News analysis

'Too busy' to visit US? Duterte may just be playing coy

Mr Rodrigo Duterte (wearing cap) with Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua (far left) during a tour of a Chinese naval ship in Davao city, on Monday. Mr Duterte has to assure Beijing that a US visit will not diminish his fondness for Ch
Mr Rodrigo Duterte (wearing cap) with Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua (far left) during a tour of a Chinese naval ship in Davao city, on Monday. Mr Duterte has to assure Beijing that a US visit will not diminish his fondness for China.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Or he may think skipping visit will spare him from being hounded by human rights protesters there, say analysts

A surprise invitation from United States President Donald Trump to visit him at the White House may have boxed in President Rodrigo Duterte, forcing the Philippines' shrewd leader to hedge.

Mr Duterte told reporters on Monday that he might be "too busy" to go to America because he is also supposed to visit Russia and Israel.

Yesterday, Mr Duterte's spokesman, Mr Ernesto Abella, told a news briefing: "He didn't say 'yes' or 'no'... There was no commitment, no promise to go on a specific day. That means he did not respond."

But Mr Duterte may just be playing coy. A senior official at the Department of Foreign Affairs told The Straits Times that diplomats were already making arrangements for a visit to Washington.

Analysts say it is also possible that Mr Duterte may not think a US visit is such a good idea at this time, both for him and Mr Trump.

Skipping it will spare him the spectacle of being hounded by human rights protesters while in the US, and Mr Trump from more criticisms for hosting a leader being accused before an international court of "mass murder".

  • >7,000

    Number of suspected drug dealers and users killed by police and vigilantes in Mr Duterte's narcotics crackdown, according to human rights groups.

Human rights groups say more than 7,000 suspected drug dealers and users have been killed by police and vigilantes in Mr Duterte's narcotics crackdown.

"By welcoming Duterte to meet him in the White House, Trump risks giving Duterte's actions - and his brutal human rights violations - an American stamp of approval," Senator Chris Coons, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement.

Another member of the committee, Senator Christopher Murphy, said on Twitter: "We are watching in real time as the American human rights bully pulpit disintegrates into ash."

Experts say Mr Duterte may still visit the US. He just does not want to come across as too eager to do so because of the things he has said in the past. He once declared he would not go to the US, "not in this lifetime", and recalled telling an American diplomat: "Even if you grant me a multiple lifetime visa and give me US$50,000 (S$70,000), I will not go there any more." That sentiment comes from his early dalliances with communists, long-held grudges against the US over what he still sees as personal insults, including being denied a US visa once, and relentless criticism by Washington of the extrajudicial killings.

Mr Duterte also has to assure his new friends in Beijing that a US visit will not, in any way, diminish his fondness for China. He has already devoted a fair amount of diplomatic capital to warm his nation's once-frosty relations with China, and Beijing has rewarded him with billions worth of investments and grants, and unconditional support for his anti-crime drive.

But a US visit may be good for Mr Duterte, analysts say.

"It would be good to have a broader relationship with key allies and partners, to strengthen relations with new friends like China, but also keep old partnerships not just with the US, but also with Australia, Japan, and the rest of Asean," said Mr Dindo Manhit, president of Manila-based think-tank Stratbase ADRi.

"It's not good that he may be too centred on this relationship with China, which continues to be our greatest security threat," he added.

Meanwhile, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who accepted Mr Trump's invitation to visit the White House during a phone conversation over the weekend, told reporters yesterday that Mr Trump has assured him that "Thai-US relations will now be closer than ever before". The Thai government has not said when the visit would take place. Thailand is the US' oldest ally in the region, but ties were strained by the military coup led by Mr Prayut in 2014 that ousted an elected civilian government.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 03, 2017, with the headline ''Too busy' to visit US? Duterte may just be playing coy'. Print Edition | Subscribe