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The U.S.-Philippine Relationship Under Trump


The White House announced this morning that President Trump has travel plans. He's headed to Asia. Once stop he'll make is the Philippines, which could prove interesting because lately the relationship between Washington and Manila has been rocky. Last year, when then-President Obama questioned the Philippine war on drugs, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte famously cursed him. And then Duterte followed up with this tirade.


PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE: So you can go to hell. Mr. Obama, you can go to hell.

KELLY: Now things seem to be getting friendlier under President Trump. Trump even invited Duterte to the White House. And that is the backdrop for our conversation with the Philippines' foreign minister, Alan Peter Cayetano. He's visiting Washington. And when we sat down, I asked him, how's the relationship now?

ALAN PETER CAYETANO: Long term, it's strong and it's irreversible. Today it's getting stronger. But it's in-between when you're boyfriend and girlfriend and we redefine the relationship - get married or separate - you know?

KELLY: Boy, and where are the U.S. and the Philippines in the track?

CAYETANO: It's nowhere near separation. And the American-Filipino relationship is so resilient that it bounces back right away regardless of personalities and issues.

KELLY: It has had a lot to bounce back from. Last year when things were at a low, President Duterte threatened to break up with the U.S. and embrace China instead. Is that a U-turn for your country's foreign policy?

CAYETANO: Well, first I really separate rhetoric. I don't mean that politicians who speak don't mean it.

KELLY: You're saying we shouldn't take those words at face value?

CAYETANO: Basically, what he is saying is that when the interest is common we will continue to be with the U.S. When they ask for our help, we will be there. But when the interest is diverging, we have to stand on our own two feet.

KELLY: And I hear you saying that things are improving between the U.S. and the Philippines from where they were last year. But President Duterte just this summer called the United States a lousy country.

DUTERTE: So you have to see the context of where President Duterte is coming from, even in what in the western world is interpreted wrongly as a curse word. He is who he is from the '70s and the '80s. And when people forced him to run - he didn't want to run - he said, OK, I can run, but I'm a dinosaur. And he speaks how he will speak freely. So it's not always politically correct. That's why we said we always take him seriously, but not necessarily always take him literally. And he loves to tease people (laughter).

KELLY: I have to say, I've interviewed a lot of diplomats. I've never heard a foreign secretary speak quite so frankly in interpreting your boss's words.

CAYETANO: So far, he's promoted me instead of firing me. So I think I can continue speaking this way (laughter).

KELLY: So knock on wood for your - for the sake of your career. Let me walk us back, if I may, just to where things are now. When President Trump made that invitation to the White House to President Duterte, a lot of Americans were outraged. And the reason was because of your country's human rights record and specifically the war on drugs that President Duterte launched and is carrying out today. Does your government hear that outrage? What's your response?

CAYETANO: Yes. But let me ask you this. You know, in the U.S. and in the West, the drugs used are usually marijuana, heroin, cocaine.

KELLY: But I'm asking you about the policy in the Philippines where thousands of people have been killed, including children.

DUTERTE: Let me get that out because that's actually not fact. That's perception because...

KELLY: You're saying thousands of people haven't been killed in the war on drugs?

CAYETANO: Not in the war on drugs yet.

KELLY: Human rights groups have documented it. International monitors have documented it.

CAYETANO: Let me just tell you the difference between the drugs. In the Philippines, it's methamphetamine hydrochloride. So the drugs I told you - marijuana, cocaine - it's a health problem, but it's not associated with paranoia or with violence. That's not the same for synthetic drugs.

So if you look at the news - and that's where we question the human rights groups. Where were you when two-year-olds were being raped, mothers were selling their 14-year-old daughters for prostitution to feed on their drugs? Families were being massacred. So you're saying thousands have died. But what they don't know is that the former administration swept this under the rug. So when Duterte came in...

KELLY: But if I may, the criticism is not just coming from Americans and human rights groups. There have been thousands of people protesting on the streets of your capital of Manila this month.

CAYETANO: In the Philippines, 85 percent of our people support Duterte. You'll have a hundred people in the streets protesting. You'll have 10,000 people in the streets for Duterte. And it's not because we want to violate human rights but because they know that his campaign is to return to rule of order. Nowadays, you interview anyone, and they say they feel safer. This is a law enforcement campaign. These are legitimate police operations.

KELLY: And they will continue.

CAYETANO: I'm not saying that there are no abuses. But could you live in a country where 11,000 people are killed every year and 60 percent are because of drugs? Can you say I won't do anything?

KELLY: That's Alan Peter Cayetano, foreign secretary of the Philippines.

Mr. Secretary, thank you.

CAYETANO: Thank you. God bless America, and God bless the Philippines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.