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When Trump meets the Philippines' Duterte, 'drug war' killings will be the elephant in the room. Trump will probably ignore it

Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

Duterte, known for his profane rhetoric, has struck a more sinister tone with established critics. He said on Wednesday that if Agnes Callamard, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, investigates him for the killings, "I will slap her in front of you. Why? Because you are insulting me."

Despite Duterte's tough talk, he faces serious headwinds at home -- including dwindling domestic support for his campaign. In August, after police killed 17-year-old drug suspect Kian Loyd Delos Santos, they claimed he drew a gun, forcing them to fire; yet witness accounts and surveillance footage suggested that the teenager was shot unarmed, in police custody.

Another teenager, 14-year-old Reynaldo de Guzman, was found in early September, his body riddled with stab wounds, his head wrapped in packing tape. The last time he'd been seen, 20 days prior, he was with a 19-year-old friend who was also killed by police.

Duterte cast De Guzman's death as a conspiracy intended to "sabotage" the police. Still, his approval ratings plummeted -- the research institution Social Weather Stations in October put his net satisfaction rating at 48 percent, down 18 points from June.

Two U.S. congressmen -- Randy Hultgren and James McGovern, co-chairs of the U.S. Congress' Human Rights Commission -- have urged Trump to raise human rights concerns with the Philippine leader. Trump should "reaffirm the US' commitments to fundamental human rights, including due process, and the rule of law," the two wrote. (Duterte, in response, threatened to ban the two congressmen from coming to Manila).

Yet Trump and Duterte are more likely to discuss a battle between Philippine government forces and Islamic State militants in the southern city of Marawi, which ended in September after five months of grinding urban warfare. They may also discuss the South China Sea, where the Philippines has become a central player in resisting China's increasingly assertive territorial claims.

"Obviously, Trump has made human rights a low priority," said Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. "But this is also about Duterte recognizing he needs certain things from the U.S."

Experts say Duterte, despite his harsh words toward Washington, hasn't significantly altered the underpinnings of the U.S.-Philippines alliance, which dates back more than six decades.

"I think it's still worth watching the extent to which the Philippines does continue to increase Chinese economic and security assistance," said Andrew Shearer, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "But so far the only practical Chinese security assistance has been a lot of second-hand assault rifles, which the Philippine military doesn't even want."


"Then you stack up on the other side of the ledger, the support that comes from the U.S. -- like Coast Guard vessels, much more modern equipment, and beyond that, the training, and behind the scenes assistance with intelligence," he continued. "And of course, most dramatically, the U.S. support once things blew up in Marawi -- that, I think, came along at the perfect time to remind Duterte and the Philippines more generally that the U.S. is an indispensable security partner."

Duterte, stung by U.S. criticisms of his drug war -- and enticed by offers of Chinese investment and aid -- has signaled a shift away from Washington and toward Beijing. He has struck a far more conciliatory tone toward China than his predecessor Benigno Aquino III. In August, the Philippines did not challenge Chinese boats operating near an island in the heart of disputed territory. "Why should I defend a sandbar and kill the Filipinos because of a sandbar?" Duterte said at the time.

Duterte told reporters on Wednesday that he would ask Chinese President Xi Jinping about South China Sea issues. "You want to control the passage, or do we have free passage?" he said. Yet Philippine trade secretary Ramon Lopez told Bloomberg that Duterte and Xi have a "very strong, close relationship like brothers," suggesting he will not broach the subject with force.

(Los Angeles Times special correspondent Simon Roughneen contributed to this report from Manila.)

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