Obama congratulates Philippines president-elect Duterte on victory

Duterte speaks during a news conference in his hometown Davao City in the southern Philippines, May 16, 2016.
Duterte speaks during a news conference in his hometown Davao City in the southern Philippines, May 16, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US President Barack Obama spoke by telephone on Tuesday with the incoming president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, and a senior White House aide said Washington hoped for continued efforts to respect the rule of law and combat corruption in the country.

Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, did not refer directly to allegations of human rights abuses against Duterte, although he told a seminar there had been some"controversy" and "statements that drew attention in the past."

"But look, this is a new government and we'll want to hear from them directly what their priorities are," he said, when asked about the May 9 presidential election in the Philippines.

Rhodes said Washington hoped "to build on progress made with the last administration" in the country, and added: "For us the priorities will remain the security and the prosperity of the Philippines; we'll want to see continued efforts in the Philippines to respect the rule of law and combat corruption, just as we support those kinds of efforts across Asia and around the world."

Another US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Obama made a congratulatory call to Duterte. He won the largest share of the votes in the May 9 ballot, according to an unofficial count by a poll watchdog.

The official result has yet to be confirmed.

The United States signalled last week it would work with Duterte, despite allegations of rights abuses in the city he has led for over two decades.

Analysts say this reflects the reality of US national security interests given China's increasingly assertive stance in Asia and maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

Duterte has been criticised for allowing a spree of vigilante killings in Davao city and critics fear he could let them happen on a larger scale as president.

His vows to restore law and order resonated with Philippine voters, but his incendiary rhetoric and advocacy of extrajudicial killings to stamp out crime and drugs have alarmed many people.

Rhodes noted US support for Manila's efforts to resolve its territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea through international arbitration, and a recent deal allowing a greater US military presence in the Philippines.

"We believe that now as much as ever it's important that the US and Philippines are seen working together and also working with a network of allies and partners in South-east Asia," he said.