President Duterte has said he may turn down Donald Trump’s invitation to the White House, as he welcomed three Chinese warships to Davao.
Duterte, who has distanced himself from his country’s long-standing alliance with the US while strengthening ties with China and Russia, said he could not commit to the visit due to a busy schedule that includes a trip to Moscow.
“I am tied up,” he said. “I cannot make any definite promise. I am supposed to go to Russia, I am supposed to go to Israel.”
The president was invited to Washington in a “very friendly” telephone call on Saturday. No dates were suggested for the visit.
However, the president said that relations with the US were set to improve now that Trump has taken over from Barack Obama — who drew Duterte’s ire for his criticism of his bloody war on drugs.
Human rights groups have criticised the invitation — which was also extended to the leader of Thailand’s military junta — saying that the two leaders are guilty of abuses.
However, the White House has said that the two countries could play a crucial role in US efforts to halt North Korea’s nuclear programme — a consideration that outweighs any accusations of human rights abuses.
President Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer said: “I think it is an opportunity for us to work with countries in that region that can help play a role in diplomatically and economically isolating North Korea.
“And frankly, the national interest of the United States, the safety of our people and the people in the region are the number one priorities of the president.”
President Duterte has also said that his previous talk of walking away from his country’s mutual defence treaty with the USA was only a personal response to Obama’s criticisms.
“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?”
The president’s comments came shortly after he visited three Chinese warships docked in his home city of Davao.
“This is part of confidence-building and goodwill and to show we are friends and that is why I welcome them,” he said.
He also said that he was open to joint military exercises between the Philippines and China. “I said I agree. There can be joint exercises.”
Last week, we reported annual joint exercises with American forces had been cut back in an apparent bid to avoid offending China.