A top aide on Sunday defended President Donald Trump's invitation to his Philippine counterpart to visit Washington, saying the need to rally Asian allies over North Korea overshadowed concerns about President Rodrigo Duterte's brutal war on drugs.
Duterte had in the past regularly hit out at the United States, the Philippines' one-time colonial ruler, for perceived hypocrisy over human rights. Last year he branded then-US President Barack Obama a "son of a whore" for criticising his war on drugs.
On Saturday, the White House said in a statement that Trump had invited Duterte during a "friendly" call in which the leaders discussed the Philippine president's fight against drugs and the two countries' alliance.
The statement touched only lightly on Duterte's controversial crackdown on crime, which has claimed thousands of lives and drawn international condemnation.
But when White House chief of staff Reince Priebus was asked on Sunday why Trump was "honouring" Duterte with the White House invitation, he told ABC News network, "I'm not so sure it's a matter of honouring this president.
"The issues facing us, developing out of North Korea, are so serious that we need cooperation at some level with as many partners in the area as we can get," Priebus said.
That way, he added, "if something does happen in North Korea, we have everyone in line backing up a plan of action that may need to be put together with our partners in the area".
Later on Sunday, Trump also invited the prime ministers of Thailand and Singapore for official visits.
Deadly drug war
Duterte has spoken of loosening the long-standing alliance with the US as he looked to court China, whose push to control most of the disputed South China Sea has alarmed neighbours.
At one point Duterte suggested he may even move to abrogate a 2014 defence agreement that allows US access to five Philippine military camps.
He has walked back most of those threats but has proceeded with his efforts to align more closely with China.
The White House said Saturday the two leaders, both elected to office last year, had helped orient the US-Philippine relationship "in a very positive direction".
The White House said Trump "enjoyed the conversation" with Duterte, and looked forward to attending the key US-ASEAN and East Asia summits in the Philippines in November.
Duterte's spokesman Ernesto Abella confirmed Trump's invitation, although he gave no indication of when the visit would take place.
"The discussion that transpired between the presidents was warm, with President Trump expressing his understanding and appreciation of the challenges facing the Philippine president, especially on the matter of dangerous drugs," Abella said in a statement.
Duterte has not been shy about his brutal campaign against drugs.
Philippines police have reported killing 2,724 people as part of the anti-drug campaign; authorities insist the shootings have been in self-defence.
Many thousands of others have been killed by shadowy vigilantes, according to rights groups.
A Philippine lawyer last week filed a complaint at the International Criminal Court accusing Duterte of mass murder, alleging his war on drugs had led to about 8,000 deaths.
Source: News agencies