The president of the Philippines appears to have reversed his position on the U.S. after a period of rocky relations with the Obama administration.
“I am your humble friend in Southeast Asia,” President Rodrigo Duterte told Secretary of State Rex Tillerson when the two met in Manila on Monday to discuss regional issues, including the ongoing fight against radical Muslim militants with ties to the Islamic State in the southern Philippines.
Duterte, who rose to power last summer, has repeatedly attacked the U.S. in foul-mouthed rants responding to perceived slights and criticisms of his anti-narcotics campaign, a massive drug war that has taken the lives of several thousand people over the past year.
“You can go to hell, Mr. Obama, you can go to hell,” Duterte said last October. In another incident, he called former President Barack Obama a “son of a whore.”
He threatened to tear up bilateral agreements and treaties, such as the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Act (EDCA), which gives American military forces access to military bases in the Philippines. Duterte also cancelled certain war games and suggested that he would evict U.S. troops from the Philippines.
“This is what happens now. I will be reconfiguring my foreign policy. Eventually, in my time, I will break up with America. I would rather go with Russia or China,” he said in Manila last year. Later, he declared that he had decided to separate from the U.S.
“In this venue, I announce my separation from the United States,” he said in China. “Both in military … but economics also, America has lost.” Duterte began shifting his focus to Beijing and Moscow, explaining that “there are three of us against the world – China, the Philippines, and Russia.”
Since President Donald Trump took office, relations between the U.S. and the Philippines seem to have improved.
Duterte was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Trump on his victory in the 2016 presidential election, and he was quick to point out that he was done fighting with the U.S. The Trump administration has, for the most part, avoided criticizing the ongoing drug war in the Philippines and has shown support in the fight against extremism.
The two world leaders have had several “very friendly” conversations over the phone, repairing some of the damage left by the previous administration.
Tillerson and Duterte discussed the situation in Mindanao, where several armed militant groups are attempting to establish an autonomous Islamic state and leaving a trail of bodies in their wake. One organization seized a city in May, triggering a fight that led to its destruction and the deaths of hundreds of people.
The U.S. supports counterterrorism operations in the Philippines. “We are providing some training and some guidance in terms of how to deal with an enemy that fights in ways that is not like most people have ever had to deal with, so it’s a tragic situation down there,” Tillerson explained at a regional security forum Monday.
While the previous administration considered limiting arms sales and other support to the Philippines in response to human rights concerns, the Trump administration has taken a different approach, separating the two issues.
“We see no conflict at all in our helping them with that situation and our views of the human rights concerns we have with respect to how they carry out their counter narcotics activities,” Tillerson added. Duterte does not perceive the atrocities in his anti-narcotics campaign as human rights violations because he does not consider drug criminals human. The many innocent people killed in the crossfire are often labeled “collateral damage.”
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