Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte says he may be too busy for White House visit

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks during a news conference after the ASEAN summit in Manila on Saturday (April 29, 2017).
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks during a news conference after the ASEAN summit in Manila on Saturday (April 29, 2017).PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA (NYTimes) - President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines said on Monday (May 1) that he might not accept President Donald Trump's invitation to visit the White House, because he was "tied up" with a busy schedule.

"I cannot make any definite promise," Duterte said, adding, "I'm supposed to go to Russia. I'm also supposed to go to Israel."

Trump's invitation Saturday to Duterte, an authoritarian leader who has been accused of ordering extrajudicial killings of drug suspects, drew criticism from human rights advocates, who said such a visit would amount to a White House endorsement of Duterte's policies.

Thousands of people have been gunned down in the Philippines since Duterte took office in June, promising a harsh crackdown on narcotics.

White House officials said Trump had called Duterte in an effort to mend their countries' recently strained relationship, as a bulwark against China's expansionism in the South China Sea.

Reince Priebus, White House chief of staff, said Trump also wanted to build a united front in Asia in opposition to North Korea's pursuit of nuclear and missile technology.

Duterte said his conversation with Trump had been amicable, and that he had urged the US leader to tread carefully with North Korea.

"Our greatest chance there of getting some dialogue with America and North Korea would be through the intercession of China," he said.

The Philippines and China have long-standing territorial disputes in the South China Sea, but Duterte has pivoted toward Beijing and away from Washington since taking office. He spoke to reporters Monday after touring Chinese warships in port in Davao, his hometown, and said that the Philippines and China might hold joint naval exercises.

Duterte, who once referred to President Barack Obama as a "son of a whore", suggested Monday that his differences with the United States had had much to do with Obama.

"It was not a distancing, but it was rather a rift between me, maybe, and the State Department and Obama, who spoke openly against me," Duterte said.

He added: "Things have changed. There's a new leadership."

Criticism of Trump's invitation to Duterte continued Monday.

"Countries with close bilateral ties to the Philippines, particularly the United States, 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, a deputy director in Human Rights Watch's Asia division.