Philippines' Duterte calls China's Xi 'great president'

Duterte (left) heaped the praise on Xi (right) in a news conference.
Duterte (left) heaped the praise on Xi (right) in a news conference.PHOTOS: REUTERS

DAVAO, Philippines (AFP) - Incoming Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday described China's Xi Jinping as "a great president", in another hint that frosty relations between the Asian neighbours could soon warm.

Duterte heaped the praise on Xi in a news conference in response to questions about a message the Chinese president sent to congratulate him on winning this month's election.

But the longtime mayor of the southern city of Davao, who has been criticised for lacking foreign policy experience, appeared unsure of Xi's title.

"I was honoured, receiving a congratulatory message from a great president, uh prime minister," Duterte said.

The Chinese foreign ministry said Monday that Xi wrote to Duterte after his victory, a standard diplomatic tradition for heads of state.

China's official news agency Xinhua reported that Xi hoped the two sides would "get bilateral relations back on the track of sound development".

Chinese-Philippine ties soured during the six-year term of outgoing President Benigno Aquino, whose government sued China before a United Nations tribunal over its claims to most of the South China Sea.

A ruling is expected in the coming weeks, with the Philippines' response to it likely to be left to Duterte, who takes office on June 30.

In contrast with Aquino, Duterte has said he is willing to engage China in bilateral talks on the issue. Yet he has also played to nationalist sentiment by saying he would ride a jet ski to plant a Philippine flag on disputed islands in the sea.

Duterte also emphasised on Tuesday that he would not be fully reliant on the United States, the Philippines' former colonial ruler and most important military ally.

"We will be chartering a course of our own. It will not be dependent on America, and it will be a line not intended to please anybody but the Filipino interest," he said.