Rodrigo Duterte says he wants to be “friends” with Donald Trump but policy differences may yet overshadow similarities in style
Duterte has made clear he intends to continue his efforts to limit his country’s economic and military reliance on the US, opening up a greater role for China
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has suggested his country’s ties with the US are likely to improve under President-elect Donald Trump and that the two could be “friends”.
“I’m sure, we have no quarrel,” Duterte said. “I can always be a friend to anybody, especially to a ... president, chief executive of another country.”
Duterte, who has been compared to Trump because of his irreverence toward rivals and critics, said he trusted the US president-elect’s judgment and expected him to be fair in dealing with people living in the US illegally. Filipinos are one of the largest expatriate groups in the US. His friendly remarks were a departure from his comments on the campaign trail in March, when he took offence at being compared to Trump.
“Donald Trump is a bigot, I am not,” Duterte said, referring to Trump’s proposals to ban Muslims from entering the U.S and erect a wall along the Mexican border.
Areas of conflict remain, and they could interfere with Duterte’s hoped-for “friendship” with Trump. For example, if Trump follows through on some of his campaign promises it could potentially damage the Philippine economy. And Duterte, who was mayor of the city of Davao for decades before he ran for the presidency, has made clear he intends to continue his efforts to limit his country’s economic and military reliance on the US, opening up a greater role for China.
“They seem to have the same frame of mind,” said Lauro Baja, a former Foreign Affairs undersecretary who served as the Philippine permanent representative to the United Nations under ex-President Gloria Arroyo, speaking of the two leaders. “But again, it will depend on whether President Trump is going to be the same as candidate Trump.”
A Trump administration curb on foreign workers could hit remittances from Filipinos in the US, while efforts to limit US businesses from exporting jobs might affect another Philippines growth industry in call centres and other forms of business process outsourcing. A US show of force in the South China Sea dictated by a hawkish secretary of State could complicate Duterte’s attempt to hose down tensions over the disputed waters with China.
While Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino strengthened defence ties with the US and opposed China’s expansion in the South China Sea, Duterte has openly courted China with a state visit to Beijing that reaped investment promises worth US$24 billion.
Duterte has also downplayed a July court ruling rebuffing China’s claims to more than 80 per cent of the South China Sea, emphasising his willingness to resume direct talks over the issue. At the same time he has distanced the Philippines from the US, telling President Barack Obama to “go to hell” and vowing to limit joint military exercises.
The US, which governed the Philippines for decades from the late 19th century, has been a long-standing military ally.
“Duterte’s efforts not to start off on the wrong foot will be welcomed, as the risks associated with a Trump presidency are stark for the Philippines,” said Eufracia Taylor, Asia analyst at risk advisory company Verisk Maplecroft. “If Trump chooses to make bilateral trade difficult for the Philippines, it will certainly hit the economy as well as the public’s broadly pro-US sentiment.”
“I don’t want to fight anymore because Trump is there,” Duterte told hundreds of cheering Filipinos during a state visit to Malaysia last week. “Long live” Trump, Duterte said.
In a congratulatory message to Trump sent by Communications Secretary Martin Andanar, Duterte said he looked forward to working with the incoming administration “for enhanced Philippines-US relations anchored on mutual respect, mutual benefit and shared commitment to democratic ideals and the rule of law.”
Days before the US elections, Duterte appointed a Trump associate – Jose E.B. Antonio – as special envoy to America. Antonio is chairman and chief executive officer of Century Properties Group, which built the Trump Tower Manila under a licensing agreement. Shares in the company climbed to their highest-level in a year following Trump’s election win.
At the same time, Duterte’s Economic Secretary Ernesto Pernia said the president’s recent pivot to China had been based on his assumption that Trump would win.
“Instead of depending on the US to a great extent, we are now diversifying our friendship, so you don’t crash when the country you depend on is in trouble,” he said.