VIENTIANE, Laos — President Obama said he shook hands with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at a regional summit on Thursday, two days after canceling a bilateral meeting following Duterte's use of a profane epithet while criticizing about Obama.
Obama played down a personal rift between the two and suggested the affair would not damage the long-term alliance between the United States and the Philippines. During a conversation with reporters this week ahead of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, Duterte used a Tagalog phrase that translates to "son of a bitch" or "son of a whore" while railing against Obama's reported concerns about extrajudicial killings in the Philippines.
"I don’t take the kinds of comments personally," Obama said at a news conference, noting that Duterte had used the same phrase when talking about other world leaders, including the pope. It seems to be "a habit, a way of speaking for him."
U.S. and Philippine officials have said the bilateral meeting could potentially be rescheduled before Obama leaves office, such as at the U.N. General Assembly in New York later this month. White House aides said that Obama canceled the official meeting in Laos out of concern that it would be consumed by the fallout of Duterte's remarks rather than by the discussions of more serious geopolitical challenges, including Beijing's increasing reach into the South China Sea.
The Obama administration had been working to build closer military and economic ties to the Philippines at a time when China's growing influence has alarmed smaller nations in the region. On a trip to Asia last year, Obama announced new defense and security partnerships and investments.
But Duterte, who took office in June, has signaled that he is open to increased dialogue with China seeking to resolve disputes in the South China Sea, where China claims full sovereignty and has built artificial islands that some fear could have military applications. In July, an international arbitration tribunal backed the Philippines' claim that China does not hold full territorial sway over the sea.
Duterte also has waged a fierce government campaign against the country's illegal drug trade that has resulted in the killing of more than 2,400 suspected drug dealers. It was on that matter that Duterte told reporters in the Philippines that he would not stand for being lectured by Obama over legal due process concerns during their scheduled meeting.
"I am a president of a sovereign state and we have long ceased to be a colony," he said. "I do not have any master except the Filipino people." He threatened to swear at Obama if the president raised the matter.
After Obama canceled their bilateral meeting, Duterte said that he regretted that his comments "came across as a personal attack."
On Thursday, Obama said that Duterte's intemperate remarks had "no impact on our broader relationship with the Filipino people. It certainly has no impact in how we interpret our obligations" in security treaties.
It has been a rough few days for Duterte. He has dealt with the emergency response to a deadly bombing in Davao — where Duterte was once mayor — that killed 14 people and injured up to 70.
On Thursday, Duterte did not show up at a summit of Asian leaders and Obama, leading to speculation among reporters that he might have been trying to avoid the awkwardness and judgment of his fellow leaders for his undiplomatic remarks.
According to his spokesman, Duterte had suffered a severe migraine.
When asked if Duterte's headaches happen often, Duterte spokesman Martin Andanar said, “It’s not regular, but when he is tired and he is always working.” Because of the bombing, Andanar said: “The president was not able to rest on the weekend which is usually his rest day on Saturday, because he had to attend to the victims, the victims’ families and the investigation. And then he had to work here in Laos in bilateral meetings. I guess it’s taken its toll on our president.”
Multiple news outlets in the Philippines reported that Duterte’s daughter recently suffered a miscarriage.
Duterte’s spokesman said he could not confirm or deny those reports, but added: “It is a family matter.”
Nakamura reported from Washington.