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‘I’m your humble friend,’ Philippines’ anti-US leader tells Tillerson

MANILA (Reuters) — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte called himself a “humble friend” of the United States on Monday, taking a break from his notorious hostility towards Washington to grant a warm reception to visiting U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Duterte’s often profanity-laden tirades against the United States have become his trademark during his year-old presidency, but he appeared happy to meet Tillerson, who was in Manila to attend a regional security meeting dominated by North Korea’s missile tests, and maritime squabbles.

U.S. State Secretary Rex Tillerson, left, poses with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at the Malacañang presidential palace in Manila, Monday.  AP

“I am happy to see you...and you have come at a time when the world is not so good, especially in the Korean peninsula. And, of course, there is the ever nagging problem of South China Sea,” Duterte told Tillerson at the presidential palace.

“I know you’re worried there, because you also have domestic problems…. We are friends. We are allies,” said Duterte.

“I am your humble friend in Southeast Asia,” he said.

The maverick leader makes no attempt to hide his grudge against the United States, which he has repeatedly chided for what he says is a history of hypocritical foreign policy, and for treating the Philippines like a dog.

He last year announced to China his “separation” from Washington, has complained about being given “hand-me-down” U.S. military hardware, and once invited American investors jittery about his remarks to pack their bags and leave.

But Duterte’s biggest anger was directed at then-President Barack Obama, whose administration spoke out against his signature war on drugs, a fierce crackdown that has killed thousands of Filipinos.

Duterte’s warm words for Tillerson indicate Philippines-U.S. ties under U.S. President Donald Trump may be in better shape.

Though Duterte still vents about Washington, he has spoken positively about Trump, who praised him for doing “an unbelievable job on the drug problem.”

In an April phone call, Trump told Duterte he would invite him to the White House.

But when a U.S. lawmaker recently said he would try to block that, Duterte said he would never go to the United States because “I’ve seen America and it’s lousy.”

Duterte said he and Tillerson discussed “many things” on Monday, but he did not give details.

The defense treaty alliance between the two countries remains strong, and U.S. forces have been providing the Philippines with technical assistance to fight militants allied with Islamic State. Last year, he repeatedly threatened to eject U.S. military trainers and advisers.

Asked prior to his meeting if helping the Philippine military meant the United States was endorsing the government’s bloody anti-drugs campaign, Tillerson said the two were unrelated.

“I see no conflict, no conflict at all in our helping them with that situation and our views of other human-rights concerns we have with respect to how they carry out their counter-narcotics activities,” he said.