VIENTIANE -- U.S. President Barack Obama and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte sparred over human rights at the East Asia Summit here in the Laotian capital Thursday, allowing China to avoid a diplomatic dressing-down for its expansionism in the South China Sea.
Obama touched upon human rights among other matters during his speech at the 18-nation summit, which brings together the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and eight other dialogue partners including Japan, Australia and Russia.
For his part, the Philippine president "showed a picture of killings by the American soldiers," an Indonesian diplomat said.
"These are my ancestors being killed, so why are we now talking about human rights? We have to talk [about] the full spectrum of the human rights," the source quoted Duterte as saying, as the Philippine president reportedly "shocked" some people in the room.
In 1906, around 600 Muslims were killed in the southern island of Mindanao, where Duterte hails from, as Americans moved to control the Philippine archipelago after Spain ceded its longtime colony to the U.S. in 1898.
Philippine diplomats could not directly confirm the source's account. But in a statement, the Philippine foreign ministry said: "In the passionate intervention of President Duterte, he underscored the need to take a long historical view of human rights mindful of the atrocities against the ethnic people of Mindanao."
The two leaders have clashed in recent days because of diverging views on human rights. Obama called off a bilateral meeting with Duterte on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit Tuesday, after the Philippine leader said he would curse the U.S. president if Obama raised the issue of human rights during the summit.
The presidents spoke with each other Wednesday night at a holding room before going to a dinner for leaders attending the summit. Asked on Thursday what he said to Duterte, Obama replied, at a briefing, that he told the Philippine leader to fight criminality "the right way."
Since Duterte took office June 30, over 2,400 people linked to drugs have been killed in a war on crime. The bloody campaign has met little opposition at home, but has alarmed human rights advocates including United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
In his prepared speech, Duterte was to call for maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, where China has built at least seven artificial islands equipped with runways and radar to bolster its territorial claim in nearly the entire water body.
He was also to call for the "full respect of legal and diplomatic processes" in solving disputes after Manila won an arbitration ruling July 12 that found Beijing's territorial claims over the South China Sea had no legal basis.
The diplomatic source said Duterte ignored the prepared speech, but Philippine officials insist he did mention the South China Sea dispute during his intervention.
The Philippines, Japan, the U.S. and Australia had criticized China during last year's summit for its reclamation in the South China Sea. This time, discussions on the maritime dispute centered on the need for a code of conduct, the diplomatic source said.
Meanwhile, China appeared to have taken advantage of the situation, as Premier Li Keqiang focused his speech on "cooperation."
"I think the premier tried to seize the momentum [with the talk] about cooperation," the diplomat said.