Who is Rodrigo Duterte and what does his Presidency mean for Asia-Pacific Relations?

Who is Rodrigo Duterte and what does his Presidency mean for Asia-Pacific Relations?

The recent election of the controversial President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has concerned many worldwide, particularly the US. These concerns have been mainly due to his bloody crackdown on drug dealers and users in the conflict stricken nation. President Duterte has instructed military and police to kill anyone involved in the drug trade in any capacity.

He has even encouraged citizens to carry out extrajudicial killings of drug pushers and users.  Additionally, his friendliness towards the New People's Army, a communist insurgent group, has also alarmed many. His anti-US rhetoric, openness towards China, and ending of decades long military exercises between the US has also alarmed American leaders as to what the future between the two nations will be, especially in a dire time when China is expanding in the region.

Prior to the 2016 presidential election, most of the world hadn't heard of the tough, anti-crime Mayor of Davao City, nicknamed “The Punisher” because of his no tolerance drug policy. Now he is the leader of a nation that is pivotal to ensuring that China does not gobble up all of Asia. His predecessor, Beningo Aquino III, had made great strides in working with the US, Australia, and Japan on collective security policies to deter Chinese aggression.

Now it seems that Dutarte is threatening to dismantle that process and make a full 180 degree turn on foreign policy. This begs to question: Is Duterte a threat to stability in the region, or are all his statements bluster to get attention? Who is Rodrigo “The Punisher” Duterte and what will his presidency mean for the region?

Mayor of Davao

In 1986, he became the Vice Mayor of Davao City and in 1988, he was elected mayor, a position he would hold from 1988 until he became president in 2016, with the exception of two short intervals in between, both of which were due to term limits. The first of which he served as a congressman from 1998 to 2001, representing Davao's 1st district. He again took office as mayor from 2001-2010 and was succeeded by his daughter, Sara, where he served as her Vice Mayor, but was essentially still in control. He took office a third time in 2013 and where he switched positions with Sara and served as Vice Mayor. Duterte would serve this term until he became President in 2016 only to be succeeded, yet again by his daughter. Her vice mayor is Duterte's son, Paolo. One can easily see the immense amount of nepotism in the history of this city.

The people of Davao however have enthusiastically elected Duterte and his family members to positions of power for decades. The reason being that he brought order and stability to the city that was rampant with crime before he took office. He has done so by implementing strict laws and ordinances as well as allowing vigilante groups, particularly the “Davao Death Squad”, to commit extrajudicial killings of alleged criminals. Human rights groups have reported that over 1,400 criminals and street children have been killed as a result of these death squads. In 2015, Duterte openly admitted his direct connections to the Davao Death Squad and vowed to kill 100,000 more criminals if he was elected President. Despite his controversial behavior, the people of his city and other cities in the region have been stalwart supporters of his no tolerance policy. When Duterte announced his presidency, Visayans, who are spread throughout central and southern Philippines came out in droves to support him. His strongman tactics and tough talk led him to a sweeping victory against his more moderate opponents.

Drug War

No one expected Duterte to win in such a landslide victory when the election season started, especially since he jumped in so late.

During his campaign, he called for an unprecedented crackdown on drugs nationwide, in the same manner as it had occurred when he was mayor of Davao City. Since taking office, over 4,400 individuals have been killed from both legitimate police operations and vigilante style killings. Duterte has also called for the killing of all drug pushers and users. This has scared over 748,000 individuals in surrendering to authorities. It is yet to be seen whether this drug war will end the rampant drug trade in the Philippines, as well as bring peace to the streets.

Some argue that the legal system is too corrupt and intertwined with criminal enterprises to capture and try those involved in the drug trade. Therefore the only solution, they say, is to eliminate everyone involved. This may be true, but Duterte's actions are startling to say the least, and may result in him targeting his political opponents by claiming they are linked with the drug trade. This could lead down a path of Duterte becoming an absolute dictator, but that is yet to be seen.

Connections to Communist Groups

A major policy position that Duterte has held was that he wanted to end the Communist insurgency in the Philippines that has been occurring since 1969. On August 21st, Duterte restored the government's unilateral ceasefire with the NPA. He has also appointed 5 communists to hold cabinet positions in his government.

Furthermore, Duterte invited Jose Maria Sison, the exiled leader of the New People's Army (NPA), back to the Philippines to have a final peace. The ironic fact is that Sison is is former college professor and both stayed in contact for years before Duterte taking office. Whether these actions are a genuine attempt by Duterte to end a long standing insurgency (like that of the current peace process in Columbia with FARC) or whether he has the intentions of assisting the Communist groups is not yet known. His peace proposal could strain relations with him and the military who have suffered massive casualties to the Marxist militants. Whatever his intentions are, it lifts a red flag for those who have been fighting against the violent left wing extremists for decades.

Distance from US and warming up to China

Under the Aquino administration and his predecessors, the US and the Philippines had coordinated closely to eliminate Islamic terrorist groups such as Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah in the Philippines' southernmost island, Mindanao. From 2002 to 2015, the US had special forces operating alongside the Philippine Army to eliminate the leadership of these groups and minimize their capacity to carry out attacks in the region. Operation Freedom Eagle, as it was called, was largely successful in neutralizing large elements of these groups. At its height, the US had 600 military personnel involved in this operation. Freedom Eagle ended last year, with most of the special forces leaving except a small number of advisors.

In addition to counter-terror efforts, the US and Philippine military have coordinated in patrolling the disputed South China Sea (or West Philippine Sea to the Philippines) because of Chinese territorial expansion in the region. Since the Chinese seizure of the Scarborough Shoal in 2012, relations between the Philippines and China have dropped sharply. The construction of military grade facilities on the dredged man made islands has been the cause of concern for the US and the Philippines. The threat of China controlling major trade routes and jeopardizing freedom of navigation has driven numerous countries to ramp up their military spending and coordinate in order to prevent China from dominating the region. 

Since Dutarte has taken office, he has put on an extremely anti-US tone, souring the once close ties that had existed between the two countries since the Philippines’ independence from the US. Duterte has taken some positions that could jeopardize the gains that have been made against Islamic terror groups and Chinese military expansion. He has flip-flopped on those positions numerous times leaving the weary observer to wonder where he actually stands, only to finally solidify his position of permanently distancing himself from the US.

On September 12th, Duterte openly said that he is “not a fan of the Americans.” He demanded that small number of US military advisors that have remained in Mindinao to assist the Philippine Army to leave. Duterte claims that the presence of the US troops has been the cause of the continuation of hostilities. The following day, he stated that the Philippines should pursue an “independent foreign policy” in accordance with the constitution. His administration clarified, however, that it would continue to honor the Visiting Forces agreement and Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. Then on September 20th, Duterte said “I never said get out of the Philippines, for after all, we need them there in the China Sea. We don’t have armaments.”, backtracking on his original statement. 

Later that month though, on the 27th of September, after numerous statements from President Obama and other US officials condemning his ruthless drug war, Duterte went back to his original anti-US rhetoric and threatened to “cross the rubicon” with the US and form new alliances with China and Russia in trade and commerce. He then went on to proclaim that the Balikatan military exercises would be ceased after this year, in order to avoid “provoking” China.

These exercises have been in place ever since the US and the Philippines signed the Visiting Forces agreement in 1998. They had never been provoking to China as they were a continuation of military relations after Subic Bay was given over to the Philippines. This was simply a pretext for Duterte's move away from the United States. Duterte then furthered his agenda by saying this month that he would purchase weapons from China and Russia from now on, as he accused the US of refusing to sell armaments to him. The latest and most damning of statements by Duterte was his speech on the October 20th, at his summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping where he announced his “separation” from the United States and realignment towards China.

He further said that he would resolve the South China Sea Dispute through talks, which will ultimately lead to China controlling everything and the Philippines getting nothing. Duterte has essentially paved the way for the Philippines to become a Chinese vassal state. The ICC tribunal case which resulted in a resounding victory for the Philippines, led to the international community recognizing the Scarborough Shoal as a legitimate part of Philippine territory. Now it seems all of that has been for nothing and Duterte has jeopardized Asia-Pacific relations, as well as the ability to prevent China from dominating the region and one of the most important global trade routes in the world.

Conclusion

Rodrigo Duterte is an enigma. His policy shifts show complete inconsistencies and don't match up with any type of political norm. He truly is a wild card. Duterte's behavior and policies have led this author to the conclusion that he is one of three things: a strategic genius in consolidating power, a patriot who loves his country and is doing his best to bring justice and peace to the Philippines, or completely insane.

In any case, he is setting a dangerous precedent with his bloody drug war, consolidation towards communist groups, and complete policy shift away from the US and pivot to China. “The Punisher” has only been in office for three and a half months, so the world has yet to see what he will bring to the table, but in a time when global events are extremely volatile, another radical despot is the last thing that is needed.

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