Expect fireworks today as United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets Philippine president Rodrigo Roa Duterte at the Malacanan palace.
Tillerson, who arrived on Saturday due to the ASEAN summit of Foreign Ministers now being held in Manila, wants to discuss the human rights situation in the Philippines with Duterte, an issue which Duterte finds highly sensitive.
In the past, Duterte had admonished the US for raising the issue of human rights in relation to his bloody anti-drugs campaign which had seen more than 8,000 Filipinos dead and hundreds of others injured in a span of twelve months.
There is no information as yet on how Tillerson will manage to discuss such a thorny topic with the Philippine president who once vowed to curse Barack Obama “in his face” had the former US president raised human rights in last year’s APEC summit. During the past months, Tillerson had been using the HR issue as a leveraging tool in his talks with other heads of state around the world.
Aside from human rights, Tillerson is expected to share insights on the war on terror in Mindanao, a conflict which the United States continue to provide countermeasures thru arms, surveillance, technologya and ammunition to Philippine security forces. Inspite of highly public pronouncements made by Duterte that his administration will not request for US assistance, several news reports show that the US supplied the Philippines with sophisticated weaponry to address the terrorist issue down South. The US and the Philippines are defense treaty partners.
Tillerson is also expected to convince Duterte to join Vietnam in convincing the ASEAN to issue a strongly worded communique directed at China. ASEAN member states and China have agreed on a Code of Conduct on the West Philippine sea issue but the organisation has yet to issue a Communique.
Vietnam, who has interests on those isles off Spratlys, refused to toe the Sino line. Two years ago, the Philippines and Vietnam stood pat on the issue against China. Now, it is only Vietnam who refused.
Had the Philippines raised the arbitral ruling before the ASEAN regional forum, that would have made a significant effect on the behavior of ASEAN towards China. Not only did the ruling benefit the Philippines, it also bolstered Vietnamese claims in relation to China.
The Philippine support, being the head of the ASEAN, is crucial. The US knows about it and President Donald Trump is convinced that all is not lost inspite of the highly public pivot Philippine president Duterte made a year ago. There is still time to change the ASEAN position. And Tillerson is expected to do his job of convincing Duterte to position himself along the democratic line.