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Duterte warm on China – Filipino leader hesitant on US visit

This handout photo taken and released on May 1, by the Presidential Photographers Division (PPD) shows Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (center), posing for photos with Chinese sailors while visiting the guided missile frigate Changchun berthed at the Davao international port on May 1. (AFP)

DAVAO, Philippines, May 1, (Agencies): Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Monday he may turn down an invitation by Donald Trump to visit the United States, as he welcomed three Chinese warships to his home town.

Duterte, who has loosened the Philippines’ long alliance with the United States while strengthening ties with China and Russia, said he could not commit to the American president because of a busy schedule that included a trip to Moscow. “I am tied up. I cannot make any definite promise. I am supposed to go to Russia, I am supposed to go to Israel,” he told reporters when asked about Trump’s invitation made in a telephone call on Saturday. Duterte expressed concerns about not being able to fit in a visit to Trump even though no firm date has yet been proposed for it.

Nevertheless, Duterte said relations with the United States were improving now that Trump had taken over from Barack Obama, who criticised the Philippine president for his anti-drug war that has claimed thousands of lives. Rights groups have warned Duterte may be orchestrating a crime against humanity, with police and vigilantes committing mass murder. But Duterte insists his security forces are not breaking any laws. The United States is the Philippines’ former colonial ruler and the nations are bound by a mutual defence treaty.

Duterte said Monday that his efforts to loosen the alliance were only a response to the drug war criticism. “It was not a distancing (of relations) but it was rather a rift between me and the (US) State Department and Mr Obama, who spoke openly against me,” he said. “Things have changed, there is a new leadership. He wants to make friends, he says we are friends so why should we pick a fight?” Duterte’s comments came shortly after he visited three Chinese warships visiting his home town, the southern city of Davao on Mindanao island. “This is part of confidence-building and goodwill and to show we are friends and that is why I welcome them,” he said.

Duterte has pursued closer relations with the Chinese government even though Beijing has taken control of a fishing shoal and built artificial islands in parts of the South China Sea that are within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. In related news, the White House on Sunday defended President Donald Trump’s decision to invite Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to Washington, saying his cooperation was needed to counter North Korea, even as the administration faced human rights criticism for its overture to Manila. Meanwhile, a US-based human rights group says President Donald Trump should not roll out the White House red carpet for Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte, whom it accused of being a “mastermind” of mass murder because of his anti-drug crackdown in which thousands have died.

Human Rights Watch and other critics reacted with alarm Monday at Trump’s invitation to Duterte to visit the White House. In a telephone call, Trump also affirmed America’s alliance and friendship with the Philippines and its president, who has maintained an antagonistic stance toward US security policies. The US and other countries close to the Philippines “have an obligation to urge accountability for the victims of Duterte’s abusive drug war, rather than offer to roll out the red carpet for official state visits with its mastermind,” said Phelim Kine, HRW’s deputy director for Asia.

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