- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 30, 2017

A photo of President Trump grinning broadly and pumping his fist topped the Philippines’ leading newspaper on Monday after news broke that the Mr. Trump had invited President Rodrigo Duterte to the White House.

The invitation stands in sharp contrast to the friction between the populist, plain-spoken Mr. Duterte and the Obama administration. This is the latest example of Mr. Trump’s willingness to engage authoritarian leaders that President Obama kept at arm’s length.

Mr. Trump is slated to be in Manila when Mr. Duterte hosts a summit of East Asian nations. No date has been announced for Mr. Duterte’s trip to Washington.

Mr. Duterte, who assumed office last year with a tough-talking personality, has embarked upon a controversial effort to stop the archipelago’s illegal narcotics trade by launching a “war on drugs.” As a provincial mayor before his election last year, Mr. Duterte found political success carrying out harsh crackdowns on drug users and other petty criminals.

But human rights groups have condemned the current effort as vigilantism and say it has left an estimated 7,000 Filipinos dead in less than a year.

The policy sparked major contention between Washington and Manila. Mr. Obama repeatedly criticized Mr. Duterte and the U.S. State Department pressured Philippine officials to stop what it called extrajudicial killings.

Mr. Duterte countered by telling Mr. Obama to “go to hell.” Then he ratcheted up his rhetoric even further during the final months of the Obama administration by vowing to seek closer economic and military ties to longtime American adversaries in Asia — Russia and China.

He also threatened to end Manila’s longstanding military alliance with the U.S., at one point suggesting he may even move to abrogate a 2014 defense agreement that allows U.S. military access to five Philippine military sites.

In contrast, Saturday night’s phone conversation between Mr. Trump and Mr. Duterte was called “very friendly” by White House officials. After the White House invitation, which is set for sometime in November, the two reportedly touched upon the numerous tricky issues between them, including the treaty alliance, the war on drugs and the escalating tension between the U.S. and North Korea.

Appearing on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said that despite concerns over Manila’s recent human rights record, contact between the two president was needed to assure the military alliance was in working order.

“The purpose of this call is all about North Korea,” Mr. Priebus said. “It doesn’t mean that human rights don’t matter.”

Philippines presidential spokesman Ernie Abella in a statement called the exchange “warm,” with Mr. Trump “expressing his understanding and appreciation of the challenges facing the Philippine president, especially on the matter of dangerous drugs.”

Mr. Abella added that North Korea was also discussed, but he didn’t provide specifics.

In a news conference on Saturday, Mr. Duterte suggested the U.S. should back away from an intensifying standoff with North Korea, to avoid risking a nuclear holocaust that could devastate the region.

“It would be good for America to just restrain a little bit and if I were President Trump, I’ll just back out, not really in surrender and retreat, but just to let the guy realize that, ‘Ah, please do not do it,’” Mr. Duterte said.

He added that Washington should not succumb to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s provocations. “It behooves upon America, who wields the biggest stick, just to really be prudent and patient,” Mr. Duterte said. “We know that we are playing with somebody who relishes letting go of his missiles and everything.”

Also on Sunday, three Chinese navy ships were welcomed in Davao City, Mr. Duterte’s southern hometown, by officials, including his daughter, military officials said.

When asked if the rare Chinese naval visits were a sign that Mr. Duterte was backing away from its ally in Washington, a Philippine military spokesman said: “We are not veering away from the U.S., but rather we are expanding our relations with our fellow nations in the global community.”

— This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Dan Boylan can be reached at dboylan@washingtontimes.com.

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