Malaysia and Vietnam both have claims to the Spratlys, but the Philippines has shown the most resolve in standing up to China, and last year won an international ruling against China on the ownership of the islands.
The situation Trump must deal with is that Duterte has not yet decided how to deal with the Spratlys. Until recently, he had been suggesting that he would accept Chinese control in order to win favorable trade and political terms with Beijing. Duterte’s choice was likely in part a consequence of President Obama’s deep hesitation over the issue of preserving stability in the South China Sea.
But early last month, Duterte ordered his military to occupy some of the islands. For the U.S. and the region, this was a positive development. After all, to succeed in its East China Sea imperialism, China must be opposed by a collective of nations to the east, west, and south. Even with U.S. support, however, Vietnam and Malaysia could not — without the Philippines — prevent China’s expansionism. But if Duterte opposed China’s activities, the U.S might also persuade others to do so. As long-term strategic interests go, a White House meeting with Duterte would be a small price to pay for that outcome. Indeed, sharing Duterte’s flamboyance, disdain for criticism, and unbridled machismo, Trump might actually be the perfect diplomat for this situation. If nothing else, Trump’s dealing with Duterte is far less risky than his dealing with Putin-the-manipulator.