US President Donald Trump speaks with President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte at the opening ceremony of the Asean Summit in Manila on November 13 2017. Picture: REUTERS
US President Donald Trump speaks with President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte at the opening ceremony of the Asean Summit in Manila on November 13 2017. Picture: REUTERS

Manila — US President Donald Trump said on Monday he had made significant progress on trade issues during a fruitful trip across Asia that saw governments roll out red carpets "like nobody has ever seen".

"We’ve made some very big steps with respect to trade, far bigger than anything you know," Trump told reporters in Manila on the sidelines of a summit with leaders of Southeast Asian and East Asian nations.

He did not give details of his achievements on trade matters during a tour that took him to Japan, South Korea, China and Vietnam before his last leg in the Philippines capital.

He said a statement would be issued from the White House on Wednesday about North Korea, and on trade, key issues of a trip he described as fruitful.

"It was red carpet like nobody, I think, has probably ever seen," he said.

In Vietnam at the weekend, Trump and leaders of Pacific Rim nations agreed to address "unfair trade practices" and "market-distorting subsidies", a statement that bore the imprint of Trump’s efforts to reshape the global trade landscape.

His "America First" vision has upset a traditional consensus favouring multinational trade pacts that China now champions.

On the sidelines of the Vietnam meeting, 11 countries kept alive a Trans Pacific trade deal whose future was thrown into doubt when Trump withdrew from it in the name of protecting American jobs.

Chinese President Xi Jinping told the summit in Vietnam that Asia-Pacific nations must "uphold multilateralism", countering Trump’s message that the US would stay out of trade deals that surrender its sovereignty.

Trump, by contrast, blasted the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and multilateral trade deals during his tour.

Some analysts expect tougher US action may be imminent to fight trade imbalances with China compounded by its state-led economic model.

We’ve made some very big steps with respect to trade, far bigger than anything you know…. It was red carpet like nobody, I think, has probably ever seen

Duterte

In Manila on Monday, Trump said he had a "great relationship" with Rodrigo Duterte while ignoring shouted questions about alleged abuses carried out under the Philippine leader’s deadly battle against narcotics.

"This has been very successful," Trump said in remarks with Duterte before their first formal meeting in the Philippines’ capital, where they are attending summits hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

When asked about Duterte’s human-rights record, Trump said: "This is not a press statement. This is a bilateral meeting. Maybe the press conference will follow."

At a gala dinner the night before, Duterte sang a Filipino love song "upon the orders of the commander-in-chief of the United States", according to a video posted on Twitter by a Philippine government official.

The bonhomie between the leaders stands in contrast to a year ago, when Duterte cursed out former President Barack Obama for criticising his war on drugs that has left thousands dead.

He subsequently pivoted towards China, de-escalating tension with Beijing over their competing South China Sea claims and winning $24bn worth of Chinese loans and investment into the Philippines.

Ties with the US, a longstanding Philippine security ally, have improved since Trump took office.

Following an April phone call between Trump and Duterte, the White House said the Philippines was "fighting very hard to rid its country of drugs".

The tough-talking Duterte, famed for his profanity-riddled outbursts, has spoken warmly of Trump, saying this month that their mouths move "in the same cadence".

While the meeting between Trump and Duterte would not solve all the problems between the nations, it will "move our relationship forward", Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano told reporters in Manila on Sunday.

Trump on Monday also held a three-way meeting with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, both US allies.

On Sunday, Trump offered to help resolve the territorial disputes in the South China Sea involving the Philippines, Vietnam, China and other claimants. He has primarily focused his attention on North Korea’s nuclear programme, a shift from the Obama administration’s more aggressive stance against China’s activities in the South China Sea.

‘Very good mediator’

"I am a very good mediator and a very good arbitrator," Trump said on Sunday in Hanoi ahead of a meeting with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang. "If I can be of help in any way, let me know."

Vietnam’s Quang did not answer directly when asked about Trump’s offer at a press briefing, while Cayetano from the Philippines said any effort would need to be co-ordinated among other countries in the region.

China opposes US involvement in resolving the disputes, preferring to settle them through one-on-one talks with other nations.

It’s a "very kind and generous offer because he is a good mediator", Cayetano said of Trump. "He is the master of the art of the deal."

Both the Philippines and Vietnam have recently seen China disrupt oil-and-gas exploration in contested areas of the South China Sea.

While the US does not take a position on territorial disputes, it has criticised China for land reclamation and other moves to assert control over areas also claimed in part by Southeast Asian countries.

Duterte warned on Sunday that a war over the waterway would devastate the region. He said Xi had told him on Saturday that he also did not want to "waste the lives of my countrymen for a useless war that cannot be won by anyone".

"The South China Sea is better left untouched," Duterte said. "Nobody can afford to go to war."

The 10-nation Asean is set to announce on Monday the start of negotiations with China on a code of conduct for the South China Sea, the Philippines said.

The talks have made little progress since the nations agreed formally to work toward a code in 2002.

Asean and China on Monday plan to tout "positive developments" in the waters, according to a draft joint statement seen by reporters.

"While the situation is calmer now, we cannot take the current progress for granted," the draft says.

Reuters and Bloomberg

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