ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now the contest for influence in the Asia-Pacific region. China's president, Xi Jinping, is making it clear that it's China's turn to be the dominant player there instead of the U.S. President Trump will travel to the Asia-Pacific next month. And his defense secretary, James Mattis, is there this week. He's at a meeting of defense ministers in the Philippines.
So is NPR's David Welna, who is traveling with the defense secretary. And David joins me now from Clark Air Base, once occupied and controlled by the U.S., but not anymore. And, David, are there signs of this competition for influence in the region at this defense conference that Mattis is attending?
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Yes, Robert, there certainly are. You know, these are defense ministers from 10 small Southeast Asian nations that - many have been aligned with U.S. for a long time. And they've invited other countries to come as nonvoting guests, such as the U.S. and China, as well as Russia. And Secretary Mattis is here trying to keep this bloc of nations together with the U.S. and voting together. And China's role at this conference has been more to develop one-on-one relationships and try to keep this bloc divided about taking actions that China doesn't see in its interests.
SIEGEL: Has the U.S. been able to slow China's drive for more influence in the region?
WELNA: Well, even though China's been a lot more aggressive in this neighborhood, the U.S. has not managed to get the kind of strong condemnations it might like out of meetings like this one. I talked about China's regional ambitions with Sung Kim. He is the new, Korean-born American ambassador to Manila. And here's some of what he had to say.
SUNG KIM: I mean, there's no question that China's role, influence is increasing. It's a global trend. But I do think that the U.S. commitment to the Asia-Pacific region remains very strong.
SIEGEL: Ambassador Kim spoke of the U.S. commitment. How does that commitment demonstrate itself there?
WELNA: Well, Robert, a great example of this is the five-month-long bloody battle here with an ISIS-inspired insurgency that ended just this week. The U.S. gave the Philippines some very badly needed help in that fight. It provided a lot of intelligence. And it even donated some very expensive surveillance planes. But there was no mention of that help in the official announcements that the siege was over.
And then there's this. It's Wednesday morning here. And in a few hours, there's going to be an official ceremony at Subic Bay, which was once a U.S. naval base. And it's going to take place on a Russian warship. And it's to thank the Russians for donating thousands of AK-47 rifles. These are guns that the Obama administration had not been willing to give the Philippines over concerns about human rights abuses in Duterte's notorious crackdown on drugs. And China has also contributed thousands more rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition all in the name of fighting terrorism.
SIEGEL: Now, Mattis is in Manila now. And next month, President Trump will be there. How do you expect he'll be received?
WELNA: Well you know Trump and Duterte have exchanged some barbs. But, still, I think Trump would generally be welcome. Polls here show that the U.S. is still held in high esteem, while Duterte's very strong support has slipped somewhat. And there's even a new 57-story building in greater Manila that's been branded Trump Tower. And that's the kind of thing that China still can't point to.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's David Welna, traveling with Secretary of Defense Mattis in Manila. David, thanks.
WELNA: You're welcome, Robert.
(SOUNDBITE OF KHRUANGBIN'S "TWO FISH AND AN ELEPHANT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.