Since being elected to the presidency in May, Rodrigo Duterte has brought the Philippines back into the American public interest — although not for positive reasons. Throughout his presidential campaign, Duterte promised the Filipino people that he would “cleanse the country of drug users and dealers by extrajudicial means,” and that he would assert Filipino dominance in the South China Sea by riding a water scooter to the Scarborough Shoal to plant the Philippine Flag. Less than six months into his tenure, Duterte has already followed through on one of these promises.
Duterte’s War on Drugs
Duterte began his campaign against drugs on June 30th, 2016, and has predominantly fought through the use of widespread extrajudicial killings. According to Duterte, these killings are necessary “to cleanse the streets of drug pushers.” In just four months, 2,300 people have been killed with 1,566 of those killings committed during police operations. Duterte has stated that he would be “happy to slaughter” drug users, comparing himself to Hitler and his anti-drug efforts to the Holocaust.
Duterte now faces new opposition from the International Criminal Court regarding his drug policies. The United States, the United Nations, and the European Union “have expressed concern over the extrajudicial killings and have urged the Philippines to live up to its human rights obligations.” The Philippines is party to the ICC and according to ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, the Court is monitoring the situation and is in the process of determining whether or not they can begin a preliminary investigation. Senator Leila De Lima has publicly spoken out against Duterte and has warned him that he cannot hide behind presidential immunity for human rights violations. Duterte has responded to these threats of international intervention, saying that he welcomes an investigation into his policies. However, he warns that he will outsmart investigators and will leave them humiliated.
The Philippines Pivots from its Alliances
Relations between the United States and the Philippines have soured over the last few months to say the least. In September, President Obama cancelled his scheduled one-on-one meeting with Duterte after Duterte publicly called President Obama a “son of a bitch.” Earlier this month, Duterte also said that President Obama “can go to hell” for refusing to continue to supply the Philippines with weapons. Duterte then threatened to turn to either China or Russia for arms sales instead of the United States.
On October 20th, Duterte officially announced that he is ending the Philippines’ relationship with the United States in favor of pursuing stronger relations with China. While in Beijing, Duterte stated, “I have separated from [the United States]. So, I will be dependent on [China] for all time. But do not worry. We will also help as you help us.” This decision to form a closer relationship with China comes at a surprising time. In July, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled against China on a case put forth by the Philippines regarding territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Xi Jinping, the President of China, has not accepted the ruling or the legitimacy of the court. Despite this conflict, the Philippines and China have recently signed a series of bilateral diplomatic agreements, regarding fishing, counternarcotics, and investment in infrastructure. The leaders chose not to discuss the issue of the South China Sea in last week’s meeting, but rather focused on “deep historical ties” between the two countries.
Duterte Still Popular
Despite his unpopularity abroad, Duterte is overwhelmingly popular within the Philippines. He won the May election “by a wide margin” and holds an 86% trust rating for this first 90 days in office. According to Filipino reporter Pia Randana Robles, “Duterte spoke in a very familiar way, with his cursing, his funny stories, his jokes, even his flirting with women. These all came across as very authentic, very human, not manufactured.” For his supporters, Duterte represents the everyday Filipino, 26% of whom live in poverty. Duterte has promised to protect the poor, and the Filipino people trust him to do so. He has been particularly popular among Filipino migrant workers and their families. Where the previous government hesitated to come to their aide, Duterte helped bring home 128 migrant workers from Saudi Arabia following the Saudi economic crisis, and in doing so became somewhat of a hero for the Filipino people.
Rodrigo Duterte may be rash and ill-spoken, but he is not as unpredictable as some people claim. The initiation of his drug war should not have come as a surprise to anyone. Duterte heavily advertised his interest in pursuing a drug war to solve the issue of addiction in the Philippines throughout his campaign. Further, Duterte may have surprised the public with his announcement of separation from the United States, but that relationship could still be salvaged. It will be difficult to find a middle ground between the interests of the two nations, but it must be done for the sake of regional security.