WASHINGTON U.S. President Barack Obama called incoming Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday to congratulate him on his election win, stressing that their countries' alliance was based on a commitment to human rights and the rule of law, the White House said.
U.S. officials have signalled that Washington is ready to work with Duterte despite allegations of human rights abuses in the city he led as mayor for over two decades.
Obama's deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, told a Washington seminar earlier on Tuesday that the U.S. administration was aware there was some "controversy" surrounding Duterte and "statements that drew attention in the past," but he did not elaborate.
Obama offered his congratulations to Duterte as the "presumptive president-elect."
He won the largest share of the votes in a May 9 presidential election, according to an unofficial count by a poll watchdog, although the official result has yet to be confirmed.
Obama "highlighted the enduring values that underpin our thriving alliance ... and the longstanding ties between our two peoples, including our shared commitments to democracy, human rights, rule of law, and inclusive economic growth," the White House said.
Washington hoped "to build on progress made with the last administration" in the Philippines, Rhodes said.
"This is a new government and we’ll want to hear from them directly what their priorities are," he said when asked about the election, adding that Washington wanted to see continued efforts to respect the rule of law and combat corruption.
Duterte has been criticized for allowing a spree of vigilante killings under his administration in Davao city, and critics fear he could let them happen on a larger scale as president.
He has denied ordering any of the killings, but has not condemned them.
Washington has steered clear of the controversy, however, which analysts say reflects the reality of U.S. national security interests given China's increasingly assertive stance in Asia and maritime disputes in the South China Sea.
Duterte's vows to restore law and order resonated with voters, but his incendiary rhetoric and advocacy of extrajudicial killings to stamp out crime and drugs have alarmed many people.
Rhodes noted U.S. support for Manila efforts to resolve its territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea through international arbitration, and a recent deal allowing a greater U.S. military presence in the Philippines.
"We believe that now as much as ever it's important that the U.S. and Philippines are seen working together," he said.
The U.S. stance on Duterte could echo its approach towards India's 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.
(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom; editing by Tom Brown and G Crosse)
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Updated Date: May 18, 2016 02:47 AM