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Why U.S.-Philippine Relations Could Improve Under Trump Presidency


World leaders are now trying to figure out what a Donald Trump presidency will mean for their countries. Take the Philippines - today, Trump and the president of the Phillippines, Rodrigo Duterte, had a friendly phone call. They invited each other to come visit. The Philippines has been an ally of the U.S. for a long time. It used to be a U.S. colony, but recently things have been tense. Duterte's is carrying out a violent war on drugs. The Obama administration has been critical. Michael Sullivan has more from Manila.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Many here view President-elect Trump with suspicion. His campaign promises about curbing immigration and bringing jobs back to the U.S. could hurt in a country where remittance money helps drive the economy. But Trump's victory was welcomed effusively by President Duterte, who has been fiercely foully critical of President Obama and the U.S.

DINDO MANHIT: That surprises a lot of Filipinos what an election result suddenly changes the rhetoric of our president.

SULLIVAN: But political analyst Dindo Manhit of the consulting firm Stratbase sees how Duterte might like Trump.

MANHIT: It's possible that he sees a candidate that won because just like him, he is outside the political system. And if Trump treats him with respect, does not lecture him, it might really give a reset.

SULLIVAN: A sorely needed reset in a part of the world where the Philippines sits in the middle of the dispute between the U.S., China and its neighbors over Beijing's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.

PATRICIO ABINALES: What's going to happen I think is you have a mutated version of Obama's pivot to the Pacific.

SULLIVAN: Patricio Abinales, director of the Center for Philippine studies at the University of Hawaii, reached on Skype, believes it will be a more aggressive pivot than President Obama's given Trump's views on China.

ABINALES: Meaning more U.S. forces will move to Asia with the end view of possibly engaging China. The possible engagement with China is much higher under Trump than Obama.

SULLIVAN: President Duterte had been reaching out to China before the November election, in part because he doesn't trust the U.S. He's watched Beijing gobble up and build on several disputed reefs in the South China Sea and doubts the U.S. would come to the Philippines' aid if China tries to build on Scarborough Shoal, just 130 nautical miles from Manila. How could President Trump convince him?

ANTONIO CARPIO: First, the U.S. can announce that Scarborough Shoal is part of Philippine territory and is covered by the Philippine-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty.

SULLIVAN: Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio says the U.S. can also publicly announce that Philippines ships and aircraft patrolling the country's exclusive economic zone are covered by the treaty as well, something the Obama administration has been reluctant to do, even though the text of the treaty, Carpio says, is clear.

CARPIO: These two announcements should reassure all Filipinos, in particular President Duterte, that the Mutual Defense Treaty will be honored in good faith by the U.S., and Japan and South Korea will interpret such announcements as a strong resolve by the U.S. to stay the course in the Asia-Pacific region.

SULLIVAN: But a Trump administration might not get the chance. Carpio says he's worried China may start building on Scarborough before Trump takes office.

CARPIO: Between now and the assumption of office of the Trump administration, the Obama administration will be hesitant to do anything I believe that would forcefully block any Chinese move.

SULLIVAN: He believes China is weighing its options, but says the next two months are a critical period for the Philippines and the region. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Manila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.