Great chemistry

SKETCHES By Ana Marie Pamintuan

In Beijing yesterday, US President Donald Trump cited his country’s “incredibly warm” ties with China and “great chemistry” with his counterpart Xi Jinping. While describing US trade with China as “very one-sided and unfair,” Trump also said, “I think we’ll do tremendous things, China and the US.”

Maybe Trump was just being polite to his host, and he would pursue his “America first” economic policy as soon as he’s back in the US.

Still, the meeting with Xi should give an indication that this US President isn’t keen on lecturing his counterparts about what they should do, whether in fair trade practices or human rights.

So President Duterte need not get his hackles up over reports that two US congressmen who co-chair the House of Representatives’ Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, Republican Randy Hultgren and Democrat James McGovern, have urged Trump in a letter to raise human rights issues when the US leader meets with Duterte in Manila next week.

If the US State Department has learned its lesson from the days of Barack Obama, any concern about human rights will be coursed quietly through Cabinet-level channels. Unless they want Duterte to come out swinging again about human rights violations committed by the US in the past centuries, including in fighting the drug menace in South America.

Yesterday in Da Nang, Vietnam, Duterte again told the Filipino community that he didn’t like being reprimanded in public. Last year a State Department official told a media briefing that Obama was expected not to pull his punches on human rights during his forthcoming meeting with the new Philippine President. It set off a slew of profanities from Duterte, leading to Obama’s scrapping of their meeting at the ASEAN summit in Laos, and Du30’s avoidance of opportunities for any encounter with the US leader at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Peru.

Bilateral ties went downhill from there, to the benefit of China and its expansive maritime claims.

The APEC summit in Vietnam and next week’s ASEAN summit and meetings provide an opportunity to improve frayed ties. President Duterte has already warned that he’s nobody’s “lackey” and foreign leaders should “lay off” human rights issues.

Duterte is a perfect fit as current ASEAN chair. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is hardly known for championing human rights. If Trump, who is under fire in his country for his policies on immigrants, terror suspects and visitors from several Islamic countries, starts preaching to ASEAN leaders about human rights, especially in dealing with the drug menace, he might be met with blank and even hostile stares.

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Foreign criticism of his policies always elicits hostility from Duterte – especially when it’s expressed through mass media. He believes he is answerable only to the Filipino people, who sent him to power by a landslide on his promise to kill, kill, kill. The only thing that made him slow down on that promise was a shift in Pinoy public opinion, as reflected in the steep drop in his satisfaction and trust ratings in the third quarter this year, as polled by Social Weather Stations Inc. (People seemed to ignore the less negative results of the survey taken during the same quarter by Pulse Asia.)

Which ASEAN states are democracies that fully abide by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? The nation with a system of government closest to ours, Indonesia, is currently led by a popularly elected president who sees Duterte’s take-no-prisoners approach to the drug war as a model.

Trump isn’t about to tell the leaders of a region where the US is competing with China for influence that they are doing things wrong.

What he will likely do is reassure this part of the world, especially US treaty allies like the Philippines, that America remains committed to the region, particularly in maintaining freedom of navigation, keeping airspace open and deterring nuclear Armageddon.

In Manila, Trump may also want to reassure Pinoys that his “America first” policy isn’t going to imperil jobs especially in business process outsourcing.

This US president isn’t big on human rights, so he’ll likely also enjoy “great chemistry” with Duterte.

Ready for Asean

In the meantime, the Philippines is busy preparing to host the ASEAN summit and related meetings in Metro Manila and Clark, Pampanga.

Roxas Boulevard is all spruced up, with a fresh layer of asphalt, the bushes trimmed, and with lantern-shaped Christmas lights strung along the center island.

At night there are no street people sleeping under large foil sheets on the seawall or crowding the public toilet to take shelter from the rain.

The boulevard is always pretty during the Christmas season, but the ongoing beautification is not just for Yuletide. The fresh coat of paint on the traffic island and the curb, the cleanup of the green spaces along the service road – all are part of preparations for next week’s ASEAN meetings.

Social welfare officials have vowed that the street people have not been checked into a resort for the duration of the international event, like daang sarado did when Pope Francis came visiting in January 2015.

So far we haven’t received reports of any of the street people joining the ranks of the country’s desaparecidos.

Maybe they will be like the street people who enjoyed a “vacation” in a Batangas resort during the papal visit. Of the 99 families, 74 became beneficiaries of a modified conditional cash transfer program and were able to rent homes while four qualified for the regular CCT. Ten families had members who found employment under the cash-for-work program; three availed themselves of a program to return to their home provinces.

It’s only fitting that we put our best foot forward in welcoming guests. But it would be even better if all the beautification, the jobs for street people, the well-paved roads and well-maintained landscaping could be sustained beyond occasional gatherings.

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