Presidential candidate Mayor Rodrigo Duterte speaks in front of a communist rebel group New People's Army (NPA) flag during the release of five policemen held by the rebels for a week, in Davao city, southern Philippines, April 25, 2016. REUTERS/Keith Bacongco/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States congratulated the Philippines' "presumptive" President-elect Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday and said it looked forward to deepening U.S.-Philippine ties with his incoming administration.
Washington took the rare step of offering congratulations even though a winner has not been officially declared in Monday's election, which an unofficial count by an election commission-accredited watchdog showed Duterte easily won.
The United States and the Philippines, which signed a treaty of mutual defence in 1951, are deepening military cooperation in the face of China's increasingly assertive claims to disputed land features in the South China Sea.
While the United States closed its bases in the Philippines in 1992, it plans to send U.S. troops and equipment there on regular rotations and the two countries have begun joint patrols in the South China Sea as China asserts its territorial claims.
While Duterte has been criticized for allowing a spree of vigilante killings in Davao city, where he has served as mayor for more than two decades, the United States has made clear this week that it plans to work with him.
"The United States offers its sincerest congratulations to the people of the Philippines on the conclusion of the May 9, 2016 general elections, and to the presumptive president-elect Rodrigo Duterte," Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said in a statement.
"The United States looks forward to continuing to deepen our bilateral partnership with the new administration as we address common challenges and issues of mutual interest."
(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Alan Crosby and James Dalgleish)