's next and last stop in his Asia tour will be Manila. That visit is seen as a chance to hit a kind of reset button on the long-standing alliance with the Philippines. President Obama's relationship with President Duterte of the Philippines was considered contentious. Mr. Obama criticized him for imposing brutal punishments on illegal drug dealers and users. President Trump has taken a different approach.

Michael Sullivan reports from Manila on the ups and downs of that relationship.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: It's been just over a year since Duterte's foul-mouthed tirade against then-President Obama, followed just a few weeks later by this bombshell during Duterte's state visit to Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE: In this venue, I announce my separation from the United States - both the military but economics, also.

SULLIVAN: Also why does Duterte hate the U.S. so much? Part of it's personal history. Another reason - he doesn't trust the U.S. to have the Philippines' back if push comes to shove with China in the South China Sea. But here's the thing - that separation from the U.S. - it never really happened.

DINDO MANHIT: The actions of his government is totally different from his mouth.

SULLIVAN: Dindo Manhit heads the Stratbase ADR Institute, a Manila think tank.

MANHIT: The defense establishment, the military never really wavered in their desire for the continuing support, partnership, alliance with the United States.

SULLIVAN: The establishment pushed back hard, and Duterte backed off, though some joint military initiatives were scaled back. And that's a problem, says Gregory Poling of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative in Washington.

GREGORY POLING: The Pentagon and the armed forces here in the Philippines would like to be improving relations, not just maintaining the status quo. And they are unable to do that under Duterte. So treading water is effectively losing ground to the Chinese. But it's not as bad as people were afraid it was going to be when Duterte came to office.

SULLIVAN: And, in fact, Duterte has recently tempered his anti-American rhetoric. Here he is just a few days ago in a speech to Philippine Marines.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

DUTERTE: We remain to be the best of friends with America.

SULLIVAN: Part of it, analysts say, is Duterte recognizing the critical role the U.S. played in helping end the months-long siege by ISIS-linked militants in Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao. The other part - Donald Trump isn't Barack Obama, hasn't lectured Duterte about his war on drugs - has praised it even.

RENATO DE CASTRO: For him, politics is always personal.

SULLIVAN: De La Salle University Professor Renato De Castro.

DE CASTRO: President Trump respects him. They're on the same wavelength, unlike President Obama, who he accused of being rude and being an intellectual. President Trump is someone he could deal with.

SULLIVAN: Resetting the relationship could lead to Duterte rethinking his conciliatory approach towards China, even after the Philippines' victory last year at the international tribunal in The Hague rejecting China's territorial claims in the South China Sea.

DE CASTRO: His calculation regarding the ruling is, I could use it to extract more money from China if I would just set it aside.

SULLIVAN: But here's the thing - many analysts say the Philippines hasn't seen a lot of that promised Chinese investment. What it has seen, says Jay Batongbacal - a South China Sea scholar at the University of the Philippines - is China not taking its foot off the gas at all.

JAY BATONGBACAL: They have continued to pursue the development of their possessions in the South China Sea. So I think that really shows that the gains of the Philippines in dealing with China are really more short-term and very limited.

SULLIVAN: Something else for President Duterte to consider if President Trump offers more incentives and more guarantees to help the Philippines defend its maritime rights and territorial integrity. That's assuming the two temperamental presidents can play nice when they meet.

POLING: Personality-wise, they are two of a kind. And that is both good and bad.

SULLIVAN: Gregory Poling.

POLING: They can, with, you know, a good photo op and a handshake and just being nice to each other, reset the relationship in a sense. It also means there's a lot of dangers because we've seen repeatedly with both President Duterte and President Trump - when they go off-script, they can go way off-script. And when they talk about policy, things can get nasty.

SULLIVAN: For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Manila.

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