DAVAO CITY—Saying he was “not a fan” of the United States, President Duterte on Saturday vowed to steer an independent course for the Philippines, and refrain from confronting territorial rival China and from picking up a fight with any nation over human rights.
“I am not a fan of the Americans … Filipinos should be first before everybody else,” Mr. Duterte told reporters upon arrival in his hometown, Davao City, from his first foreign trip that was marred by a diplomatic bust-up with the United States after he called President Barack Obama a “son of a bitch.”
“In our relations to the world, the Philippines will pursue an independent foreign policy. I repeat: The Philippines will pursue an independent foreign policy,” Mr. Duterte said.
Mr. Duterte arrived at Davao International Airport at 12:50 a.m. aboard a chartered Philippine Airlines flight from Jakarta, where he had talks with Indonesian President Joko Widodo on Friday.
Reporting on his trip in an arrival speech, Mr. Duterte said advancing the Philippines’ interest was his objective in attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit and related meetings in Vientiane, Laos, last week.
“I engaged the leaders of Asean and its dialogue partners on important regional and international issues that impact on peace, security, stability and prosperity of our region,” he said.
Despite an earlier promise not to raise the South China Sea dispute with China at the summit, Mr. Duterte said he brought up the topic but “stressed our commitment to the peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international laws, including [the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea].”
He said he pointed out the “serious concern in the region over terrorism and violent extremism” and urged Asean and other leaders to “redouble” cooperative efforts to deal with this menace.
Mr. Duterte said he also brought up the problem of illegal drugs, telling the leaders that his administration’s campaign against the narcotics trade encompassed “suppression, prosecution and rehabilitation,” with all actions “within the bounds of our laws.”
Nearly 3,000 drug suspects have been killed in the Philippines since Mr. Duterte launched his war on drugs upon taking office on June 30.
Police take credit for 1,033 of those deaths and blame the 1,894 others on vigilantes or hired guns.
“More people will be killed, plenty will be killed until the last pusher is out of the streets,” Mr. Duterte said last week.
The United States, United Nations and international human rights groups have expressed concern over the killings, angering Mr. Duterte, who brooks no opposition to the scorched-earth policy he has laid down for his drug campaign.
‘Son of a bitch’
Told on Monday, as he prepared to leave for Laos, that Obama intended to raise human rights during their meeting on the sidelines of the Asean summit, Mr. Duterte spewed the Filipino equivalent of “son a bitch” and warned that he would not take a lecture from the US leader or he would curse him at the summit.
The White House canceled Obama’s meeting with Mr. Duterte. The two men, however, met before a leaders’ gala dinner on Wednesday and chatted briefly.
Mr. Duterte said he told Obama that he never called him a “son of a bitch.”
In a news conference on Thursday, Obama said he told Mr. Duterte to conduct his war on drugs “the right way,” but the Philippine leader dismissed it as being none of America’s business.
In a news conference that followed his arrival speech, Mr. Duterte said nobody knew how serious the drug problem in the Philippines was until he focused on it.
He said drugs had so proliferated that there were now 3.7 million addicts in the country.
“So it is never wrong to threaten criminals,” he said, referring to his threat to traffickers and dealers to surrender or be killed.
“As your President and a lawyer, I have every right to threaten criminals and how it develop to the ending is another problem,” he said.
Mr. Duterte said he never wanted to pick a fight with any nation over human rights.
“That is farthest from my mind. I only want to be at peace with everybody, doing business with everybody and no quarrels,” he said.
The United Nations had sought a meeting between UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Mr. Duterte at the Asean summit, but the Philippine leader, who called the United Nations “stupid” and “inutile” after its rights experts criticized his war on drugs, refused.
Mr. Duterte, however, said he and Ban had a brief chat at the summit. He said Ban brought up human rights and “I responded very well.”
He said he told Ban that the Philippines would pursue an independent foreign policy.
Mr. Duterte also said China pledged to help his administration’s fight against drugs by building rehabilitation centers for addicts who had turned themselves in.
He said he assumed the presidency “midterm” so that there were no funds to finance the building of rehabilitation centers. That’s why he accepted China’s offer, he said.
Dispute with China
Mr. Duterte came to office talking about negotiating a solution of the Philippines’ dispute with China in the South China Sea despite a ruling against Beijing by an international tribunal in a case brought by Manila.
Obama, whose government wants to ensure freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, brought up the contentious issue at the Laos summit also attended by China.
He stressed that the ruling of the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague was “binding” and could not be ignored by Beijing, which has rejected it.
Mr. Duterte favors a “soft landing” for the issue. On Saturday, he said it would be counterproductive for militarily weak Philippines, which hosts small units of US forces, to confront China or undertake actions that could lead to armed conflict.
He said: “I assured everybody that there are only two options there: We go to fight, which we cannot afford at all, or talk.”
Last month, Mr. Duterte sent a special envoy, former President Fidel Ramos, to Hong Kong to meet with Chinese representatives to initiate talks with China on the maritime dispute between the two countries. With a report from AFP/TVJ