U.S. President Barack Obama cancelled his first meeting with Philippines counterpart Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday after the blunt-spoken Duterte described him as a “son of a bitch”, casting a shadow over a gathering of Asian leaders in Laos.
Duterte, who has been roundly criticised abroad for a ‘war on drugs’ that has killed about 2,400 people since he took office two months ago, said hours later that he regretted his comments “came across as a personal attack” on the U.S. president.
“President Duterte explained that the press reports that President Obama would ‘lecture’ him on extrajudicial killings led to his strong comments, which in turn elicited concern,” the Philippines government said.
“He regrets that his remarks to the press have caused much controversy,” it added in a statement released at the summit in Vientiane, the capital of Laos.
The White House had earlier said Obama would not pull any punches on his concerns about human rights abuses in the Philippines, its treaty ally, when meeting Duterte.
Duterte responded to that with his “son of a bitch” comment to reporters on Monday before leaving to join fellow leaders of Southeast Asian and East Asian leaders for the summit.
Obama learned about the insult as he emerged from the Group of 20 summit in Hangzhou, China. At a news conference, he said he had told his aides to speak with Philippine officials “to find out is this, in fact, a time where we can have some constructive, productive conversations.”
Hours later, his aides said the meeting had been cancelled.
Instead, Obama plans to meet South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Tuesday, said Ned Price, spokesman for the White House National Security Council – a meeting where the response to North Korea’s latest missile tests is expected to be on the agenda.
MOVES TO SOOTHE TENSIONS
Obama arrived in Vientiane just before midnight on Monday for the first visit by a sitting U.S. president to Laos, where he wants to begin to address the legacy of U.S. bombing during the Vietnam War.
He was set to give an address on the importance he has placed on Asia in his foreign and economic policy during his two terms in office, which will end on Jan. 20.
The unusually open tensions between the United States and the Philippines, its former colony and long-term ally, threaten to overshadow the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asia Summits in Laos from Tuesday to Thursday.
The 10-member ASEAN will meet leaders of other regional powers: China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, Russia and the United States.
Moving quickly to soothe the tensions with Washington, Duterte said in a separate statement that he remained committed to Manila’s alliance with the United States.
“Our primary intention is to chart an independent foreign policy while promoting ties with all nations, especially the U.S. with which we have had a longstanding partnership,” he said.
Duterte won the presidency in May as he promised to suppress crime and wipe out drugs and drug dealers. At least 2,400 people have been killed since he took office on July 1, including 900 in police operations against drug pushers.
The rest are “deaths under investigation”, a term human rights activists in the Philippines say is a euphemism for vigilante and extrajudicial killings.
Duterte has poured scorn previously on critics, usually larding it with curses.
He lambasted the United Nations after it criticised the surge in killings and he turned down a meeting with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the Laos summit.
In May, he called Pope Francis a “son of a whore”, although he later apologised, and called U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg a “gay son of a whore.”
On Tuesday, Duterte met Singapore’s prime minister and was later to hold talks with the leaders of Japan and Vietnam.
The Philippines has been aligned with the United States in its dispute with China over the South China Sea, in which Washington blames Beijing for militarizing a vital global trade route and jeopardising freedom of movement at sea and in the air.
China rejects those accusations and in turn blames the United States for ratcheting up tensions unnecessarily. China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion of trade moves annually. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have rival claims.
An arbitration court in The Hague in July invalidated China’s vast territorial claims to the waterway after a case was brought by the Philippines, a ruling that Beijing refuses to recognise.
Duterte said last month he expected all ASEAN members to support the arbitration court’s ruling, but that the Philippines would not raise the issue in Laos.