MANILA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Philippines leader Rodrigo Duterte described as “encouraging” his phone call with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump on Friday, during which he felt a rapport between them and gave assurance that ties were intact, despite a period of rocky relations.
Trump’s seven-minute chat with the firebrand Philippine president follows months of uncertainty about one of Washington’s most important Asian alliances, stoked by Duterte’s hostility towards President Barack Obama and repeated threats to sever decades-old defense ties.
Duterte’s anger was unleashed following Obama’s concerns about possible human rights abuses in his war on drugs, during which more than 2,000 people have been killed.
Duterte said Trump was “sensitive” and understanding about his crackdown and was encouraged by what he interpreted as Trump’s indication he would not interfere.
“I could sense a good rapport, an animated President-elect Trump. And he was wishing me success in my campaign against the drug problem,” Duterte said in comments his office released on Saturday.
“He understood the way we are handling it ... I supposed that what he really wanted to say was that we would be the last to interfere in the affairs of your own country.”
He added: “We are doing it as a sovereign nation, the right way. And he wishes us well. And I said that, well, we assured him of our ties with America.”
His special adviser, Christopher Go, had earlier said in a text message to media that Trump had invited Duterte to visit the White House next year.
There appeared to be confusion, however. Duterte mentioned an invite to Washington and New York, and that Trump asked him to notify him of his presence “if I’m around”.
A statement issued by Trump’s transition team made no mention of that. It said the two men “noted the long history of friendship” between their countries and would work closely on “matters of shared interest and concern”.
Duterte made waves when he visited China in October and announced his “separation” from the United States.
In five months in office, he has upended Philippine foreign policy by berating the United States, pursuing a new alliance with Russia and also China, with which Manila has a history of bitter disputes.
His diplomacy has created jitters among Asian nations concerned about Beijing’s influence and Washington’s regional staying power.
Duterte told Democrat Obama to “go to hell” and called him a “son of a bitch” whom he would humiliate if he visited the Philippines.
Despite his optimism about Trump’s win, it has not stopped Duterte railing against what he calls a U.S. history of “hypocrisy” and “bullying” worldwide.
Republican Trump told Reuters during his campaign that Duterte’s comments about Obama had showed “a lack of respect for our country.” But he also stressed the “very important strategic location” of the Philippines.
A source who has advised Trump’s transition team on security policy said the president-elect would start a “clean slate” with Duterte.
“He is perfectly capable of talking to Duterte in an open way without being wedded to previous policy failures,” the source said of Trump.
Sometimes called the ‘Trump of the East’ because of his brash, mercurial style, Duterte has threatened repeatedly to scrap U.S. defense ties, saying he “hates” having foreign soldiers in the Philippines.
Joint military exercises look set to be downsized as Duterte demanded and uncertainty surrounds the 2014 Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), a deal of strategic importance because it allows U.S. access to Philippine bases on a troop rotation basis.
“EDCA is a concern and some of the things Duterte has said are a concern,” said the advisor to Trump’s team. “That is not going to change based on who the president is.”
Some experts say Duterte’s appointment of special envoys to Washington suggest he aims to keep good ties. Among those is real estate tycoon Jose Antonio, who bought the rights to name a new commercial project in Manila “Trump Towers”.
Ernest Bower of the Bower Group Asia consultancy said it was likely the call was set up by Trump’s Philippine business partners and a core group of advisers, including his children.
Bower said Trump’s win could offer Duterte a face-saving way to step back from his anti-U.S. stance, while Duterte offers Trump a chance to stress the importance of Asian alliances.
Duterte said it would be “great for our country” if Trump visited Manila next year when it chairs the Association of South East Asian Nations and summits of Asian leaders, and Trump wanted to attend.
Bower said that may have been fortuitous for Trump.
“My guess is he was more interested in making a point - that he could deal with Duterte in ways Obama couldn’t - than in the strategic wisdom of driving alignment with the ASEAN chair.”
Addtional reporting by Manuel Mogato in Manila and Steve Holland and Yeganeh Torbati in Washington; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Richard Pullin