U.S. President Barack Obama telephoned Philippine President-elect Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday to congratulate him on his election win, saying the high voter turnout reflects Manila’s “vibrant democracy.”
“The President highlighted the enduring values that underpin our thriving alliance . . . including our shared commitments to democracy, human rights, rule of law, and inclusive economic growth,” a White House statement said.
Obama was the first foreign head of state to phone, Duterte told a reporter who was recording a TV interview with him when the call came through.
“I am quite honored,” he told the interviewer afterward, GMA News Online reported.
“I assured him that we will continue with out mutual interests and that we are allied with the Western (world)” on the South China Sea, but warned that if “there’s no wind to move the sail, I might opt to go bilateral.”
Duterte has proposed talks with Beijing and has said a bitter territorial dispute could be resolved by having both sides back off and agree not to touch the land.
One analyst said Obama should give Duterte time to settle in and initiate contact with Beijing.
“I think Washington should be patient and see what the Chinese and Duterte will be talking about,” said Benito Lim, a political science analyst at Ateneo de Manila University.
Lim warned that attempts to pre-empt the new Philippine leader would give the appearance of Washington dictating policy.
“It doesn’t look good at all,” he said.
Duterte has said domestic law and order will be his priorities. In the May 9 poll, voters responded enthusiastically to his pledge to wipe out crime with shoot-to-kill policies and to reintroduce the death penalty.
Duterte tamped down crime during his two decades as mayor of Davao. But he acquired a checkered record, with critics accusing him of accepting or possibly encouraging murders by death squads.
On Tuesday, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, acknowledged “controversy” surrounding Duterte, citing “statements that drew attention in the past.” He did not elaborate.
The U.S. hopes “to build on progress made with the last administration,” Rhodes said, in comments at a Washington seminar.
Duterte has pledged to act responsibly in office. He said during campaigning that he will resign as president if within six months he has not begun to make a difference on crime.
Speaking out on May 10 — when Duterte’s victory was presumed but unconfirmed — bishops in the strongly Catholic Philippines said they would work with the new leadership but may at times speak up, “to admonish and to correct.”
In a statement, the chair of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines urged the incoming leaders to “care for the weakest and the most distressed in our midst.”
Meanwhile, the situation in Southeast Asia will have Washington’s full attention from this weekend, when Obama travels to Vietnam for a visit of several days.
He is due to attend the Group of Seven Ise-Shima summit in Mie Prefecture next week.
Separately, Duterte met Sunday with the Japanese and Chinese ambassadors, media reports said.
Information from Reuters added