The political and security situations in Southeast Asia are undergoing significant churning in the past few months. What is noteworthy is that despite scoring a significant victory at the international court of arbitration on 12 July over its claims over some portions of the contested South China Sea, Philippines under President Duterte is pursuing a kind of policy both at home and abroad that challenges the established norms of state policy and also challenges the ethos of ASEAN unity. Since coming to power in May 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte is “confronting a paradox of power”, as described by Richard Javad Heydarian of De La Salle University, wherein he not only attempts to radically reform and revitalise the country’s emaciated institutions in his own way but also strengthening his grip on the country’s political system even though the means adopted are something akin to those pursued by the former President Ferdinand Marcos and therefore disapproved by the civilised world. This makes Duterte the country’s post powerful president since the fall of Marco regime.
In the foreign policy front, he has not hesitated to offend the US by undermining Philippines’ policy towards that country and also dared to utter insulting words to President Barack Obama. His use of words such as “putang ina’ (son of bitch) and ‘you can go to hell’ on Obama are certainly not civilized expressions and deserve to be universally condemned. Not only that; he has initiated measures to downgrade the security ties with the US, at a time when other ASEAN member nations are shivering under the shadow of China’s military might and seeking collective means to cope with this challenge by endorsing Obama’s “pivot to Asia” policy. Duterte’s singlehanded approach threatens to nullify the region’s collective approach on how to address the region’s security challenges.
Attack on drugs
Domestically, he has launched an era of terror by launching ruthless means to deal against drugs. He has reduced the legislature wherein he enjoys a ‘super majority’ into a presidential rubber stamp, besides defanging the underfunded judiciary by taking upon himself in dealing against drugs with the intention to expose the inefficiency of the judiciary, even though that meant resorting to extra-judicial measures. He has also not hesitated to launch a charm offensive with the armed forces and law enforcement agencies by virtue of being the commander-in-chief. In order to further legitimise his authority and obtain compliance of the judiciary, Durtete is soon to appoint majority of Supreme Court justices with clear intention to further enhance the executive’s influence over the judiciary, thereby consolidating his authoritarianism.
As a part of his charm offensive, he provided better compensation, equipment, training and legal protection to the Philippine National Police (PNP) to make them enabler in his fight against crimes. He also promised better health benefits and emergency care, doubling the salaries and taking care of the families of the country’s armed forces with a view to end the historical tense relations between the armed forces and the government. By taking the police and the armed forces on board, Duterte feels emboldened to launch his drive against the country’s illegal drugs and organised crime for which he has already earned applause when he was the Mayor of Davao City before catapulting to the Presidency. Surprisingly, notwithstanding his authoritarian rule and determined policy of putting to an end to the drug by executing many of those involved in either possession of or trade in drugs, Duterte enjoys 91 per cent of trust rating recorded in a July poll among the electorate, the highest on record. It remains unclear if Duterte’s brand of leadership, seen as synonymous with autocratic by certain quarter, can remain sustained for long, though for now his determined crackdown on drug-pushers seems to have support of large section of the population. Duterte’s war on drugs, coupled with policy of diplomatic confrontation with the West, had already a telling effect on the country’s stock market for fear of growing political uncertainty.
The question that arises is: why do Filipinos support Duterte’s extra-judicial killings and his avowed brutality in executing his promise to stamp out criminality? Within months of assuming power, the rate of extra-judicial killings linked to his anti-drug campaign spiralled. The police had a free run in eliminating those involved in drug related crimes and many just disappeared under unknown circumstances.
The reason for public approval could be that Duterte’s measures offer a greater sense of public security as Filipinos were weary of high crime rates in the country and feel safe under Duterte’s regime. Now muggings and pickpocketing are things of the past and left-oriented organisations are scared of resorting to violent means to seek answers to their demands. Methamphetamine, the most common drug, called shabu is off the shelf.
Walking at night is now safe. Driving speed is now complied with the prescribed speed. Traffic accidents have come down. Thus far, limited political elite had garnered much economic rent, depriving the majority of the people of the benefits. Duterte is just ending this uneven distribution of the nation’s wealth by corrective measures. Hereafter, politicians caught pilfering public funds but escaped punishments by leveraging their influence are no longer safe.
Dutarte may have been encashing on his strongman populism by cracking down on the drug mafia and executing at will, but his conduct of dealing has raised concern by the international community from the perspective of human rights violations and jeopardising judicial/legal process in dispensing justice. He has also earned the dubious reputation of being foul-mouthed in utter disregard to diplomatic niceties. First he insulted the US ambassador to Philippines, then the President himself and again later the European Union Commission with use of un-parliamentary language. As regards the European Commission, he said “better choose purgatory, hell is filled up”.
Families of many of those killed say that the state-sponsored violence is unjustified. They say that only poor Filipinos seldom given the chance to defend themselves from accusations are the victims, while the rich have ways to escape. The Human Rights Watch in Asia accuses that the vast majority of those killed are not wealthy and powerful drug lords having meaningful control over supply of drugs on the streets of the Philippines are as active as before.
Recasting foreign policy
While Duterte seems to have taken control of his policy at home, his conduct of foreign policy has much to be desired and controversial too. Duterte asked foreign countries, including the US, not to meddle in Manila’s affairs and withdraw their forces from the Philippines. As part of the security arrangement between the US and the Philippines, army personnel of both the countries – some 1,400 US soldiers from Washington’s base in Okinawa, Japan, and some 500 Philippine army personnel in the 33rd iteration of the Philippines – were engaged in the Amphibious Landing Exercises (PHIBLEX33) from 4 to 12 October at multiple locations on the island of Luzon and the Province of Palawan between the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea. The war games included joint amphibious landing drills, live-fire training and humanitarian civil assistance exercises. The drills are reportedly designed to advance military cooperation, improve interoperability and help strengthen bilateral military capabilities.
Though the manoeuvres were the first between the two countries since Duterte came to power, he categorically announced that this “would be the last”. His Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana echoed Durtete by saying that Philippines “can live without [US] assistance. The decision to announce this was a clear demonstration of breaking away from the military cooperation with the US. Even Philippines Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay went further by saying Manila is “compelled to realign” its foreign policy and not submit to US demands. He was candid in saying that Philippines would seek to engage with China while not being too close such as was with Washington. It seems Duterte is allowing himself to fall into trap created by Beijing without realising the long-term consequences to the Philippines and implications for the region’s future by becoming too cosy with China.
Much to the worry of the rest of Asia, Duterte not only cancelled joint patrols with the US in the contested waters of the South China Sea, he is making the victory achieved at The Hague tribunal on the South China Sea in its favour over China by deepening military cooperation with the Asian juggernaut. Though he is expected to visit China on 19 October and promised to talk with the Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on one-to-one basis the tribunal’s verdict of July 12, it is unclear what exactly he would talk. Since he shall also be accompanied by a business delegation, he is expected to discuss business deals too. It is possible to know his mind when he visits Japan soon after his China visit. Duterte is also likely to visit Russia soon. From these, one can infer that his foreign policy strategy is undergoing perceptive churning, significance of which is difficult to judge at the moment. This much is sure that by reviewing the country’s foreign policy towards the US and reaching out to China, Duterte is bringing in a new element of realism, the implications of which could be problematic for the rest of Asia as political and security issues are no longer state-centric but have regional focus. ASEAN as a regional organisation must be feeling the heat, first by the manner in which Cambodia played the bad boy role at the EAS summit in Laos and now Philippines under Duterte.
Looking for other options?
What could be the reasons that led Dutrete to opt for a pause in his country’s military cooperation with the US? Does he have a better option already or searching for one? While analysts search for verifiable answers, one thing seems clear that Philippines’ military cooperation with the US is history now, at least till Duterte remains in power. Philippines’ military cooperation had deepened during President Benigno Aquino III, Duterte’s predecessor. While one view is that the shift in policy indicates Duterte’s desire to be seen as a nationalist, another interpretation is that Philippines could be looking for new military partnerships. The logical question that arises is who could be such new partners?
Until Duterte took power, Philippines-US relationship had grown stronger over the years, the latest being the Enhanced Defense Coordination Agreement (ECDA) signed in 2014 that gave the US more access to Philippine bases, which Philippines cannot built on its own. This has remained as the cornerstone of cooperation between Philippines and the US in recent times. Increasing ties with China would undermine the original intent of the agreement. The US military also had a counter-terrorism presence, originally part of Operation Enduring Freedom, on the Philippine island of Mindanao since 2002. It is possible that when after Duterte’s crackdown on drugs raised sharp objections from Western government and human rights organisations, Duterte started looking for military partners elsewhere. Duterte probably was also encouraged by the popular support received as a result of falling crime rates, thereby strengthening his “strongman” reputation.
One possible alternative to the US is to strengthening ties with both China and Russia. Duterte sees both these countries as potential sources for acquiring military equipment. With this objective, Duterte is likely to dispatch top defence personnel to Moscow and Beijing to discuss potential deals soon. The question that begs an answer is, why Duterte tries to be cosy with China, which seized the Scarborough Shoal, a lagoon formerly under the Philippines control, in 2012 and even after getting a favourable verdict from the international tribunal over its claims to South China Sea?
The tribunal categorically ruled that China’s “historical claims” are invalid, thereby the verdict seen as a victory for the Philippines. One possible explanation behind Duterte’s change of attitude and policy could be that he was not happy with the kind of support received from the US compared to the kind of support the US extended to Japan and therefore Duterte felt that US did little to defend when Philippines’ interests were involved vis-à-vis Japan. Therefore, Duterte wants to test if Philippines could protect and defend itself without the US support even before securing support from either China or Russia or both. Such an approach seems to be a serious gamble and Duterte is taking Philippines’ into an uncertain future.
Anni Piiparinen, assistant director of the Cyber Statecraft Initiative at the Atlantic Council, argues that Duterte is shrewd in crafting his foreign policy strategy that has the long term goal of strengthening relations with the US, which is why he is pitting one superpower against the other with the hope of striking better deals or negotiating positions with the US, rather than a real shift in foreign policy. But one could see more loss than gain in adopting such a foreign policy course. According to Piiparinen, if Duterte strengthens ties with China, it would threaten Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia”, that aimed to expand the US footprint in Southeast Asia as a bulwark against expanding Chinese influence. There would be compelling reasons for other member nations of the ASEAN grouping as well as Japan and other stakeholders to revisit their strategic postures in the region.
Duterte seems is frustrated when the US objected to his violent crackdown on drug trafficking in the Philippines. As a nation upholding rules of law at the global stage, the US could not approve Duterte’s extrajudicial killings of drug peddlers and probably human rights abuses by his supporters even though such a policy helped him strengthen his domestic constituency. Duterte seems was not bothered if he created enemies on the international stage because of his draconian laws and authoritarian policies. If the Philippines-US relationship breaks down, as it seems owing to Duterte’s harsh rhetoric and loose use of words that are unacceptable in diplomatic parlance, “the US might begin to seek stronger alliances elsewhere in the region”.
The strategic dividend unleashed from Duterte’s revisiting of major policies are likely to be redistributed in which some countries may emerge winners while some would be losers. As an immediate loser, Philippines would be the first as navigating the country’s policies away from the US and towards China/Russia would take some time to achieve success, if at all. The rest of ASEAN member states would too find it tough and challenging to maintain ASEAN solidarity and its ethos, the fulcrum of Asian economic prosperity so far. How to win back members such as Cambodia, Laos and now Thailand from China’s fold would be a gigantic task for the ASEAN.
The major gainer would be China. China would be tempted to negotiate a bilateral deal with Duterte on the South China Sea as it gets now a new opportunity that it can capitalise to unbalance the US rebalance. There would be new way and the manner to deal with the South China Sea issue. Vietnam, a strong contender of its claim, would find it tough as it would lose one of its supporters. In the process, China would have further strengthened its position on the South China Sea. Since Duterte is brutal and volatile at the same time, consistency in policy could be a casualty. That makes the future of the South China Sea uncertain.
China had lost its face after the ruling by The Hague tribunal and was looking for redeeming its lost prestige in an aggressive backlash. Such fears now are rested because Duterte offers a new twist to the South China Sea issue and China would find less embarrassing to swallow the humiliation inflicted by the tribunal. Now Duterte becomes a game-changer that pleases China but much to the discomfiture of the rest of ASEAN states.
Now that Obama is in the twilight of his second and final term, it is to be seen how Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, either of whom becomes the next President, would deal with the maverick Duterte. If it is Hillary, keeping the alliance relationship would be a tough job; if it is Trump, he may as well retort “go to hell” and declare the alliance dead. Beijing would be too happy at this turn of event and would smell success of extending its strategic space in another frontier. Duterte is unwilling to offer base to the US because in the event of any conflict erupting in the region, the consequences could be disastrous to Manila as the base would be the target of the rival troops and therefore not having any base for the troops is a better option.
Secondly, Duterte is not too concerned with the tribunal’s verdict as the arbitration case was not launched by him and therefore feels less burdened to uphold it. Thirdly, Philippines is more concerned about fishing rights and oil and gas potentials in the disputed area and less bothered about international navigation. The combination of the three factors is driving Duterte’s external policy. As a result, China now gets a platform from where it can now play a safe and undisturbed game to expand its strategic space by flexing military muscle and using money power. Duterte has brought in a new kind of politics whose implications are going to be far reaching.