The Washington Post · · NATIONAL, WORLD, ASIA-PACIFIC · Nov 13, 2017 - 7:31 PM
MANILA - As his first official trip to Asia neared its end Monday, President Donald Trump had yet to utter a word about the vicious military campaign against the Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar, which the United Nations' top human rights official has called a "textbook example" of genocide.
Earlier in Vietnam, Trump embraced the communist nation's leaders during a state visit to Hanoi without publicly raising the ongoing crackdown on political speech and independent journalists. He lavished praise in Beijing on Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who oversees an authoritarian system that sharply limits press freedoms, as "a very special man."
And here in Manila, human rights issues were barely discussed - if at all - in Trump's first meeting with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has garnered worldwide condemnation for waging a bloody, extrajudicial drug war that has killed thousands, including children, who have either been shot in police raids or targeted by hit men, often after being named by police.
Throughout his 12-day, five-nation trip in Asia, Trump focused primarily on tough talk about trade, terrorism and North Korea's nuclear program, while saying little about chronic human-rights abuses in a region that is home to some of world's most brutal authoritarian regimes. The theme is a familiar one for Trump, who declared during a May speech in front of leaders in the Middle East, including many despots, that "we are not here to lecture" but to "offer partnership."
Unlike former President Barack Obama - who canceled a bilateral meeting with Duterte just last year - Trump joined the Philippine strongman in raising their glasses in a toast at the start of the 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.
"We've had a great relationship," Trump told reporters as he sat with Duterte at the start of the gathering. "This has been very successful."
As Trump pivoted to talking about the nice weather in Manila, Duterte cut off American reporters who tried to press Trump on human rights.
"Whoa, whoa," he protested. "This is not a press statement. This is the bilateral meeting."
Duterte at one point called reporters "spies," 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 "drug menace."
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said human rights came up briefly in the context of the Philippines' 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.
"I have a sense that he is not going to address human rights largely because he is trying to build a relationship with Duterte," said James Zarsadiaz, director of the Yuchengco Philippine Studies program at the University of San Francisco. "This 10-day trip is about building alliances in response to North Korea."
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 "a hell no person deserves," and he laid out in sometimes gruesome detail the abuses Pyongyang has perpetrated - 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 met with the families.
"We'll work together and see if we can do something, now the spotlight is on," Trump said at a news conference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, calling the abductions a "very, very sad thing."
In Beijing, Trump also personally asked Xi to help resolve the case of three UCLA men's 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 "quite concerned" about Myanmar, where Muslims have been systematically slaughtered by the Buddhist majority.
"It's come up in a number of his conversations with Southeast Asian leaders, and certainly he'll be discussing it, and publicly as well," 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.
Though the Obama administration promised a "pivot" 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 China's is on the rise.
Over the last decade, China has stepped up trade, investment and tourism in Southeast Asia, becoming a major economic player with close ties to the political and military elite.
All 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 - some democratic, some authoritarian - and economic systems.
Aides, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, said Trump believes it is more effective to discuss such 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 Korea's 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 about what Trump stands for and nervous about what he does next, said Richard Heydarian, a security analyst and author of "The Rise of Duterte."
"They see a total collapse of American soft power, largely because of Trump, and also American structural decline, especially relative to China," he said.
But it's a mistake to see this as a clear win for the Chinese, he added. Despite China's spending in Southeast Asia, countries are not ready to align with Beijing, which is seen as a bully over its military-led maritime expansion in the South China Sea and its economic pressure.
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 on Monday amid talk that they would form a "quad" of powers to help hedge against China in the Indo-Pacific.
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.
He announced that he wanted a divorce from the United States and planned to align himself with China's "ideological flow." China, in turn, promised money for major infrastructure projects and military upgrades.
Trump has taken a markedly warmer approach. In a private phone call in April that focused mostly on North Korea, Trump praised Duterte for doing an "unbelievable job" 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 certainly not prepared to cast their lot with Beijing alone.
Duterte's administration has continued to work with the United States on a range of issues and still takes money for counternarcotics work, police training and other items. In the run-up to Trump's 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 Duterte on the drug war if he chose to do so, experts said.
"The credibility of the U.S. is at stake because of Trump's unsophisticated ways in diplomacy," said Zarsadiaz, the Philippine studies director. "In the grand scheme of things, in Asia, there is still this sense that the U.S. is an arbiter of justice . . . 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."