WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States signaled on Tuesday it will work with the apparent victor of the Philippines presidential election, Rodrigo Duterte, despite allegations of human rights abuses in the city he has led for over two decades.
Washington’s stance reflects the reality that U.S. national security interests will outweigh human rights concerns given China’s increasingly assertive stance in the region and the maritime disputes in the South China Sea, Asia analysts said.
“Washington respects the choice of the Philippine people. We gladly work with the leaders they’ve selected,” State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said when asked about Monday’s election.
An official winner had not been declared but an unofficial count by an election commission-accredited watchdog showed Duterte had a huge lead over his two closest rivals, both of whom conceded defeat.
When pressed whether Washington had concerns about positions advocated by the tough-talking Duterte, including extrajudicial killings to stamp out crime and drugs, Trudeau repeated her statement that Washington respected the choice of the voters.
“We look forward to working with the leader that the Philippines has elected,” she said.
Duterte’s 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 alarmed many people, who saw it as harkening back to the country’s authoritarian past.
Duterte has been criticized for allowing a spree of vigilante killings in Davao city and critics fear he could let them happen on a larger scale as president.
Although the United States closed its military bases in the Philippines in 1992, the two nations are bound by a 1951 mutual defense treaty and the former colony is a key element of the U.S. policy of “rebalancing” its foreign policy toward Asia.
In April, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said U.S. troops and military equipment would be sent on regular rotations in the Philippines and that the countries had started joint patrols in the South China Sea as China asserts its territorial claims.
China claims 90 percent of the South China Sea, which is believed to be rich in oil and gas, its claims overlapping with those of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
The U.S. stance on Duterte could echo its approach toward Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. At one point, Modi was unable to obtain a U.S. visa because of concerns about sectarian riots in the state of Gujarat when he was chief minister, but was later invited to the White House when he became prime minister.
“His human rights record does give them pause, but he was elected by the Philippine people,” said Murray Hiebert, an Asia analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington. “They have to deal with him.”
Asia-Pacific analyst Patrick Cronin cited three reasons for the Philippines strategic importance: its location in the “first island chain” of major archipelagos from the East Asian mainland, its status as the only U.S. ally among the South China Sea claimants and the regional focus on those maritime disputes.
“The South China Sea has become a litmus test for American staying power and commitment to the Asia-Pacific region,” said Cronin of the Center for a New American Security think tank. “If we falter over the defense of Philippine interests ... then we lose credibility and (our) commitment is questioned,” he added.
Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton and David Alexander in Washington, Neil Jerome Morales in; Davao, Philippines and Manuel Mogato in Manila; Editing by Alan Crosby and James Dalgleish