By Felipe Villamor
Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte and U.S. President Donald Trump touched on the threat posed by the Islamic State (IS) and the ongoing Rohingya crisis in Myanmar during a bilateral meeting in Manila, a joint statement released by the White House said Monday.
Trump arrived in Manila on Sunday at the tail end of a 12-day Asian tour. He met with Duterte on the sidelines of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit attended as well by leaders of China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, India, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
“President Trump expressed his condolences for the tragic loss of life in Marawi City at the hands of ISIS-affiliated terrorists, and congratulated the Armed Forces of the Philippines for its success in liberating Marawi,” the statement said, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.
Trump vowed that the United States would continue its support and assistance for the Philippines’ fight against terrorism, it said. The United States, as well as Australia, provided aerial intelligence support during the Marawi firefights.
Late last month, Manila declared an end to a five-month battle against Islamic State-backed militants in the southern city of Marawi. Officials said the fighting, which included heavy bombing runs by Philippine Air Force jets, killed 930 militants, 165 soldiers and 47 civilians.
In a speech at the summit’s opening ceremony, Duterte underscored that Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore had provided valuable assistance during the fighting that reduced Marawi to a landscape of ruined houses and buildings and displaced its more than 200,000 residents.
He said terrorism and violent extremism endangered peace and stability in the region, which is home to more than 500 million people and at least three Muslim-majority countries – Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia.
The threats posed by radical groups “know no boundaries,” Duterte warned.
“Piracy and armed robbery in the seas put a dent on our growth and disrupt the stability of both regional and global commerce,” he said, while adding that the spread of illegal drugs across borders also endangered the “very fabric of society.”
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the spread of IS, which is also known by its other acronym ISIS, rose “sharply” in recent years in the region “partly inspired by the earlier successes of ISIS in the Middle East.”
But while congratulating the Philippines for ending the Marawi clashes, he said the militants could be biding time before launching more deadly attacks.
“Therefore, it is important to strengthen counter-terrorism cooperation,” he said. “Law-enforcement agencies must continue to coordinate closely, and facilitate the timely exchange of intelligence.”
In their bilateral meeting, Trump and Duterte spoke about the Rohingya crisis gripping Myanmar and Bangladesh, a topic of great concern among ASEAN’s Muslim-majority nations.
The two leaders called for the “expeditious delivery of humanitarian assistance to affected communities to affected communities,” according to the statement, which did not use the word “Rohingya.”
The two leaders “welcomed the Myanmar government’s commitment to end the violence, restore media access, ensure the safe return of displaced persons, and implement all of the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, and urged all parties to support these government commitments,” the statement said.
More than 600,000 people have crossed the border into Bangladesh since Aug. 25, after a violent crackdown by security forces in Buddhist-majority Myanmar against the Rohingya Muslim community. The crackdown followed coordinated attacks on Myanmar police and army posts that were blamed on Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgents.
‘Human rights briefly came up’
Activists were hoping the 40-minute meeting between the two leaders would center on extrajudicial killings, an offshoot of Duterte’s anti-drug crackdown that has left more than 3,000 Filipinos dead, according to official figures.
“The two sides underscored that human rights and the dignity of human life are essential, and agreed to continue mainstreaming the human rights agenda in their national programs to promote the welfare of all sectors, including the most vulnerable groups,” the statement said, listing human rights as the third of 14 topics discussed by the two leaders.
“The conversation focused on ISIS, illegal drugs, and trade. Human rights briefly came up in the context of the Philippines’ fight against illegal drugs,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters.
But Philippine presidential spokesman Harry Roque told reporters earlier Monday that “the issue of human rights did not arise. It was not brought up.” He later said the leaders had discussed the Philippines’ war on drugs, with Trump appearing sympathetic “unlike previous administrations in the United States.”
South China Sea ‘better left untouched’
Absent from Duterte’s opening remarks was China, which is engaged in territorial dispute with ASEAN members over the South China Sea. Geopolitical analysts have warned that overlapping claims could lead to violence and threaten regional stability.
Last year, The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favor of the Philippines, and dismissed China’s sweeping territorial claims. Beijing angrily reacted and said it would not heed the ruling.
Four ASEAN members – the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam – as well as Taiwan and China have overlapping claims to islands in the South China Sea. But while all claimants have agreed to maintain the existing state of affairs in the volatile region, China has continued to fortify islands it claims and built land features, according to Philippine defense officials.
ASEAN leaders were expected to introduce the South China Sea item during the Manila meeting, but it was apparently sidestepped after Duterte was called to a meeting with Xi in Vietnam over the weekend, site of the Asia Pacific Economic Forum (APEC) summit.
China earlier this year agreed to begin negotiations with ASEAN for a code of conduct in the region, but a copy of the “chairman’s statement” issued by the host country left the item on South China Sea blank.
In a meeting with businessmen Sunday night before a gala dinner, Duterte said, “And today, China is the No. 1 economic powerhouse. And we have to be friends.
“The South China Sea is better left untouched.”
He said Xi had assured him that his government was not prepared to battle over a strip of tiny, potentially rich islands, situated in a vital sea lane through which an estimated $5 trillion of the world’s trade passes through annually.
“I do not want to waste the lives of my countrymen for a useless war that cannot be won by anybody,” Duterte quoted Xi as telling him.
“He made it clear to us that the only way to go is cooperation. And so I would say that we should open our doors to everybody. Ideological conflicts are no longer in the vogue, it is passé,” Duterte said.
Since assuming the Philippine presidency last year, Duterte has taken steps to repair damaged ties with China. Among his first foreign trips was to Beijing, where he received millions in economic pledges while advocating friendlier relations, a marked departure from an antagonistic stance espoused by his predecessor.
But in moving for closer ties to China, and to Russia – another American rival – Duterte antagonized the United States, the country’s longtime defense ally. After Trump took office in January, relations were put back on track.