Cooperation from Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is vital in countering threats from North Korea, the White House said on Sunday (30 April) defending President Donald Trump's invite to his Filipino counterpart to visit Washington.
The White House insisted that the biggest issue facing the US and the Asian region at the moment is North Korea. Duterte too cautioned recently that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un wanted to end the world.
Trump extended his invitation to Duterte during a "very friendly" phone call on Saturday night, the White House said. The Filipino leader, who had unleashed abuses on former US president Barack Obama on several occasions in the past after the latter highlighted concerns about drug killings in the Philippines, had been appreciative of Trump.
Duterte, on one occasion, had also said that he could gel well with Trump because the Republican did not meddle with Philippines' internal matters.
However, Trump seeking cooperation from a country whose leadership is accused of harbouring extrajudicial killings has drawn flak from human rights organisations.
"Celebrating a man who boasts of killing his own citizens and inviting him to the White House, while remaining silent on his disgusting human rights record, sends a terrifying message," John Sifton, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, told Reuters. "By effectively endorsing Duterte's murderous 'war on drugs', Trump has made himself morally complicit in future killings," he added.
"There is nothing right now facing this country and facing the region that is a bigger threat than what's happening in North Korea," White House chief of staff Reince Priebus told American Broadcasting Corporation, explaining the government's stance.
"If we don't have all of our folks together — whether they're good folks, bad folks, people we wish would do better in their country, doesn't matter, we've got to be on the same page" on North Korea, Priebus said.
Another White House official clarified that the invitation was neither a reward to Duterte, nor does it imply that the US administration endorses his anti-drug policies. Philippines has been a long-time US ally and continuing the relationship was better than withdrawal which could "intensify bad behavior" by Duterte, the official told Reuters. "It's not a 'thank you'. It's a meeting."
The official also denied a New York Times report which quoted some White House officials as saying that the State Department and the National Security Council were not aware of the invitation to Duterte, and that they could raise an objection internally.
Separately, Trump also held telephonic conversations with the leaders of Thailand and Singapore on Sunday to discuss security issues amid rising North Korea tensions threatening peace in the Asia Pacific region. He extended invitation to Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to visit Washington.