Flanked by Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, President Donald Trump delivers his Joint Address to Congress at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. in this file photo taken on February 28, 2017. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead).
By ALFRED GABOT, JOSEPH G. LARIOSA and CLAIRE MORALES TRUE
WASHINGTON/MANILA (PhilAmPress) – US President Donald Trump has personally reaffirmed America’s longtime alliance with the Philippines and confirmed his visit to the country in November for the ASEAN summit with partner countries like Japan, European Union, China and South Korea.
In a telephone call to the Philippine leader on April 29, Trump also invited again President Rodrigo Duterte to visit Washington and the Philippine leader has reportedly agreed to be at the White House “sometime soon.”
Mr. Duterte, who is set to visit Russia, Israel and China this month, has repeatedly said before that he will never set foot in the United States after hurling invectives against Trump’s predecessor, former US President Barack Obama, for criticizing his campaign against drugs. Duterte also assailed the US record on human rights, particularly the massacre of Filipinos in Mindanao and Samar when they colonized the Philippines.
At one point, Duterte even told then-President Obama in a speech to “go to hell” for opposing his war on drugs, announced a “separation from the US” during a trip to China and called then-Secretary of State John Kerry “crazy” following a meeting just weeks after taking office. Duterte had also threatened to throw out American troops in the country, particularly those stationed in Mindanao.
Duterte, however, who has drawn comparisons with Trump, has since softened his tone against US and now wants continued US support for security and cooperation in the disputed South China Sea. He has also allowed joint military exercises between Filipino and American soldiers which he once declared must stop.
Acting Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo, meanwhile, declared that the country’s relationship with the US is “strong and vibrant.” “The key is not letting these rough patches affect the core of the relationship.”
Duterte declared in Davao that the US President Trump “wants to make friends, and it seems that we are friends.”
Duterte first disclosed the invitation during a conversation which aides said lasted for about 15 minutes and which he said also tackled the nuclear crisis in the Korean peninsula which affects the Philippines and the region.
The day after the Duterte disclosure, White House confirmed the conversation and invitation in an official announcement. Trump’s call came as Duterte and leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations concluded their summit at the Philippine International Convention Center in Pasay City.
But while initially Duterte hinted he had accepted the invitation to travel to the White House, he later clarified that he has not made any commitment yet. A Malacanang official confirmed the call and invitation by Trump but agreed with Mr. Duterte that he has not committed for a visit to Washington.
Aside from Duterte, Trump also called the leaders of Thailand and Singapore reportedly to shore up support on initiatives to ease the crisis in the Korean peninsula as a result of North Korea’s nuclear missile tetstings. White House officials later announced that Thailand’s junta chief has accepted an invitation to visit the White House from President Donald Trump.
“The Prime Minister thanked and accepted President Trump’s invitation to visit the United States,” junta spokesman Major General Werachon Sukhonhapatipak said in a statement, adding that the offer to visit had been reciprocated with an invitation for Trump to visit Thailand.
Trump, who has been cool to Obama’s Asia “pivot” plan by US and has scrapped the Trans Pacific Partnership, is due to visit Vietnam and the Philippines towards the end of the year to attend two regional summits in those countries.
Trump’s invitation to Duterte immediately drew the ire of the Philippine leader’s critics due to killings in Manila as a result of the war on illegal drugs.
But Trump set aside the criticisms as he underscored his eagerness to meet Mr. Duterte.
“The Philippines is very important to me strategically and militarily,” Trump said later in an Oval Office interview with Bloomberg News, two days after he invited the Philippine leader to Washington.
“I look forward to meeting him. If he comes to the White House that’s fine,” Trump said in the interview.
In the same interview, Trump emphasized public support for Duterte despite the condemnations over the drug conflict.
“You know he’s very popular in the Philippines,” Trump said. “He has a very high approval rating in the Philippines.”
A press statement from the White House said President Trump spoke on April 29, by phone to President Duterte.
It said, “It was a very friendly conversation, in which the two leaders discussed the concerns of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regarding regional security, including the threat posed by North Korea.”
The statement added they also discussed the fact that the Philippine government is fighting very hard to rid its country of drugs, a scourge that affects many countries throughout the world.
The readout said President Trump “enjoyed the conversation and said that he is looking forward to visiting the Philippines in November to participate in the East Asia Summit and the U.S.-ASEAN Summit.”
It added President Trump also invited President Duterte to the White House to discuss the importance of the United States-Philippines alliance, which is now heading in a very positive direction.”
White House chief of staff Reince Priebus later defended President Trump’s invitation to President Duterte to visit Washington, saying the need to rally Asian allies over North Korea overshadowed concerns about Duterte’s brutal war on drugs.
Priebus made the statement when asked why Trump was “honoring” Duterte with the White House invitation.
“I’m not so sure it’s a matter of honoring this president,” Priebus said.
“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,” he said.
That way, Priebus added, “if something does happen in North Korea, we have everyone in line backing up a plan of action that may need to be put together with our partners in the area.”
Meanwhile, the New York Times again made a stinging editorial critical of President Duterte, this time saying Duterte was “obviously not a man who should be welcomed to the White House.”
“Though the Philippines is an ally and a democracy, Mr. Duterte is neither a democratic leader nor a worthy ally. For about two decades as mayor of Davao, he was accused of allowing death squads to roam the city and kill freely,” the paper said in its editorial titled “Donald Trump Embraces Another Despot, which was published on May 1.
Duterte first gained global prominence as well as criticism for his aggressive and violent war on illegal drugs as mayor of Davao City. Human rights groups say that, as President, his narcotics crackdown has led to more than 7,000 extrajudicial killings.
“He’s been very, very tough on that drug problem, but he has a massive drug problem,” Trump said in the interview.
Trump’s invitation to Duterte was denounced by human rights advocates and democratic lawmakers for overlooking the abuses.
“President Trump weakens American values when he fails to stand up for human rights,” Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement Monday.
“President Duterte has overseen the illegal killing of thousands of his own people in the Philippines. By welcoming Duterte to meet with him in the White House, Trump risks giving Duterte’s actions―and his brutal human rights violations―an American stamp of approval,” he added.
Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella claimed that Trump praised Duterte’s work in a phone call on April 29 despite the criticisms over the drug war.
“Well, according to the conversation, the President of the United States has already acknowledged the fact that the President is doing a great job considering the weight and the enormity of the conditions in the Philippines,” Abella said at a briefing in Malacañang.
“So I’m sure he’s aware of all these considerations. However, from his point of view, it seems like the President of the Philippines is doing a sensible job,” he added.
The White House earlier defended Trump’s invite to Duterte as something to do with a pressing issue over North Korea. Singapore and Thailand prime ministers also received the same invite.
While Abella said that the invite was “a sign of openness and understanding” between the two leaders, he reiterated that Duterte was yet to accept the invitation.
“There was no direct acceptance of the invitation. It was acknowledged but there was no direct response to go… He didn’t say yes, he didn’t say no. He just… You know, it was a part of the conversation but there was no commitment, there was no promise to go at a specific date,” he said.
Many Filipino leaders want Duterte to visit the United States within the year.
For one, Bataan Bishop Ruperto Santos said he believes that the invitation to President Duterte by President Trump is a good opportunity for the former to push for the welfare of Filipinos in the US.
Bishop Santos said the Chief Executive’s impending visit to the US to promote how peace loving people, hardworking and trustworthy Filipinos are.
“Yes it is better and beneficial for us. First it is personal and privilege opportunity to appeal for Filipino immigrants for leniency and fair treatment for status, and to manifest to the US government that Filipinos living and working there are peace loving people, hardworking and trustworthy,” he said.
Santos added, “We are contributing much for the greatness and prosperity of America.”
Bishop Santos, who is the chairman of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines-Episcopal Commission on Migrants and Itinerant People (CBCP-ECMI), noted that the visit is also an opportunity to enhance ties with the US, which starts back in the World War II (WWII) and appeal for assistance in connection with the issues in the West Philippine Sea.
“Make also that rare chance, as allied and reliable friends during WWII, to appeal for assistance for our occupied West Philippine Sea territories,” the Balanga bishop added.(Alfred Gabot, Joseph Lariosa/Claire Morales True/PhilAmPress/JGLi)