From Burma to the Philippines, Trump largely ignores human rights on Asia trip
Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, left, President Trump, center, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte join hands for a photo during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Manila. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images) November 13 at 7:10 PM
MANILA â" As his first official trip to Asia neared its end Monday, President Trump had yet to utter a word about the vicious military campaign against the Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority in Burma, which the United Nationsâ top human rights official has called a âtextbook exampleâ of genocide.
Earlier, in Vietnam, Trump embraced the communist nationâs leaders during a state visit to Hanoi without publicly raising the ongoing cra ckdown on political speech and independent journalists. In Beijing, he praised Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who oversees an authoritarian system that sharply limits press freedoms, as âa very special man.â
And here in Manila, human rights issues were barely discussed â" if at all â" in Trumpâs first meeting with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has garnered worldwide condemnation for waging a bloody, extrajudicial drug war that has killed thousands, shot either in police raids or targeted by hit men, often after being named by police. Some of the victims have been children.
Throughout his 12-day, five-nation trip in Asia, Trump Âfocused primarily on tough talk about trade, terrorism and North Koreaâs nuclear program, while saying little about chronic Âhuman rights abuses in a region that is home to some of worldâs most brutal authoritarian regimes. The theme is a familiar one for Trump, who declared during a May speech in front of leaders in the Mi ddle East, including many despots, that âwe are not here to lectureâ but to âoffer partnership.â
[Trumpâs incoherent message to U.S. allies in Asia]Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and President Trump talk as they arrive for a photo session at the opening of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Danang, Vietnam, on Saturday. (Hau Dinh/AP)
Unlike former president Barack Obama â" who canceled a bilateral meeting with Duterte last year â" Trump joined the Philippine strongman in raising glasses in a toast at the start of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Manila over the weekend. The two men appeared at ease as they posed for photographs with other leaders wearing traditional barong Tagalog shirts.
âWeâve had a great relatio nship,â Trump told reporters as he sat with Duterte at the start of the gathering. âThis has been very successful.â
As Trump pivoted to talking about the nice weather in Manila, Duterte cut off American reporters who tried to press Trump on human rights.
âWhoa, whoa,â he protested. âThis is not a press statement. This is the bilateral meeting.â
Duterte at one point called reporters âspies,â prompting Trump to laugh.
A spokesman for Duterte said after the meeting that human rights did not come up, although the Philippine leader did talk about his efforts against the âdrug menace.â
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said human rights came up briefly in the context of the Philippinesâ drug war; she did not elaborate. On two occasions, Trump declined to answer shouted questions from reporters about whether he had pressed Duterte on human rights.President Trump, left, shows the way to Chinese President Xi Jinping on stage during a business event at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (Andy Wong/AP)
âI have a sense that he is not going to address human rights, largely because he is trying to build a relationship with ÂDuterte,â said James Zarsadiaz, director of the Yuchengco Philippine Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. âThis 10-day trip is about building alliances in response to North Korea.â
[Duterteâs assistant is a selfie king]
White House aides said Trump routinely brings up human rights in his private conversations with world leaders, and in a couple of notable instances he has addressed the matter in public on his Asia trip.
In a speech to the South Korean parliament, Trump called North Korea âa hell no person deserves,â and he laid out in sometimes gruesome detail the abuses Pyongyang has perpetrated â" including purportedly killing babies and carting the bodies away in buckets.
In Tokyo, Trump met with the families of Japanese citizens who were abducted by North Korean agents four decades earlier. Other presidents, including Obama and George W. Bush, also have met with the families.
âWeâll work together and see if we can do something, now the spotlight is on,â Trump said at a news conference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Trump called the abductions a âvery, very sad thing.â
In Beijing, Trump personally asked Xi to help resolve the case of three UCLA menâs basketball players who were arrested for shoplifting while in Hangzhou for a tournament last week, according to people familiar with the situation.
On Thursday, as Trump flew from China to Vietnam, a White House official told reporters aboard Air Force One that Trump has been âquite concernedâ about Burma, where Mus lims have been systematically slaughtered by the Buddhist majority.
âItâs come up in a number of his conversations with Southeast Asian leaders, and certainly heâll be discussing it, and publicly as well,â said the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
As of Monday, however, Trump had yet to do so. He has issued no public statement on the crisis since the Burmese military escalated its anti-Rohingya campaign two months ago.
[As Trump arrives, a young victim of Duterteâs âdrug warâ is mourned]
Although the Obama administration promised a âpivotâ to Asia, in part structured on human rights and U.S. values diplomacy, there has long been a sense that U.S. influence in the Asia-Pacific region is waning while Chinaâs is on the rise.
Over the past decade, China has stepped up trade, investment and tourism in Southeast Asia, becoming a major economic player with close ties to political and military elites.
Al l 10 ASEAN member states joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a Chinese-led multilateral financial institution that is issuing billions in loans. China has not tied human rights reforms or worker protections to its economic largesse.
The Obama administration sought to align ASEAN around common values that include human rights. But the 10 regional member countries have widely disparate political systems â" some democratic, some authoritarian â" and economic systems.
Aides, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, said Trump believes it is more effective to discuss human rights issues in private; Trump has helped gain the release of a number of Americans who had been detained in Asia and the Middle East. The president railed about North Koreaâs mistreatment of American college student Otto Warmbier, who died shortly after being released from 17 months of captivity in Pyongyang.
Across both East and Southeast Asia, U.S. allies are uncertain abou t what Trump stands for and nervous about what he will do, said Richard Heydarian, a security analyst and author of âThe Rise of Duterte.â
âThey see a total collapse of American soft power, largely because of Trump, and also American structural decline, especially relative to China,â he said.
But itâs a mistake to see this as a clear win for the Chinese, Heydarian added. Despite Chinaâs spending in Southeast Asia, countries are not ready to align with Beijing, which is seen as a bully because of its military-led maritime expansion in the South China Sea and its economic pressure.
[When strongmen meet: Trump and Duterte in Manila]
Absent a clear leader in the region, middle-power countries, including Japan, Australia and India, are stepping up their own diplomacy. Trump was scheduled to meet with the leaders from each of those countries Monday amid talk that they would form a âquadâ of powers to help hedge against China in the Indo-Pacif ic.
During the Obama administration, Duterte made his frustration with the United States clear, lashing out at Obama for criticizing the anti-drug campaign and threatening to curtail U.S.-Philippine military ties.
Duterte announced that he wanted a divorce from the United States and planned to align himself with Chinaâs âideological flow.â China, in turn, promised money for major infrastructure projects and military upgrades.
Trump has taken a markedly warmer approach than Obama did. In a private phone call in April that focused mostly on North Korea, Trump praised ÂDuterte for doing an âunbelievable jobâ in combating the illicit drug trade and invited Duterte to visit the White House, according to details of the conversation first revealed in detail in May by The Washington Post.
And despite protests against Trump here in Manila during his visit, a majority of Filipinos are more comfortable with the United States than with China and are cer tainly not prepared to cast their lot with Beijing alone.
Duterteâs administration has continued to work with the United States on a range of issues and still takes money for counterÂnarcotics work, police training and other items. In the run-up to Trumpâs visit, Duterte struck an almost conciliatory tone.
The upshot is that U.S. influence in the Philippines remains strong and Trump probably has the political capital to nudge ÂDuterte on the drug war if he chose to do so, experts said.
âThe credibility of the U.S. is at stake because of Trumpâs unÂsophisticated ways in diplomacy,â said Zarsadiaz, the Philippine studies director. âIn the grand scheme of things, in Asia, there is still this sense that the U.S. is an arbiter of justice. .â.â. Time will tell whether Trump will follow the lead of congressional leaders, of the U.N., of Amnesty International, and stand behind what are seen as American principles.âSource: Google News