Bangkok: Photographs splashed in the Philippine media of Australia's top overseas spy Nick Warner meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte have raised concerns about Canberra's engagement with the region.
Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne later defended Australia's efforts to step-up engagement with south-east Asia where political and other freedoms have stalled under increasingly authoritarian governments.
The United Nations has accused Mr Duterte, a boastful, foul-mouthed former provincial mayor, of presiding over a so-called war on drugs that could amount to crimes against humanity.
The meeting between Mr Warner and Mr Durerte at the presidential palace in Manila came a day after Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had said Australia was "deeply concerned" about an escalation of the crackdown which has left more than 12,000 Filipinos dead.
Mr Warner, the only member of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service whose identity can be revealed - but whose activities are rarely made public - was seen in the photographs making a fist-bump to the camera with Mr Duterte.
The palace described the meeting as a "courtesy call" and the two men "touched in regional security issues and declaration of mutual support".
Ms Bishop told a press conference on Thursday it was the President's idea to be photographed fist-pumping with Mr Warner.
But Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch, said "I think a picture like this really does tend to sort of suggest Australia's tacit support for these killings".
"It's sickening the head of Australia's spy agency would pose for a photo effectively fist-pumping a leader who has instigated the killing of thousands of people in the so-called war on drugs," she said.
"It really adds insult to injury to the Filipino victims and to the families of those who've been murdered in cold blood as part of this campaign."
During a visit to Thailand, where the military that toppled an elected government in 2014 has repeatedly delayed promises of a return to democracy, Ms Payne told Fairfax Media "we can't walk away from the region."
"While we are not always of the same mind with governments with which we are engaging but that doesn't mean we don't engage," she said.
Making the first official visit by an Australian defence minister since the coup to Thailand, Ms Payne said it is increasingly important for regional countries and their allies like Australia to "help each other out" amid fears that Islamic extremists will attempt to establish bases in the region after being pushed out of the Middle East.
Ms Payne met Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former general whose government has ruled with an iron-fist since 2014.
She will also travel to Laos and Vietnam, where communist governments brutally brutally repress critics.
Ms Pearson said the visit by Ms Payne and another by Ms Bishop to Bangkok two weeks ago are sending the wrong message at a time when repression and basic civil liberties are intensifying in Thailand.
"Australia should be insisting Thailand stop arresting and imprisoning critics, lift the ban on political parties and permit peaceful democratic discourse, and revoke its draconian measures restricting speech and barring public assemblies of more than five people," she said.
Amid rising tensions in Thailand Mr Prayuth's government are blocking supporters of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra from massing in Bangkok ahead of a verdict on Friday in a negligence case over a rice subsidy scheme before the military toppled her government.
Ms Yingluck could face up to 10 years jail.
A conviction is likely to stoke deep divisions in Thailand between Bangkok's royalists and elite and people in rural areas loyal to Ms Yingluck and her elder exiled brother Thaksin Shinawatra.