Trump accepts Duterte's ASEAN summit invite after all

US President Donald Trump walks from Marine One to Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on September 27, 2017 (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski) (AFP/File)

President Donald Trump has backed away from a threat to skip a summit with South East Asian leaders in the Philippines later this year, with the White House saying it had accepted an invitation from host Rodrigo Duterte.

In a statement Friday, the White House said that Trump will visit Manila as part of a bumper November 3-14 tour of China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the US state of Hawaii.

The announcement tees up a meeting between Trump and President Duterte, who has been accused of "crimes against humanity" for waging a bloody war on drugs that has claimed thousands of lives.

During a visit to ASEAN's Jakarta headquarters in April, Vice President Mike Pence had promised allies -- anxious about waning US engagement in the region -- that Trump would attend the bloc's summit in Manila this November.

Since then Trump's souring bromance with Duterte -- prompted, in part, by Duterte's rights record and his vow in July to never visit "lousy" America -- had thrown those plans in the air.

Trump said earlier this month that Duterte had extended an invitation, but the US president pointedly said he had not yet decided whether to accept.

"He invited us so we're going to see," Trump said, while announcing he would go to Japan, South Korea, China and, maybe, Vietnam for a regional APEC economic summit.

Philippine officials were surprised by the about face and the issue was raised during Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano's visit to Washington this week.

Republican Senator Cory Gardner, who met Duterte in the Philippines earlier this year, was among those who urged Trump to attend.

"I think it's very important that the president travel to the region to the summit," he told AFP. "Now more than ever the United States needs to show its leadership not just in rhetoric, but in action, in visible ways."

- 'Unbelievable' -

Early in his tenure, Trump courted controversy by praising Duterte for doing an "unbelievable job on the drug problem."

Duterte's crackdown on alleged drug dealers has seen the police kill an estimated 3,850 people in 15 months and made him a virtual pariah.

Both men have shocked with similar barbed language: Duterte's favored insult, "putang ina," was recently echoed in English when Trump called an NFL player a "son of a bitch."

But Duterte had been angered by a US Congress human rights commission hearing, where various advocate groups assailed his bloody war on drugs.

Aides were left trying to convince Trump -- who has also been skeptical of multilateral institutions and shown modest interest in South East Asia -- that it is important to attend.

Fast-growing South East Asia has become a focus point for US trade and sits astride a major geopolitical hotspot, the South China Sea.

US governments have tried to defend the right of free passage there as China and other countries make increasingly forceful maritime and territorial claims.

"It would be very noticed -- in a negative way -- if he did not go, while all the other leaders are there including the Chinese premier," said Amy Searight, a former top Pentagon official for Asia, now with the CSIS think-tank.

- Pivot away? -

US presidents have not always played much attention to the ASEAN bloc, which includes the fast-growing economies of Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines and five other countries.

Barack Obama was the first president to regularly attend the ASEAN summit, donning flamboyant local shirts and posing arms-linked for photos with leaders as part of his much-vaunted "pivot to Asia."

Trump has taken a wrecking ball to much of Obama's legacy, including knocking away a key pillar of the pivot by scrapping a trans-Pacific trade deal, embraced by many ASEAN partners.

But Trump's decision to attend leaves a delicate problem about what to do when he and Duterte meet.

A warm embrace would likely be seen as an endorsement of Duterte's policies.

"Duterte has overseen and condoned what may very well constitute crimes against humanity," Joanne Lin, senior managing director of government relations at Amnesty International USA, told AFP.

"In response, President Trump has offered nothing but praise. We hope that at the summit this fall, cooler heads will prevail."

On the other hand, snubbing a "treaty ally," officials argued, would not go unnoticed in Beijing or other capitals, where there is a desire to capitalize on any opportunity to limit US power in the region.

Since 1951 the United States and the Philippines have had a mutual defense treaty, meaning Washington would defend Manila in any potential war.

Gardner, who sits on the Senate foreign relations committee said engagement was essential.

"Our leaders around the globe have to have frank discussions with each other and they need to move beyond press release diplomacy, no one should be afraid of that."

"We need to make sure concerns are stressed directly. This is not North Korea," he said. "We are a defense treaty ally of the Philippines and there is a strategic imperative to maintain that relationship."