The international trade secretary, who will also visit Malaysia and Indonesia on his trip, said in an article published in local media that he wanted Britain to build a stronger relationship with the Philippines based on “a foundation of shared values and shared interests”.
As Fox visited the Philippines, Theresa May was in Saudi Arabia as part of a wider government effort to shore up the UK’s trading position after Brexit. Speaking to the BBC, she refused to criticise the government’s bombardment of Yemen, which is estimated to have killed more than 10,000 civilians and displaced more than 3 million people.
In the Philippines, Fox insisted that Brexit would broaden the UK’s outlook, arguing that the UK would emerge “a stronger, fairer, more united and more outward-looking nation”.
A Whitehall source told the Guardian that Fox had raised concerns during Monday’s Philippines visit and meeting with Duterte, whose nickname is “the Punisher”. They said the minister made clear that questions over human rights and corruption would act as a barrier to future trade opportunities.
Nevertheless, the meeting with Duterte, who has publicly encouraged civilians to kill drug addicts and is somewhat of an international pariah, received heavy criticism.
As Theresa May flew into Saudi Arabia, also as part of the government’s “Global Britain” initiative, Philip Hammond was in India to promote British business, while Boris Johnson met with the German foreign secretary, Sigmar Gabriel, in London.
But senior figures in Westminster alarmed by the trips to Saudi and the Philippines urged caution in the government’s drive to build closer economic links further afield.
Harriet Harman, the Labour MP who chairs parliament’s joint committee on human rights, said the government should never sacrifice core British principles when seeking new relationships. “There is a real danger that in our desperation to conclude trade deals respect for human rights, which is in every EU contract, will just go out of the window,” she told the Guardian. “The government must not let that happen.”
The prime minister said her “May doctrine” was to do everything in the British national interest, including snapping up trade opportunities that could bring “jobs and prosperity to the UK”. She said a separate focus of her trip to Saudi was counter-terrorism cooperation, and insisted she always promoted British values.
The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, called on May to put human rights at the “centre of her talks” in the region, pointing out that a Saudi-led coalition bombing Yemen had left thousands dead and millions in need of humanitarian help.
The shadow trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, warned about Fox’s “association” with Duterte, who has said he personally killed criminalsduring his 22 years as a mayor of Davao city, including throwing one suspect to his death from a helicopter.
Gardiner said: “We want to expand trade with countries all around the world and it is right that the government should be pursuing that vigorously. But the thing you have to be very careful about is that we do not sacrifice fundamental principles in the process. It is frankly shocking that Liam Fox in his speech in the Philippines talked about the shared common values that we have.
“I’m sorry, but we do not have these shared common values with President Duterte who wants to bring back the death penalty and lower the age of criminal responsibility to nine.”
The Philippines’ international relations have become strained under Duterte. He lashed out at the UN for criticising him, labelling the body “stupid”, and he called former US president Barack Obama a “son of a whore”.
Last month, he warned the EU not to “fuck with us” after the European parliament passed a resolution expressing “grave concern over credible reports” that Philippine police were engaged in extrajudicial killings, a claim officers strongly deny.
The resolution also referenced Duterte’s open threats to kill human rights campaigners.
Fox said in his article that the UK and Philippines have a “well-established and strong relationship built on a foundation of shared values and shared interests and we want this partnership to continue to flourish”.
He added that Philippine firms and investors should know the UK remains “open for business”, according the article, which the British embassy in Manila posted on Twitter. Philippine companies have invested over £1bn into the UK since 2014, it added.
Fox’s department was created after the EU referendum in an attempt to secure trade deals with non-EU countries.
On the same day Theresa May trigged article 50, Fox wrote an article in the UK’s Express newspaper detailing his vision for a “truly global Britain”.
He wrote: “From Australia to China, old friends and new allies alike are queuing up to renew their trading relationships with Britain.”
The Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, Tom Brake, said: “Duterte is one of the 21st century’s most sinister leaders and Liam Fox has flown halfway around the world to grovel to him. The fact that the first visit made by Fox since triggering article 50 is to the Philippines shows just how low this government is willing to stoop in order to secure even a minimal trade deal in the future.
“No amount of pandering to corrupt regimes can replace our membership of the single market, which is why the Liberal Democrats will continue to fight against the hard, divisive Brexit this government is pursuing.”
A DIT spokesperson said: “The UK has a well established and strong relationship with the countries of south-east Asia. While in the region, the international trade secretary is meeting government representatives and addressing hundreds of businesses and trade associations.
“We do not shy away from confronting barriers to trade and investment – including issues of human rights and corruption. Greater knowledge and understanding of one another will increase our ability to address those issues that concern us.”
Meanwhile in London, Boris Johnson and his German counterpart gave contrasting accounts of talks on the Brexit process. Speaking at a press conference afterwards, Gabriel said that having no deal “is not the best deal for Britain and the European Union” – but added that he believed “the burden for the Brits is higher than for the Europeans”.
But Johnson restated his claim that Britain would be fine without a deal, saying: “If you ask me ‘If we don’t get a deal would the UK survive?’ I think we would more than survive.”