VIENTIANE, Laos – President Barack Obama called off a planned meeting Tuesday with new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, seeking distance from a U.S. ally’s leader during a diplomatic tour that’s put Obama in close quarters with a cast of contentious world figures.
WATCH: Obama cancels meeting with Philippines president after insult
It’s unusual for one president to tell another what to say or not say, and much rarer to call the other a “son of a bitch.” Duterte managed to do both just before flying to Laos for a regional summit, warning Obama not to challenge him over extrajudicial killings in the Philippines.
“Clearly, he’s a colorful guy,” Obama said. “What I’ve instructed my team to do is talk to their Philippine counterparts to find out is this in fact a time where we can have some constructive, productive conversations.”
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Early Tuesday, National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said the meeting with Duterte was off.
Duterte has been under intense global scrutiny over the more than 2,000 suspected drug dealers and users killed since he took office. Obama had said he planned to raise the issue in his first meeting with Duterte, but the Philippine leader insisted he was only listening to his own country’s people.
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“You must be respectful,” Duterte said of Obama. “Do not just throw questions.” Using the Tagalog phrase for “son of a bitch,” he said, “Putang ina I will swear at you in that forum.” He made the comment in a televised news conference in southern Davao City.
Eager to show he wouldn’t yield, Obama said he would “undoubtedly” still bring up human rights and due process concerns “if and when” the two do meet.
A public break with the Philippines would put Obama in a tough position, given the Southeast Asian nation’s status as a longtime U.S. treaty ally. A key part of Obama’s signature policy of engagement with Asia has been stronger military ties to Manila, including a defence pact the two allies signed in 2014 allowing U.S. forces to be based temporarily in designated Philippine military camps.
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Yet when it comes to Duterte, the Obama administration has sought to compartmentalize. Obama administration officials said they were confident military and other co-operation with the Philippines won’t be jeopardized despite misgivings about the country’s new leader.
The bizarre rift with Duterte was the most glaring example of how Obama has frequently found himself bound to foreign countries and leaders whose ties to the U.S. are critical even if their values sharply diverge.
In Hangzhou this week, Obama’s first stop in Asia, he heaped praise on Chinese President Xi Jinping for hosting the Group of 20 economic summit in his country, an authoritarian state long accused of human rights violations. Upon Obama’s arrival, social media exploded with speculation China had slighted Obama after there was no staircase awaiting him on the tarmac, forcing the president to deplane through a set of internal stairs he rarely uses.
That prompted Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, to say he would have refused to meet with Chinese officials if he were treated that way, calling it “such a sign of disrespect.”
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But U.S. officials said the incident actually stemmed more from a mix-up over finding a driver for the staircase-on-wheels who could communicate in English with the U.S. Secret Service. The officials requested anonymity to describe private diplomatic arrangements.
Obama’s next stop was another one-party communist country with a dismal rights record: Laos, where mysterious disappearances have fueled concerns about a government crackdown.
And sitting down with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Obama made no mention in public of the roughly 35,000 people Erdogan’s government detained following the summer’s failed coup in Turkey. Instead, he worked to reassure the NATO ally the U.S. would help bring to justice whoever was responsible for plotting the coup.
Obama also spent about 90 minutes Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, another leader whose fate seems intertwined with Obama’s in all the wrong ways. On opposing sides of many global issues, the U.S. and Russia are nonetheless trying to broker a deal to address the Syrian civil war and perhaps even partner militarily there.
WATCH: Obama calls Philippines president ‘colourful guy’
“President Putin’s less colorful,” Obama said, comparing him with Duterte. “But typically the tone of our meetings is candid, blunt, businesslike.”
Managing Duterte has become a worsening headache for Obama since the Filipino took office on June 30, pledging his foreign policy wouldn’t be constricted by reliance on the U.S. Washington has tried largely to look the other way as Duterte has pursued closer relations with China, a marked shift for the Philippines considering recent tensions over Beijing’s aspirations in the South China Sea.
This isn’t the first time Duterte’s penchant for eyebrow-raising comments has triggered diplomatic disputes.
Last month, Duterte said he didn’t mind Secretary of State John Kerry but “had a feud with his gay ambassador – son of a bitch, I’m annoyed with that guy.” He applied the same moniker to an Australian missionary who was gang-raped and killed, and even to Pope Francis, even though the Philippines is a heavily Catholic nation. He later apologized.
With a reputation as a tough-on-crime former mayor, Duterte has alarmed human rights groups with his deadly campaign against drugs, which Duterte has described as a harsh war. He has said the battle doesn’t amount to genocide but has vowed to go to jail if needed to defend police and military members carrying out his orders.
Hennessey reported from Hangzhou, China. Associated Press writer Teresa Cerojano in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.