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Duterte Warms to Trump, but Keeps His Focus on China

President Trump, left, with President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and his partner, Cielito Avencana, in Manila on Sunday at a dinner honoring the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Doug Mills/The New York Times

President Trump, left, with President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and his partner, Cielito Avencana, in Manila on Sunday at a dinner honoring the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

BANGKOK — The president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, seldom holds back.

His anti-drug crusade has led to the extrajudicial killings of thousands of people. He is fond of boasting about how he has personally killed criminals and even strangers. He unleashes profane diatribes about countries and world figures he dislikes, with the United States often on the receiving end.

But more quietly, he seems to have warmed to the United States and President Donald Trump, who also has a notably provocative style.

As his country hosts a summit meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, on Sunday, the more charming side of Duterte’s personality is likely to be on display, both in his meetings with Trump and in his foreign policy goal of closer relations with China.

One big reason for his shift in rhetoric when it comes to the United States is clear: Trump is a marked improvement in Duterte’s eyes over Barack Obama, who urged the Philippines leader to follow the rule of law in tackling the illegal drug trade.

On Saturday, Trump and Duterte met for the first time on the sidelines of an economic summit meeting in Vietnam. The two shook hands and spoke warmly about having a longer discussion over the next two days, Philippines officials said.

“These two are talking as friends,” said Ramon Casiple, the executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, a nonprofit promoting democracy in the Philippines. “I don’t see any reasons when they meet face-to-face that there will be any big problems.”

But the longer-term game for Duterte has been his determination to court China. Since his election, he has backed down from contentious territorial disputes with Beijing — last week, he halted a construction project in the South China Sea that brought Chinese complaints — despite an international ruling early in his presidency that backed the Philippines.

Harry Roque, a spokesman for Duterte, described his policy as a deliberate turn toward closer relationships with countries in Asia, and with China in particular.

Duterte hopes his strategy will bring billions of dollars in investment from China, although the money has been slow in coming, said Richard Javad Heydarian, an assistant professor of political science at De La Salle University in Manila.

Still, the United States and its former colony are treaty allies with a long history of cooperation. And it is clear that Duterte’s and Trump’s styles seem to mesh more than clash.

Trump set the stage for improved relations when he called Duterte in April and congratulated him for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem.” The United States also provided valuable military assistance — including drones and intelligence — that proved instrumental in defeating Islamic extremists during a five-month siege of Marawi City, which ended last month.

On Sunday, Trump offered to help mediate the disputes in the South China Sea, which have also pit China against Vietnam and other countries in the region. “I’m a very good mediator and arbitrator,” he said at the start of a meeting in Hanoi with Vietnam’s president, Tran Dai Quang.

Last year, Duterte called for a “separation” from the United States, threatened to expel U.S. troops and accused the CIA of plotting to kill him. When asked how he would respond if the U.S. president were to criticize his anti-drug campaign, Duterte replied with a vulgar epithet to describe Obama, who was president at the time.

Roque, the spokesman, said that Duterte changed his tune after seeing the value of U.S. help in Marawi.

“He hasn’t been criticizing the United States lately,” Roque said in an interview. “He looks forward to closer ties with the United States.”

Trump landed in the Philippines on Sunday to protests by leftist activists, rights groups and students, who marched in the streets. The two presidents were scheduled to hold bilateral talks in Manila, but the U.S. leader appeared in the traditional Filipino dress-shirt called a barong at a dinner Sunday night, and shook hands with Duterte.

Trump has been tied to the Philippines for years through his business dealings, and before this trip, his brand had arrived well ahead of him. Trump Tower at Century City, a $150 million, 57-story residential building, has been under construction since 2012 in metropolitan Manila. It is one of several international business deals that pose potential conflicts of interest for Trump.

Duterte won election on a promise to kill drug users and said that the fish in Manila Bay would grow fat feeding on their corpses. In the early months of the anti-drug campaign, the police said that thousands of drug users had been killed. But as the extrajudicial killing has continued, they have refused to release the death toll.

Duterte won election last year with 39 percent of the vote, but his popularity soared after the killings began. While his support rating has declined in recent months, it still stood at 67 percent in September, according to a survey by the nonprofit Social Weather Stations.

While past U.S. presidents have used meetings with foreign leaders to promote human rights, activists have little expectation that Trump will raise the extrajudicial killings with Duterte.

“I strongly suspect we will see an alpha-male bromance between the two,” said Phelim Kine, the Human Rights Watch deputy director for Asia. “A lot of the issues that underpin the U.S.-Philippine relations will go unaddressed, and one of those will be rule of law.”

Richard C. Paddock reported from Bangkok, and Felipe Villamor from Manila. Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed reporting from Manila.

Copyright © 2017 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.
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