You Handle a Problem Like Rodrigo Duterte?
September 16, 2016 "Information
- Awkwardly, apparently.
facts surrounding Philippine President Rodrigo
Duterte's awkward estrangement from the United
States seem to produce some awkward reporting.
I have a piece up at Asia Times about
“Sonofawhore-gate” i.e. Philippine President
Rodrigo Duterte’s alleged insult delivered
to President Obama that got the
Duterte-Obama confab in Laos canceled, and
was breathlessly reported in much of the
Western press to the exclusion of the issues
Duterte was raising:
Truth and Duterte in Media Crosshairs.
it. Repeatedly! Tweet it! And tell your
family and friends. Gotta build traffic.
langniappe, it provides a deep dive into
what was apparently the most important issue
in US-China relations, “Stairgate”, the
cock-up with the delivery of the motorized
stairs needed for President Obama to deplane
from Air Force One at the G20 meeting in
Hangzhou in the proper presidential fashion.
Probably unfairly—I don’t read all the
coverage—but I feel reporting on Duterte has
been pretty shallow in terms of explaining
his attitude toward the US presence in the
Philippines. Seems I’ve pretty much held
that corner alone.
[Update: Reader GW pointed me
fine piece by Adele Webb of the
University of Sydney on the same theme. So
I do not have this corner all to
story short, the American presence in
Duterte’s home ground of Mindanao has been a
115 year horror show that Duterte is trying
to end. The most recent iteration is
Duterte’s declaration that he wants all U.S.
Special Forces removed from Mindanao.
Duterte has appalled the United States not
only by criticizing the US presence, but by
engaging bilaterally with China on the
issues brought to a head by the UNCLOS
arbitral award instead of doing that
shoulder-to-shoulder Pivot Thunder! thing to
confront the PRC as part of a
US-orchestrated united front.
written some pretty nifty pieces on the
issues surrounding Duterte and the US:
another one! focusing on the under-reported
consequences of Duterte’s drug war.
Duterte’s first priority is the drug war
which is reported in the Western press
primarily through the lens of the vigilante
keep the frame on Duterte’s excesses in a
way that makes it easier for Human Rights
Watch to flay his policies as “death squads
run amok for no justifiable reason”, there
have been interesting attempts to
dismiss the Philippine drug problem as no
But apparently it really is a
big deal in terms of its social costs
(the Philippines has the highest rate of
meth use in East Asia), multinational
implications (Philippine mules are getting
executed in China and in Indonesia, the
Sinaloa cartel has even started exploring
the Philippine as a market and source of
material), and as a driver for corruption of
Philippine government and security forces
that reaches up to the highest level.
actual story is that Duterte is not only
using the threat of summary executions to
round up addicts and pushers; he’s naming
names, both of cartel leaders and the
national and local politicians and officers
who shelter them. It’s a rather thrilling
high stakes game—allegations emerged this
week that the bombing in Davao that killed
14 people and was apparently an
assassination attempt on Duterte was
actually conducted by threatened
narcopoliticians, not the Abu Sayyaf
Islamist banditti—but the US press has
apparently shown little interest in covering
haven’t seen a lot of reporting on the fact
that Duterte’s drug war necessitates deeper
PRC-Philippine engagement in several
of all, the Philippine drug trade—primarily
meth, locally known as shabu—is
dominated by Chinese Triads by virtue of the
fact that the large and poorly regulated PRC
drug industry is a ready source of the
intermediates needed to make the drug and
also by the fact that Triads are deeply
embedded in the major Chinese-diaspora
presence in Filipino society. The PRC has a
lot to offer in terms of tighter enforcement
on the mainland and perhaps in using its
good offices to encourage crackdowns in a
key Triad operational base, Hong Kong.
other hand, the PRC can make life difficult
for Duterte if it wants to, by turning a
blind eye to the export-oriented meth
trade. So there you have it.
Duterte made his expectations concerning PRC
assistance quite clear by
summoning the PRC ambassador back in
The Philippines government
said on Wednesday it had summoned the
Chinese ambassador earlier this week to
explain reports that traffickers were
bringing in narcotics from China, opening a
new front in President Rodrigo Duterte’s
controversial war on drugs.
On Tuesday, the country’s
police chief told a Senate hearing that
China, Taiwan and Hong Kong were major
sources of illegal drugs, and Chinese triads
were involved in trafficking.
Foreign Affairs Secretary
Perfecto Yasay told a Senate hearing on
Wednesday that the Chinese ambassador had
been summoned for an explanation, and the
government would also send a diplomatic
communication to Beijing to “pursue this in
a more aggressive note.”
Another area of potential Philippine-PRC
cooperation is PRC assistance in a crash
program to rehabilitate the Philippine drug
users who have turned themselves in to the
police to avoid getting targeted by the
virtually unreported in the Western media,
over 700,000 users have turned themselves
repeat that. 700,000 drug users have turned
they presumably need to get a clean "rehab"
chit to live safely in their communities,
presenting a major challenge for the
Philippines drug rehabilitation
infrastructure. Duterte has called on the
Philippine military to make base acreage
available for additional rehab camps and the
first one will apparently be at Camp Ramon
There’s an amusing wrinkle here.
Magsaysay is the largest military
reservation in the Philippines. It is also
the jewel in the diadem, I might say, of the
five Philippine bases envisioned for US use
under EDCA, the Enhanced Defence Cooperation
Agreement that officially returned US troops
to Philippine bases. It looks like the US
military might be sharing Magsaysay with
thousands of drug users…and PRC construction
expect the Pentagon is quietly fuming at
Duterte is understandably leaning on China
to assist him with his drug war. The
Philippine establishment may or may not be
thoroughly corrupted by drug money, but it’s
probably happy to restrain him by
slowwalking legislation related to the
although the United States quickly
“committed” $32 million for “law enforcement
and training”, who knows when and if it’ll
show up and where it will end up. I also
get a feeling the US wouldn’t mind seeing
Duterte and his drug war fall on their *sses,
so the civilian and military Philippine
establishment could get back to its main
mission of pleasing the United States and
returning to a pivot-centric foreign policy.
Duterte is going executive decree, and
twisting China’s arm to get quick, effective
“facts on the ground” i.e. rehab camps. I
suspect the camps are absolutely essential
to Duterte’s plan; if he can’t process the
users, he’ll have to leave them in their
communities and the drug war will be
revealed as a damp squib and a farce—unless
the death squads are up to massacring
another 700,000 people, which I think is
beyond even their murderous capabilities.
looks like Duterte thinks that the UNCLOS
ruling could be put to better use extorting
Chinese cooperation to house an army of drug
addicts, instead of gratifying the United
States by a futile attempt to evict the PRC
from Scarborough Shoal (the PRC, by the way,
appears to be allowing Filipino fishing
boats to work the shoal, at least for now).
immense social and political upheaval
concerning drugs and highlighting the
interdependency of China and the Philippines
is apparently not really worth reporting,
since the designated US theme is that the
existential issue for Asia is meeting the
military threat of rising China by a big
reboot of the US presence in the
government and US-friendly Western press may
be unhappy with Duterte and his tilt away
from the US, but finding a news hook to
demonize him is a little difficult.
one thing, the way the US and Aquino
administration structured EDCA
oh-so-cleverly to avoid legislative review
apparently put control of implementation
completely in the hands of the President of
the Philippines--who turned out not to be a
pliable member of the Manila set but Rodrigo
Duterte. If the US gets too pointed in its
criticism, US access to bases in the
Philippines, a cherished US objective since
the eviction of US forces in 1993 and an
important chess piece in the South China
Sea, might get restricted.
Secondly, Duterte is a non-socialist
business-is-business guy whose election was,
as we say, free and fair. So the
“Philippines’ Putin/Chavez/Assad” frame
doesn’t fit very well.
Duterte is popular thanks to his
whole-hearted prosecution of the drug war.
His approvals are up in the 80s I believe.
Fourth, the US record in the Philippines is
genuinely god-awful. The mission that the
United States wants to focus on—what I call
the sailor suit/battleship/yo ho ho
democracy and freedom confronting China in
the SCS—is a small fraction of the reality
of the US presence in the Philippines and
its corrupting penetration of the
Philippines’ military and security forces
and the Manila elite. Doing a deep dive
into America’s Duterte problem means
acknowledging that the US presence in the
Philippines recapitulates the Indian Wars,
Vietnam, and Iraq: a gigantic and bloody
need, I think, to trouble the beautiful
minds of American readers with the
realization that Duterte’s tilt away from
the US is completely understandable and
expect the roots of Duterte’s problems with
the United States will not get a
particularly extensive and honest airing in
the Western press.
However, I expect alternative reporting
frames have to be developed to guide a
bewildered readership if Duterte persists in
twisting America’s bayag.
has been some road-testing of “Duterte is a
paid-for Chinese stooge” to explain his
otherwise inexplicable lack of America love
and willingness to go bilateral engagement
with the PRC, but that doesn’t seem to have
acquired sufficient legs.
government and press seems to be settling
into the “Philippines’ Donald Trump” mode
i.e. Duterte is an unstable reactionary goon
unfit for the high mission of sustaining the
rules-based international order that’s all
the vogue these days, and blind to the fact
that in the age of rising China the
Philippines has no space to run a
non-aligned foreign policy.
best way to understand Duterte is to listen
to him in his own words sans filter.
the video of his infamous press conference
before he embarked to Laos (in my AT article
I incorrectly placed the presser at Manila;
he was actually leaving from Davao
International Airport; sorry!).
19 minutes and well worth your time. At the
end, you’ll understand Duterte and his
priorities pretty well.
the end, you also get a harbinger of things
to come—Duterte’s impending clash with the
Manila elites who he believes are being
egged on by Washington to impede his
policies. In his final words, Duterte
provided this characterization of the local
critics who felt it was more important for
Duterte to respond to questions from Obama
concerning human rights abuses in the drug
war than to assert Filipino sovereignty and
There are others with mental capacity of
dogs who lap at the ass of the Americans.
transpired, Duterte discarded his prepared
remarks in Vientiane to deliver a
denunciation of US historical crimes in
Mindanao, complete with atrocity photos.