U.S. President-elect Donald Trump praised Philippines leader Rodrigo Duterte for his war on drugs that has left thousands dead, Duterte said on Saturday after the two held a phone conversation in which Trump also invited Duterte the White House.
“He was quite sensitive also to our worry about drugs. And he wishes me well ... in my campaign and he said that ... we are doing it as a sovereign nation, the right way,” Duterte said in a statement. Duterte has conducted a severe crackdown on drugs in the country, where police and vigilante groups have killed thousands.
Trump’s brief chat with the firebrand Philippine president follows a period of uncertainty about one of Washington’s most important Asian alliances, stoked by Duterte’s hostility towards President Barack Obama and repeated threats to sever decades-old defense ties.
The call lasted just over seven minutes, Duterte’s special advisor, Christopher Go, said in a text message to media, which gave few details. Trump’s transition team had no immediate comment.
In five months in office, Duterte has upended Philippine foreign policy by berating the United States, making overtures towards historic rival China and pursuing a new alliance with Russia.
His diplomacy has created jitters among Asian countries wary about Beijing’s rising influence and Washington’s staying power as a regional counterbalance.
Duterte has praised China and told Obama to “go to hell” and called him a “son of a bitch” whom he would humiliate if he visited the Philippines.
The anger was unleashed after Democrat Obama expressed concern about possible human rights abuses in Duterte’s war on drugs, during which more than 2,000 people have been killed.
Duterte initially expressed optimism about having Trump in the Oval Office, saying he no longer wanted quarrels. But he has continued to rail against U.S. “hypocrisy” and “bullying.”
Republican Trump, a New York businessman who has never previously held public office, told Reuters during the election campaign that Duterte’s comments showed “a lack of respect for our country.” But he also stressed the “very important strategic location” of the Philippines and blamed Obama for failing to take the time to get to know world leaders.
A source who has advised Trump’s transition team on security policy told Reuters last week the president-elect would start a “clean slate” with Duterte, and analysts see some similarities in their blunt style.
“He is perfectly capable of talking to Duterte in an open way without being wedded to previous policy failures,” the source said of Trump, while stressing the importance of security ties.
Sometimes called the “Trump of the East” because of his mercurial ways, Duterte has threatened repeatedly to sever U.S. defense ties, saying he “hates” having foreign soldiers in his country.
Joint military exercises look set to be scaled back as Duterte has demanded and a question mark hangs over the future of a 2014 Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), a deal of strategic importance to Washington because it allows U.S. forces access to Philippine bases on a troop rotation basis.
“EDCA is a concern and some of the things Duterte has said are a concern,” the source who has advised Trump’s transition said. “That is not going to change based on who the president is.”
Duterte caused a stir when he visited China in October and announced his “separation” from the United States. He has said Washington could not be trusted to support the Philippines if it were attacked, as mandated in a joint defense treaty.
In an article published just before the U.S. election, Trump advisers Peter Navarro and Alex Gray blamed the breakdown on the Obama administration’s failure to intervene in 2012 when China seized the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, which the Philippines considers its fishing ground.
“Washington’s utter failure to uphold its obligations to a longtime, pivotal ally during one of its most humiliating crises has no doubt contributed to (Duterte’s) low opinion of American security guarantees - and his recent move toward a China alliance,” they wrote.
Some experts say Duterte’s appointment of special envoys to Washington suggest he aims to keep good ties.
Among the envoys is multi-millionaire real estate tycoon Jose Antonio, who bought the rights to name a new office tower in Manila “Trump Towers.”
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said he did not know whether the department had assisted in setting up Trump’s call with Duterte, but stood ready to provide such help.
Philippines expert Ernest Bower of the Bower Group Asia consultancy said it was likely the call was facilitated by Trump’s business partners in the Philippines and a core group of advisers, who include his children.
Bower said Trump’s election victory could offer Duterte a face-saving way to move back from his anti-U.S. rhetoric, while Duterte could provide Trump with a way to stress the importance of Asian alliances, which he appeared to question during the campaign.
Murray Hiebert of the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted that the Philippines would be chairing the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations next year and it was common for the United States to extend an invitation to the chair ahead of the U.S.-ASEAN summit.
Bower said this may have been fortuitous on Trump’s part.
“My guess is he was more interested in making a point - that he could deal with Duterte in ways Obama couldn’t - than in the strategic wisdom of driving alignment with the ASEAN chair ahead of the ASEAN and East Asian summits.”
(Addtional reporting by Manuel Mogato in MANILA and Steve Holland and Yeganeh Torbati in WASHINGTON; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Grant McCool)