WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump Trump spoke to the prime ministers of Thailand and Singapore in separate phone calls about the North Korean threat and invited both of them to Washington, US officials said.
The discrete calls took place late Sunday and early Monday Thailand time, according to diplomatic sources.
No date was mentioned or set for the official trip to the White House by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the sources said.
In their phone chat, Trump and Gen Prayut reaffirmed their countries' commitment to one another and underscored their mutual desire for "peace and stability in the the Asia-Pacific region", according to the readout from the White House.
They "expressed a strong shared interest in strengthening the trade and economic ties between the two countries."
Trump also pledged his administration's commitment to "playing an active and leading role in Asia, in close cooperation with partners and allies like Thailand".
Gen Prayut expressed support for Washington's "constructive role" in the region during his conversation with the US president, deputy government spokesman Lt Gen Werachon Sukondhapatipak said on Monday.
The reason for the calls was North Korea. "They discussed ways to maintain diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea," one US official said of the calls, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"There is nothing right now facing this country and facing the region that is a bigger threat than what is happening in North Korea," White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told the US ABC network's Sunday news show, This Week.
"We need cooperation at some level with as many partners in the area as we can get to make sure that we have our ducks in a row."
White House officials told The New York Times the calls to Duterte, Lee and Gen Prayut were arranged after picking up signs that they felt neglected because of Trump's intense focus on China, Japan and tensions over North Korea.
Administration officials now are bracing for an avalanche of criticism from human rights groups over the Duterte and Prayut invitations.
Two senior officials said they expected the State Department and the National Security Council, both of which were caught off guard by the invitations, to raise objections internally.
It didn't take long to start.
"By essentially endorsing Duterte's murderous war on drugs, Trump is now morally complicit in future killings," said John Sifton, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "Although the traits of his personality likely make it impossible, Trump should be ashamed of himself."
Priebus said the planned conversations with Gen Prayut and his Singapore counterpart Lee Hsien Loong were prompted by the "potential for nuclear and massive destruction in Asia" and eventually in the United States.
Trump spoke to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte on Saturday about North Korea and his outreach to regional leaders aims to get "everyone in line backing up a plan of action" if the situation in North Korea deteriorates, Priebus said.
He added that Trump was in regular contact with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and that the president had become "very close" to Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Trump said after North Korea's latest failed rocket launch that communist leader Kim Jong-Un will eventually develop better missiles, and "we can't allow it to happen."
In a taped interview broadcast Sunday on CBS' Face the Nation, the president would not discuss the possibility of military action, saying: "It is a chess game. I just don't want people to know what my thinking is."
Trump on Saturday had a "friendly" call with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, and invited him to make an official visit to Washington.
The two discussed the threat of North Korea, the White House said after the call.
"It was a very friendly conversation, in which the two leaders discussed the concerns of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regarding regional security, including the threat posed by North Korea," the statement said.
The leaders also "discussed the fact that the Philippine government is fighting very hard to rid its country of drugs, a scourge that affects many countries throughout the world."
The White House said Trump "enjoyed the conversation" and looks forward to attending the key US-Asean and East Asia summits in the Philippines in November.
Meanwhile, Malacanang Palace also revealed that during the call, Trump confirmed his visit to the Philippines as he is committed to the Philippine-US alliance.
Trump expressed that he has an amiable working relationship with Duterte during the phone call, said Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella.
Separately, Trump's national security adviser, Army Lt Gen HR McMaster, said North Korea's most recent missile test represents "open defiance of the international community." He said North Korea poses "a grave threat," not just to the US and its Asian allies, but also to China.
Speaking on Fox News Sunday, McMaster said it is important "for all of us to confront this regime, this regime that is pursuing the weaponisation of a missile with a nuclear weapon."
"This is something that we know we cannot tolerate," McMaster said.
According to McMaster, the US is considering a range of options, from expanded economic sanctions to military operations, as it reaches out to allies in confronting North Korea's latest provocations.
North Korea's ballistic missile test early Saturday was in "open defiance" of the international community, and the risk to the US will not be tolerated, he said.
"We do have to do something" with partners in the region and globally "that involves enforcement of the UN sanctions that are in place," McMaster said on the Fox News programme.
"It may mean ratcheting up those sanctions even further. And it also means being prepared for military operations, if necessary."