Donald Trump has pushed for equitable trade deals and opted to prioritise strategic interests over human rights during a meeting with Philippines leader Rodrigo Duterte in Manila.
The US president repeatedly praised Mr Duterte, pointedly calling him by his first name, sharing a joke about the media and even complimenting Manila’s weather. What he did not do was what many predecessors have done before: highlight human rights abuses while overseas.
Mr Duterte has overseen a bloody drug war that has featured extrajudicial killings, and has boasted about killing people with his own hands. However, during brief remarks to reporters, Mr Trump said he and Mr Duterte have “had a great relationship” but avoided questions on whether he would raise human rights issues.
The White House later said the two leaders discussed Islamic State, illegal drugs and trade during the 40-minute meeting.
Spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said human rights came up “briefly” in the context of the Philippines’ fight against illegal drugs. She did not say whether Mr Trump was critical of Mr Duterte’s programme. That appeared to conflict with the Philippines’ version of the meeting.
Harry Roque, a spokesman for Mr Duterte, said “there was no mention of human rights. There was no mention of extralegal killings. There was only a rather lengthy discussion of the Philippine war on drugs with President Duterte doing most of the explaining.”
On the sidelines of an international summit, Mr Trump looked to strengthen ties with Pacific Rim allies, aiming to strike bilateral rather than multinational trade agreements, and increase pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear programme.
He met India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday and touted their two nations’ “deeper and more comprehensive” ties, looking to strengthen a relationship that is vital to the US vision of an Indo-Pacific region that attempts to de-emphasise China’s influence.
He jointly met Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, with whom he had a contentious phone call last winter, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who hosted the president in Tokyo earlier in the trip.
Mr Trump raved about his accomplishments on his five-nation journey, including on trade and on North Korea, which the White House has suggested may be designated a state sponsor of terror.
He said he would wait until his return to Washington on Wednesday to elaborate with a “major statement” on those two topics but hinted at progress while in Manila.
“We’ve made some very big steps with regard to trade – far bigger than anything you know,” Mr Trump told reporters, touting business deals forged between US and foreign companies.
“We’ve made a lot of big progress on trade. We have deficits with almost everybody. Those deficits are going to be cut very quickly and very substantially,” he said. “Except us,” Mr Turnbull chimed in, to laughs.
“You’re the only one,” Mr Trump responded. He also said the trip had been “very fruitful” for the United States and pointed to the warm welcomes he had received in capitals like Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing.
“It was red carpet like nobody, I think, has probably ever received,” Mr Trump said. “And that really is a sigh of respect, perhaps for me a little, but really for our country. And I’m really proud of that.”