World

Duterte says he may be too busy to meet Trump

DAVAO: While the White House was busy defending President Donald Trump's decision to invite Rodrigo Duterte to Washington, the Philippine president said yesterday he may turn down the invitation as he welcomed three Chinese warships to his home town in Davao.

Mr 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 said, when asked about Mr Trump's invitation made in a telephone call on Saturday.

Nevertheless, Mr Duterte said relations with the United States were improving now that Mr Trump had taken over from Mr Barack Obama, who criticised the Philippine president for his anti-drug war that has claimed thousands of lives.

In Washington, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told ABC's This Week that Mr Trump was seeking to firm up support in South-east Asia to help rein in North Korea's nuclear and missile programmes.

Mr Priebus insisted the outreach to Mr Duterte "doesn't mean that human rights don't matter, but what it does mean is that the issues facing us developing out of North Korea are so serious that we need cooperation at some level with as many partners in the area as we can get to make sure we have our ducks in a row".

Rights groups have warned Mr Duterte may be orchestrating a crime against humanity, with police and vigilantes committing mass murder. But Mr Duterte insists his security forces are not breaking any laws.

He last year branded Mr Obama a "son of a whore" in response to the criticism. Mr Duterte also declared while in Beijing last year that the Philippines had "separated" from the United States.

The United States is the Philippines' former colonial ruler and the nations are bound by a mutual defence treaty.

Mr Duterte said yesterday 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?"

Mr Duterte's comments came shortly after he visited three Chinese warships visiting his home town on Mindanao island.

Mr 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. - AFP

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