HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: Today, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson began a five-day trip that includes stops in the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia. Among the issues on the agenda: the extra-judicial killings that have taken place in the Philippines during President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on the drug trade. It’s estimated that police have killed more than 2,500 alleged drug offenders since Duterte took office a little over a year ago.
For more on Mr. Tillerson’s trip, I’m joined from Washington, D.C. by Lindsey Ford, the director of political security affairs for the Asia Society.
So, how does Rex Tillerson broach this fairly uncomfortable topic?
LINDSEY FORD, DIRECTOR OF POLITICAL SECURITY AFFAIRS, ASIA SOCIETY: You know, I think he’s going to be direct, and I suspect the message is going to be, look, we understand that you have problems domestically in terms of the situation with drugs flowing through the country, but you’re creating an issue that’s becoming a bilateral problem because you’re going to see people in the U.S. Congress and the administration more broadly, it’s going to make it challenging for us to cooperate in really important areas that we need to, like dealing with ISIS in the south, maritime security at the South China Sea, and a number of other issues.
So, I suspect they’re going to deal with this quietly but very directly in the conversation.
SREENIVASAN: Let’s talk a little bit about that. The South China Sea issue, for example. At times, President Duterte has distanced himself from the United States and really said he doesn’t need the type of security arrangement that we have now.
FORD: He has. You know, it’s been a challenge, I think, in the South China Sea trying to figure out how to calibrate the relationship with the Philippines over the last year. At times, President Duterte has seemed like he, obviously, wants to take a much more conciliatory approach towards China. Most recently, he’s discussed things like joint exploration again, in some of the areas like Reed Bank.
But he actually faces some domestic challenges at home taking this approach at times. You’ve seen parts of the Philippine congress, as well as other parts of the Philippine government, including the ministry of defense really saying they’re not OK with that approach. And he’s had to walk that — he’s had to walk that back at times. So, he’s trying to toe a fine line between wanting to be more open toward China but also recognizing at the same time that a lot of people in the Philippines have real concerns about, you know, Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea.
SREENIVASAN: What about the fight on ISIS? What’s the role that the Philippines is in now?
FORD: There’s a real concern right now that we’re facing a situation in the southern Philippines where potentially, you’re going to have a new sort of haven for violent extremists that will become something that is attracting extremists, not just within the Philippines but elsewhere in the region, potentially foreign fighters from other regions as well. We’ve already seen some growing connectivity between ISIS in Syria and the rebel groups in the southern Philippines. And I think this is a growing concern.
And so, even though it looks like the siege right now in Marawi is hopefully drawing to an end in the near term, I think the United States and the Philippine government, as well as other governments in Southeast Asia, need to have some really careful conversations about how do we actually enhance our intelligence coordination, counter-intelligence coordination so that we don’t see a growing ISIS safe haven occurring in Southeast Asia.
SREENIVASAN: And this all comes in the context of U.S. military support in the Philippines over the last several years. And President Trump is supposed to have a trip there in November.
FORD: And imagine that will be another topic that — that you’ll see Secretary Tillerson want to discuss because this will be the president’s first trip, and they’re going to want to tee up some positive deliverables in the relationship. So, I think on the Philippine side, they’ll probably be very interested in, without a TPP, the Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement, what kinds of economic priorities does the Trump administration have for countries like the Philippines in Southeast Asia?
And on the U.S. side, I think in particular, they’re going to want to see that that some of the concerns more recently with scaling back defense cooperation and, you know, President Duterte talking about he’s not sure exactly whether they’ll follow through with the enhanced defense cooperation agreement that gives the United States more access to Philippine bases. They’re going to want to see some assurance that that — we’re making progress on the implementation of that agreement.
SREENIVASAN: All right. Lindsey Ford of the Asia Society, thanks so much.
FORD: Thanks very much.