(UPDATED – 7:45 p.m.) MANILA, Philippines – President Donald Trump raved about the “incredible Filipino hospitality” and his host President Rodrigo Duterte, on his first trip to the Philippines, for the 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit.
The meeting between the two presidents was one of the most anticipated at the summit of East and Southeast Asian leaders in Manila, with human rights groups pressing Trump to take a tough line on Duterte over his bloody war on drugs, in which thousands of people have been killed.
“The conversation focused on ISIS (Islamic State), illegal drugs, and trade,” said White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders. “Human rights briefly came up in the context of the Philippines’ fight against illegal drugs.”
Harry Roque, Duterte’s spokesman, told a news conference that the Philippine president had explained his anti-drugs policy at length to Trump, who “seemed to be appreciative of his efforts”. ” He added that the relationship between the two countries appears to be very warm and very friendly.
“There was no mention of human rights, no mention of extra-legal killings,” he said.
More than 3,900 people have been killed in a war on drugs that Duterte declared when he took office last year. His government says the police act in self defense, but critics say executions are taking place with no accountability.
“We are your ally. We are an important ally,” Duterte told Trump at the beginning of their talks, according to reporters allowed in to the meeting room.
Trump replied: “We’ve had a great relationship. This has been very successful. And the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) conference has been handled beautifully by the president in the Philippines.”
When a reporter asked Trump if he would raise human rights at the meeting, Duterte said: “Whoa, whoa. This is not a press briefing. This is the bilateral meeting.”
A government spokesman later said human rights were not raised.
Success as ASEAN chair
“Rodrigo, I would like to commend you on your success as ASEAN chair at this very critical moment in time and in the association’s history,” he said in his opening statement at the ASEAN-US dialogue, one of the summit’s sidelights.
“I also want to thank you for your incredible hospitality, and the show last night, the talent from that show, I assume most of them were from the Philippines, that was fantastic, thank you,” he added.
Trump was referring to the extravagant gala dinner hosted by Duterte for the ASEAN and dialogue partner leaders where they were entertained by singers and dancers on Sunday night.
The men wore cream-colored barong, an embroidered formal Philippine shirt, during the event. The guests were served a four-course Filipino-Asian fusion meal prepared by Chef Jessie Sincioco, who also designed the menu for Pope Francis when he visited the Philippines in 2015.
“Rodrigo, thank you very much for the way you treated all of us,” Trump said, alluding to the warm relationship between the United States of America and the host country.
Forum for consensus building
Trump said ASEAN remained a strong organization that has become a forum for consensus-building among the member-nations.
“This year, we mark 40 years of cooperation between and the US and this organization, a long time. I also want to congratulate ASEAN for 50 years of promoting peace and prosperity and stability in Southeast Asia and in the broader Indo-Pacific region,” he said.
Trump also thanked Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak “for the excellent job you’ve done as coordinator.”
“I appreciate it very much, I really appreciate it, you have coordinated well with us,” he said.