US President Donald Trump skipped discussions on the Philippines' overlapping claims with China in the South China Sea when he sat down with President Rodrigo Duterte for their first formal bilateral talks in Manila.
While former US President Barack Obama’s administration declared freedom of navigation in the South China Sea was in the interest of the US during his time, experts say Trump has played down that policy as he courted China’s support in pressuring North Korea to give up its nuclear program.
According to former Permanent Representative to the United Nations Lauro Baja, Trump's ultimate concern on his extended Asian trip was to gather enough support against the Pyongyang govenment.
“In the political and security area, Trump has one primordial objective—how to get support against DPRK,” said Lauro Baja, who's also a former foreign affairs undersecretary.
DPRK stands for North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“He may even be willing to make a deal with China on rhetorics and ‘provocative actions’ on the South China Sea in return for more vigorous support of US position versus North Korea,” Baja said.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee said talks between the two leaders centered on ISIS threats, trade, illegal drugs and, although briefly, human rights.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the territorial disputes, which involves the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, was not part of the 40-minute discussions.
With Trump adopting such position, Baja said the Philippines and other claimant states may have to recalibrate their policies and approaches on South China Sea issues.
“What we are witnessing is a kaleidoscope of competing priorities and visions among the major powers. The lesser powers may have to use a bigger magnifying lens to navigate safely to protect and promote their own national interests,” Baja said.
The meeting between Trump and Duterte underscores the bond between the two long-time allies despite previous diplomatic irritants as China expands its clout and power in Southeast Asia.
Roque described their meeting as “very candid, warm and friendly,” adding they have “similar feelings” towards Obama, who was critical of both Trump and Duterte.
Despite his anti-American streak, Duterte, according to Roque, acknowledged to Trump that Philippines-US alliance “has been very strong and very important.”
Trump, on the other hand, admitted that there were “sour points in the relationship” but blamed it on the “statements made by former President Obama on the administration of President Duterte.”
Duterte's deadly on war on drugs sparked concerns from the State Department last year, causing him to resort to curses-laden verbal attacks against the agency and Obama, who he once asked to “go to hell."
Duterte has also vowed to realign the country's foreign policy by befriending China and Russia while vowing to step back on military engagements with the US.
Trump, said Roque, assured Duterte that “he has always been an ally of the Philippines president since he was elected.”
“There is a marked difference between the relationship of the administration of President Trump and Duterte,” Roque said.
With Duterte adopting a friendly stance towards China to ease Manila’s territorial rifts with Beijing in the disputed South China Sea, ties with Beijing have dramatically turned around.
Duterte’s pragmatic approach focused on normalizing relations with its Asian neighbor with the aim of securing more trade and infrastructure funds from it then raise the disputes, including an international arbitration ruling on the South China Sea won by Manila, under a more friendly climate.
Duterte seemed to have instantly obtained support for its cause from Trump, who was quiet on the issue even during his meeting with Southeast Asian leaders at an ongoing summit in Manila, where the regional bloc also held separate meetings with heads from China, Japan, Russia and Australia.
When the issue of South China Sea was raised at the closed-door meeting between ASEAN and the US, Roque said the only response from Trump “was a need for fair trade.”
At an economic summit in Vietnam last week, Trump has complained of China's unfair trade practices.
US officials have always put emphasis on freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea and a peaceful settlement and a rules-based approach in resolving the competing claims in the vast waters, referred to by Manila as the West Philippine Sea.
Washington also backs a multilateral approach to the territorial row – an arrangement vehemently objected by China.
China has long frowned on any discussion of the disputes in multilateral arenas like the ASEAN, demanding instead for a bilateral negotiation.
Beijing likewise opposed any role by non-claimant countries, specially the U.S., in resolving the territorial spats.
Despite the good rapport between the two maverick leaders, analyst Carl Thayer, professor emeritus at the University of New South Wales, said it will not stop the Philippines from developing close ties with China.
“Every country in the region and the United States are doing so. This meeting will sustain the alliance but not revive it,” Thayer said.
Duterte, he said, will still be opposed to any high-profile US military rotation as agreed under the administration of his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, but will be grateful for American counter-terrorism support especially during the siege of Marawi by Islamic State militants.
“In sum, the meeting will see a reset in bilateral relations and progress will be gradual,” Thayer said. —NB, GMA News