The Philippines’ new leader, Rodrigo Duterte, expressed regret Tuesday for comments in which he called U.S. President Barack Obama a “son of a bitch” as the two leaders sought to tamp down controversy over an incident that could also affect Japan.
In the announcement, which came ahead of a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of a key leaders’ summit, Duterte said the talks with Obama had been rescheduled after Washington pulled out of them earlier in the day.
“While the immediate cause was my strong comments to certain press questions that elicited concern and distress we also regret it came across as a personal attack on the U.S. president,” a statement released by Duterte said.
Duterte, who has evoked comparisons to Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump, told a news conference Monday before departing for a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders in the Laotian capital of Vientiane that he would not be lectured by Obama over human rights concerns.
Duterte has been accused of rights violations in his brutal war on drugs in the Philippines that has left scores dead nationwide.
“You must be respectful. Do not just throw away questions and statements. Son of a bitch, I will curse you in that forum,” Duterte told the Monday news conference when asked about his message for Obama.
Tuesday’s statement by the Philippine leader, however, took on a far more conciliatory tone, saying that the meeting between the two allies’ leaders had been “mutually agreed upon to be moved to a later date.”
Analysts said the dust-up will likely blow over since the U.S. and Philippines have seen ties grow stronger in the wake of China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea.
The maritime dispute has also drawn Manila closer to Tokyo, which has been a strong advocate for the rule of law in such arenas.
At his first meeting with Duterte since the president took office in June, Abe offered congratulations on his election, adding that the Philippine leader “is quite a famous figure also in Japan, and I am very excited to see you in person.”
It was unclear if the two discussed Duterte’s earlier tensions with Obama.
But far from putting Abe in a difficult position, experts said the Obama-Duterte row could thrust the Japanese prime minister into a role as a peacemaker between the two leaders.
“Abe is interested in maintaining blossoming relations with Manila, which really took off starting under the (Beningo) Aquino administration,” said Richard Javad Heydarian, a regional expert at De La Salle University in Manila.
Heydarian noted that Japan has close ties with the Philippines, which have only grown amid China’s bellicose moves in the South China and East China seas. Japan and China are embroiling in a dispute over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which are administered by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing, where they are known as the Diaoyu Islands.
Unlike the United States, Heydarian said, human rights issues were not known to be broached by Tokyo.
“Japan rarely if ever comments on human rights concerns in the Philippines, and has had excellent relations with Duterte, who during his days as mayor of Davao was a huge supporter of Japanese investments,” Heydarian said.
Tokyo announced last month that it would pour $2.4 billion into a new railway aimed at easing Manila’s notorious gridlock.
“I don’t see Abe really in a tight spot” after Duterte released his statement, Heydarian added. “If anything, he can serve as a bridge between the two slightly estranged allies.”
This could especially be true if the situation heats up in the South China Sea, where the U.S. has conducted so-called freedom of navigation patrols close to Chinese-held islands.
Duterte has sought to heal ties with China by not pressing an international arbitration court’s July ruling that invalidated Beijing’s vast territorial claims to the strategic waterway. But Chinese activity that could be the precursor to a land-reclamation project at the Scarborough Shoal just 230 km west of the Philippines could prompt a rethink of Duterte’s strategy.
During the Abe-Duterte meeting, Philippines Presidential Adviser on Peace Process, Jesus Dureza, said that the two leaders shared strategies on dealing with territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Kyodo News reported.
He said they shared the same position on honoring the international arbitration court’s ruling.
They discussed the possibility of bringing up the ruling at the summit, Dureza said, adding that Duterte explained his options for dealing with China’s pursuit of territory in the waters, saying “we cannot go to war with China … but at some point in time we’ll just have to work within the four corners of that ruling on the South China Sea.”
Japan has urged countries involved in the disputes in the South China Sea to comply with the July ruling.
Abe also agreed to provide two large-sized patrol ships and lend up to five used surveillance aircraft to the Philippines, Reuters reported a Japanese spokesman as saying.
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