The Asia expert community in Washington was shocked and largely appalled when the official White House statement on President Trump’s April 29 phone call with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte revealed that Trump not only had invited him to the White House, but also had praised his anti-drug policy, which according to human rights groups has included thousands of extrajudicial murders.
Those feelings changed to bewilderment and scorn over the next two days when both Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and White House press secretary Sean Spicer claimed those moves were necessary because of the need to enlist the Philippines in the effort to confront North Korea. By using the North Korean nuclear crisis to justify Trump’s embrace of a strongman, the White House made a smaller problem much worse, according to experts and former officials.
“The explanation that the chief of staff gave, that President Duterte has to come here because we need the Philippines for the North Korea problem, that’s what was known in 16th century French diplomacy as putting lipstick on a pig,” said Michael Green, who served as National Security Council senior director for Asian affairs during the George W. Bush administration. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
Some U.S. officials believe the White House came up with that explanation after Trump freelanced his invitation to the Philippine leader. But if easing up on Duterte on human rights to get as-yet-unspecified help on North Korea really was a thought-out plan, that’s even worse, Green said. It won’t work to help solve the North Korea problem and meanwhile gives up too much U.S. leadership and power for too little.
“Once we start horse trading, once we start mixing those up, we are no longer a great power,” he said. “We start acting like a small, transactional, not even a middle power. And we lose across the board all our leverage.”
Although Priebus and Spicer defended the invitation, the New York Times reported that both the National Security Council staff and the State Department were caught off guard by Trump’s ad-lib.
There are good reasons to reach out to Duterte, experts said. The Philippines is an estranged ally that the Chinese are heavily courting. The United States has shared interests with the Philippines, including working with it against terrorism in Southeast Asia and countering Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.
“It is a potentially shrewd move to try to figure out a way to begin repairing relations with Manila,” said Michael Auslin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “Instead of tackling areas of disagreement head on, this could allow for renewed communication.”
But there’s really no substantive link between the Philippines and U.S. efforts to confront the regime of Kim Jong Un. The North Koreans are active in evading sanctions in other Southeast Asian countries, but not the Philippines, said former nuclear negotiator and North Korea expert Joel Wit.
“Aside from the recent U.S. indictment of a few Filipino citizens for smuggling North Korean drugs there is no evidence to suggest that Manila’s support in dealing with Pyongyang has any importance,” he said.
The Trump team’s explanation is just the latest example of the U.S. government offering unilateral concessions to other countries up front in exchange for potential and unspecified future assistance with North Korea.
Trump has already said publicly he was willing to give China a better trade deal in exchange for Beijing’s help in enforcing sanctions on North Korea. There have been zero freedom-of-navigation missions to challenge Chinese claims in the South China Sea since Trump took office. A proposed sale of weapons to Taiwan has not moved in months. Trump even said he would check with Chinese President Xi Jinping before taking another call from Taiwan’s president.
Meanwhile, the Chinese are publicly stating they do not agree with the Trump administration’s strategy of placing “maximum pressure” on North Korea. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi told the U.N. Security Council last week that the United States should resume talks with North Korea right away.
Evans Revere, a former State Department Korea expert now with the Brookings Institution, said that backing off human rights actually harms the Trump administration’s stated goal of pressuring the North Korean leadership to change its behavior by diminishing the threat of prosecution for senior members of the regime.
“The two things that we’ve seen over the years that drive the North Koreans crazy are money and potential human rights prosecutions,” he said. “So that’s a card we need to keep in play.”
Michael Anton, the director of strategic communications for the National Security Council, told my Post colleague Philip Rucker that the administration is trying to “balance” security interests with human rights concerns with the Philippines. “If you walk away from relationships, you can’t make any progress,” he said.
The problem is, the Trump administration has not explained what it is doing on the human rights side of that equation, if anything. Meanwhile, its outreach to Duterte is not likely to produce any benefit on the North Korea question at all.
Placing the United States in the position of trading away yet another important objective for the faint prospect of some progress on North Korea is bad negotiating — with potentially dangerous and counterproductive consequences.