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Obama congratulates presumptive Philippine president, stresses rights

The White House said Obama and Rodrigo Duterte spoke by phone in their first conversation since Duterte declared victory

Published: Updated:

President Barack Obama offered his congratulations Tuesday to the new presumptive president of the Philippines who has attracted controversy over his iron-fisted approach to law and order.

The White House said Obama and Rodrigo Duterte spoke by phone in their first conversation since Duterte declared victory in the May 9 vote.

Obama noted high voter turnout in the election was a sign of the Philippines’ “vibrant democracy,” and he highlighted the two nations’ “shared commitments to democracy, human rights, rule of law and inclusive economic growth,” a statement said.

Duterte has been a controversial character in Philippine politics. The longtime mayor of Davao campaigned on a promise to end crime and corruption. His public threat to kill all criminals helped catapult him to the presidency but has alarmed human rights activists.

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes acknowledged the controversy over some of Duerte's past statements but he said the U.S. wanted to build on the “good progress” made between the allies under the outgoing administration of President Benigno Aquino III.

“For us, the priorities will remain the security and prosperity of the Philippines. We'll want to see continued efforts in the Philippines in respect of rule of law and to combat corruption, just as we support those types of efforts across Asia and around the world,” Rhodes told the Center for a New American Security think tank.

“We believe that now as much as ever it’s important that the U.S. and the Philippines are seen as working together and also working with a network of allies and partners in Southeast Asia,” he said.

The historically tumultuous relationship between the U.S. and its former colony has thrived in recent years as the Philippines has turned to Washington for support against an assertive China with which the Philippines has territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

On Aquino’s watch, the Philippines has agreed to opening up several of its military facilities in American forces - a quarter-century after nationalist sentiments forced the closure of U.S. bases in the island nation.