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The Trump and Rody show

Actions speak louder than words, and in this part of the world, what’s left unsaid is often as important, or even more so, than official statements.

Both President Duterte and his US counterpart Donald Trump have been criticized for incoherent messages during the gatherings of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Vietnam as well as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and East Asia Summit in Manila.

What both leaders did (or did not do), however, and how they interacted with each other sent messages that were clear enough. Trump hailed his “great relationship” with Duterte and the Philippines; Duterte said the country is a “strong ally” of the United States.

Considering the chill in bilateral ties before Trump came to power, and the verbal abuse Duterte publicly heaped at every opportunity both on America’s president at the time, Barack Obama, and its ambassador to Manila, Philip Goldberg, there are people who see Trump’s visit as an unqualified success.

Remember that before the visit, Duterte had announced he was turning his back on Washington. He was also trying (with little success) to get his administration to pivot with him to China.

On Sunday night at the gala dinner celebrating 50 years of ASEAN, Duterte elicited laughter from the constantly scowling Trump, while the US commander-in-chief got Duterte to sing the love song “Ikaw” on stage with Pilita Corrales. I don’t think Duterte was joking when he said Trump egged him to do it. When was the last time we saw the Philippine President do this? Duterte has to be in a truly good mood and enjoying his present company to do that.

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Human rights advocates were aghast as the leader of the free world gave Dirty Rody the equivalent of a warm embrace. As I predicted, however, Trump wasn’t on a mission to lecture but to reassure allies of US commitment to the region.

If Trump had intended to harp on human rights, he should’ve been an equal opportunity critic. But he was silent on the issue with China’s Xi Jinping and Vietnam’s Tran Dai Quang – not exactly champions of human rights. Indonesia’s Joko Widodo has also launched a crackdown on drug trafficking with the same brutality as Duterte’s war.

As Duterte has put it, why should he be singled out? And Trump did not. By Monday, he was on a first-name basis with “Rodrigo.” Does Rodrigo call him Donald? Such casual ties work with Duterte, who earlier this year invited to his Davao home Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

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It surely helped Philippine-US ties that Trump came to Manila (and extended his stay by a day for the East Asia Summit, although he skipped it anyway yesterday) while Duterte’s idols Xi and Russia’s Vladimir Putin sent their second-in-command instead and snubbed the party.

Trump continues to receive flak for shaking the hand of the Philippine “killer” as critics call Duterte. But the US has a long history of working with strongmen to advance its strategic interests.

ASEAN itself was formed with US support partly to stop the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. Look at four of the five founding ASEAN leaders: Indonesia’s Suharto, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, Thailand’s military dictator Thanom Kittikachorn and our very own Ferdinand Marcos. Tunku Abdul Rahman, who presided over the creation of Malaysia, was no autocrat, but it was Mahathir Mohamad who dominated the country’s politics and interaction with ASEAN for over two decades.

Ronald Reagan propped up Marcos nearly all the way to the bitter end, until people power left the US president with no choice but to dump his ally.

Some of the staunchest US allies in the Muslim world in fighting terrorism are no champions of human rights.

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Certain members of the Trump team may be trying to advance democratic ideals as the US president promotes his mission of “MAGA” – make America great again.

The Trump team, notably Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, increasingly makes references to the “Indo-Pacific,” considering the Pacific and Indian Oceans as a single strategic area. “Indo-Pacific” also highlights the strategic importance of India, the world’s largest democracy and a nuclear power like China. Trump has picked up the term.

The Australians, whose land mass faces the two oceans, began referring to their region as the “Indo-Pacific” way back in 2013. Hillary Clinton reportedly used it occasionally when she was secretary of state. The term is also used by the Japanese, Indonesians, and of course India. This regional grouping could make a stronger push for democratic ideals together with free and fair competition, good governance and adherence to international rules including the declaration of human rights.

Trump’s first foray as president into the Indo-Pacific, however, seemed to be focused mainly on fair trade, counterterrorism and confronting the North Korean threat.

If advancing MAGA meant winning back his Philippine counterpart, who was extremely miffed with the previous White House occupant, Trump could legitimately describe his mission at least in Manila as a success.

Trump even seems able to understand Pinoy jokes – the politically incorrect ones for which Duterte is known. Some foreign journalists were not amused by Duterte’s remark to reporters during the Philippines-US bilateral meeting that they were “spies” and it was time for them to get lost.

But Pinoy journalists who have covered local politicians understand the remark as a joke – bantering between a public official and the reporters assigned to the beat. Maybe Trump truly got the joke, or found it hilarious that Duterte could easily get away with it.

Whether or not it was a laughing matter, the two leaders smiled together. It was better than Duterte harping on human rights violations committed by US troops against Muslim Filipinos and revolutionaries in Balangiga over a century ago.

This doesn’t mean Washington is going to stop pushing for human rights and adherence to the rule of law in the Philippines. But it will be done through other channels, and not in a way that would look like Uncle Sam castigating his Little Brown Brother.

Trump reportedly liked “Rodrigo,” finding him “a good guy.” Judging from Duterte’s treatment of his US counterpart, the feeling was mutual.

For those who were dismayed by the deterioration in bilateral ties last year, it was a great improvement.

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