Trump bonds with Duterte at Asean Summit, rights 'mentioned briefly'
Manila: US President Donald Trump said on Monday that he had a "great relationship" with his Philippines counterpart Rodrigo Duterte, making little mention of human rights at his first face-to-face meeting with the leader accused of carrying out a campaign of extrajudicial killings in his nation's war on drugs.
In a stark break from past practice by US Presidents who have pressed foreign leaders publicly and privately about allegations of human rights abuses, Trump pursued his own style of diplomacy, focussing mostly on areas of common ground during his meeting with Duterte, the New York Times reported.
On the sideline of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit meeting, Trump dwelled on combating the Islamic State and illegal drugs as well as on trade issues, the White House said.
"Human rights briefly came up in the context of the Philippines' fight against illegal drugs," said White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
But Duterte's spokesman denied that the subject of rights was ever broached, even as the Philippines President spoke about the "drug menace" in his country.
Trump "appeared sympathetic and did not have any official position on the matter and was merely nodding his head, indicating that he understood the domestic problem that we faced on drugs", said Harry Roque, Duterte's spokesman.
"The issue of human rights did not arise; it was not brought up," Roque said.
Both the leaders declined to answer questions during brief remarks to reporters on the sidelines of the Asean Summit meeting in Manila on Monday.
Sitting side by side, Trump and Duterte projected a friendly dynamic, ribbing the news media as they prepared to speak privately.
"We've had a great relationship," Trump said, heaping praise on Duterte's stewardship of the summit, including an elaborate gala dinner on Sunday where they were seen chatting animatedly and a set of cultural performances on Monday. "This has been very successful."
When asked whether Trump would press Duterte on human rights, the Philippines President quickly silenced them. "Whoa, whoa -- this is not the press statement," Duterte said. "We are in a bilateral meeting."
The Philippines leader at one point called reporters "spies", prompting Trump to chuckle.
On the streets of Manila, meanwhile, about a hundred anti-riot police officers with shields and truncheons clashed with about 300 protesters as they marched near the American Embassy.
The protesters carried anti-American placards and a likeness of Trump with a Hitler-like moustache. They were later pushed back with water cannons, the Times reported.
White House officials have said that Trump has a "warm rapport" with Duterte, with whom he has spoken and exchanged letters since taking office, and that he wants to mend the US-Philippines alliance after strains during the Obama administration.
Trump raised eyebrows in April by inviting Duterte to the White House. The Philippines leader has been accused of ordering thousands of extrajudicial killings of drug suspects in what human rights groups condemn as a bloody campaign.
On Sunday evening, Duterte made a public show of his affection for Trump, grabbing a microphone during the gala dinner to sing the Philippines love ballad "Ikaw", a serenade he said he had performed "upon the orders of the Commander in Chief of the US."
A Philippines official later tweeted about the song, reportedly a favourite of Duterte's, which includes the lyric, "You are the love I've been waiting for."
Trump also promised to reduce his country's trade deficit with Asia and pitched for reciprocal trade relations at the summit. He said the US seeks "economic partnerships on the basis of fairness and reciprocity" with members of the Asean comprising Myanmar, Brunei, Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Trump will end his Asian tour on Tuesday after visiting Japan, South Korea, China and Vietnam over the last 12 days.