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Mattis Meets With Duterte Ahead Of Trump's Trip To Philippines


Next week President Trump makes his first trip to Asia since taking office, and his stops include the Philippines. It's a former U.S. possession, now a longtime U.S. ally which is led by President Rodrigo Duterte. He has directed a crackdown on drugs in which more than 7,000 people were killed, which has caused a little strain with the United States. So Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is paying an advance visit. NPR's David Welna is traveling with Secretary Mattis as he's in the Philippines meeting with defense ministers from throughout that region. Hi, David.


INSKEEP: And we'll mention that David's at Clark Air Base, a historic American installation there from decades ago. David, what has to be worked out between the U.S. and the Philippines before Trump arrives?

WELNA: Well, one thing that Secretary Mattis may be talking about with President Duterte is about another somewhat unpredictable leader, President Trump, and whether he'll actually come here and meet with Duterte, something that Trump seemed to be undecided about when he was asked about it last week. But this meeting also comes the day after Duterte's defense minister announced that a five-month long battle with an ISIS-inspired group known as Maute, a battle that's taken a thousand lives and displaced some 400,000 people from Marawi City in the province of Mindanao, that this battle is officially over and that the last of those insurgents have been defeated. The U.S. strongly backed the Philippine military in this fight with intelligence and military equipment including drones and handguns. So it's a bit of a shared victory.

INSKEEP: A shared victory, but when you talk about backing the Philippine military, you remind us that the U.S. isn't the only country doing that. China and Russia have also been sending the Philippines weapons.

WELNA: Yes, indeed. And I think both China and Russia are seizing on President Duterte's annoyance that the U.S. under the Obama administration balked at providing rifles he'd been seeking over concerns about human-rights abuses being committed in Duterte's drugs crackdown. China this year has sent thousands of rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition and rushes about to hand over thousands of AK-47 rifles in a ceremony here tomorrow. And, you know, the timing of this with Secretary Mattis here does seem like a direct poke at the U.S. I asked the new Korean-born American ambassador here, Sung Kim, about that, and not surprisingly, he sought to play it down. Here's a bit of what he said.

SUNG KIM: Look, I think you need to step back and look at the depths of our lives with the Philippines before you start comparisons with the Chinese and the Russians maybe during recent months.

INSKEEP: David, help me understand something. You mentioned that the Obama administration was critical of the human-rights record of the Duterte administration and raised concerns about this war on drugs in which thousands of people have been killed, but President Trump has spoken somewhat more favorably. Is it clear to you that the two administrations are at odds at all here?

WELNA: They're not necessarily at odds. I think there have been some frictions. Duterte indicated earlier this year that he may not have time to visit the U.S., and I think that kind of annoyed Trump. But Trump has said favorable things about Duterte in the past so I would not be surprised if the two presidents do meet when Trump does come to the Philippines.

INSKEEP: And as Mattis meets defense ministers from multiple nations, how focused are they on North Korea?

WELNA: Well, Mattis has been talking a lot about North Korea here. There are defense ministers from all across the Asia-Pacific, and he wants them united on turning the screws on Pyongyang. And he's also met with his counterparts here from Japan and South Korea. He'll be going to Seoul later this week. And they all issued a statement condemning as a grave threat the two missiles that North Korea recently flew over Japan and its testing last month of what's widely believed to have been a hydrogen bomb.

INSKEEP: That's David Welna on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna
David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.