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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte touched on the maritime dispute with China at a news conference Wednesday.   © Reuters

Duterte touts US friendship ahead of meeting with Trump

Philippine leader curries favor with Washington despite past differences

MANILA -- Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte appears to have set the stage for a conciliatory atmosphere when he meets U.S. President Donald Trump next week.

Both leaders are scheduled to hold their maiden bilateral meeting on Nov. 13 on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, which will take place in the Philippine capital Nov. 13-15.

Diplomatic ties between Manila and its key military and economic ally have been shaky since Duterte was elected last year, largely due to Washington's criticism of his brutal war on drugs. The firebrand Philippine leader has previously threatened to sever diplomatic ties with the U.S., and has publicly bad-mouthed U.S. officials, including former President Barack Obama.

Speaking before members of the Philippine Marine Corps on Nov. 7, Duterte departed from his usual hostile rhetoric against his country's former colonial master.

"We remain the best of friends with America," he said. "Some of you went to school in America, and I do not blame you if your sentiments are still with the power who helped us for the longest time."

Duterte in recent weeks has been cozying up to the U.S., which helped Philippine troops defeat Islamic State-linked militants who attempted to occupy the southern city of Marawi during a five-month siege that ended last month. Washington has also pledged to help the Philippines rebuild the war-torn city, an effort that is expected to cost over $1 billion. On Sept. 28, Duterte publicly thanked the U.S, saying "without their help, we would be having a hard time" fighting the terrorists.

During their meeting, Duterte and Trump are expected to discuss "a full range of issues" related to bilateral ties, U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim told foreign correspondents on Oct. 26.

Asked if Trump will bring up human rights issues in Duterte's anti-drug campaign that has killed over 3,000 drug suspects, Kim said, "I think we can expect that the two leaders will be open and frank with each other."

But some analysts believe Trump, who praised Duterte's crackdown on illegal drugs during a phone conversation in May, will likely sidestep human rights issues. U.S. companies have been wary of the killings and of how the Philippines observes the rule of law, among other issues, according to Kim. Foreign direct investments from the U.S. plunged 64% to $27.9 million from January to July, dragging down the country's overall FDI inflows.

Trump, for his part, is expected to rally support for Washington's bid to contain North Korea's nuclear ambitions as well as China's maritime expansion.

Duterte has set aside his country's maritime dispute with Beijing over parts of the South China Sea in order to secure billions of dollars in economic aid and investments from its Asian neighbor. His about-face on the issue, however, dismayed allies like the U.S. and Japan, who are wary of China's control in the area.

On Wednesday, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana revealed that Duterte in August ordered Philippine troops to stop construction on a sandbar in the South China Sea, in order to avoid Beijing's fury and observe a diplomatic agreement that both parties will not occupy new features in the disputed waterway. The troops had planned to build stilted huts for Philippine fishermen on the sandbar, located just 2.5 nautical miles (2.6km) off the Philippine-controlled Thitu Island.

Anticipating the U.S. agenda during his meeting with Trump, Duterte on Tuesday said he would be "frank" when he discusses the maritime dispute with Chinese President Xi Jinping later this week at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Vietnam, where a bilateral meeting for the Asian leaders is in the works.

Duterte has previously avoided talking about the issue, which could upset Beijing. Before leaving for Da Nang on Wednesday, Duterte said: "So it's about time either in the bilateral or in the plenary, I should be bringing this important matter to the surface."

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