Duterte’s foul-mouthed rants mask the real issues, and reflect poorly on his nation
Philip Bowring says the Philippine president’s tough talk on the US and newfound pivot to China are likely to be short-lived, given his personal failings, and the fact that US ties are too deep to be upended by slights real or imagined
If President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) thinks he has a fine new friend in Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, one can only respond: You are welcome to him.
Let us not conjure up excuses for the barbarism of his so-called war on drugs. Imagine instead how people here and across the border would feel if two bodies a day started turning up on the streets of Shenzhen, or 25 a day throughout Guangdong, summarily shot either by police or self-appointed social guardians.
This would take us back to the Cultural Revolution, killing fields devised by a megalomaniac leader and individuals using the campaign as cover for disposing of personal foes.
That Duterte should react with foul-mouthed abuse of US President Barack Obama and UN chief Ban Ki-moon, for criticising his bloodletting, or the Pope for causing a traffic jam, merely demonstrated what an unstable personality he is, unable to engage in rational discussion or have his personal whims and demons thwarted. His comparison of himself to Hitler and willingness to slaughter drug users by the millions says all too much about him – though he is too erratic to write and stick to a Mein Kampf.
That the Philippine drug situation is probably no worse than other countries in Southeast Asia (Singapore excepted) and Hong Kong itself is mostly missed, as gross exaggerations are used to justify 3,000 or so murders. Actual data shows that about 3.5 million out of a population of 100 million have taken some drug over the past 13 months. But half had taken it only once, and, of those, marijuana was more common than shabu, the local methamphetamine of choice. Occasional or even weekly use does not amount to addiction. As Thailand learned after the Thaksin government extrajudicial killings in 2003, the trade was only briefly stemmed. The drug trade is demand-driven.
The Duterte story is built on layers of exaggeration. Take for example his claim, so effective in his election campaign, to have made Davao, the city of which he and his immediate family have been mayor since 1988, the safest city in the Philippines and one of the safest in the world. The actual data from the Philippine National Police tell a different story. Although no longer the nation’s murder capital, as it was in the 1980s, Davao ranks high in murder (200 a year) and rape statistics from 2010 to 2015, higher than Cebu, the nearest comparable city by size.
Duterte’s positioning of himself as a left-leaning, anti-elitist populist and defender of indigenous Mindanao people is equally dubious. The reality is that he comes from a long line of mixed blood (only a little of it Chinese), inter-related Cebu families. It is a typical Philippine story of provincial elites maintaining power from one generation to the next. His father was governor of Davao province, having been transplanted from Cebu, before becoming a minister in president Ferdinand Marcos’ government. His daughter is now mayor of Davao. The family is also typical of how migration from Cebu and elsewhere in the Visayas colonised much of Mindanao at the expense of the indigenous.
Duterte’s contempt for America and his comment in Beijing, “It is only China which can help us”, is clearly the result of real or imagined slights at US hands. Turning a nation’s foreign policy upside down on the basis of personal animosity is at best stupid. It will probably not endure, given that links between the US and the Philippines – personal, military and elite – go deep. For most, those interests outweigh historical grievances. Most of the neighbours’ interests also lie with close Philippine-American ties, as Duterte was clearly told in Tokyo and would be told in Vietnam, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Meanwhile, Duterte, who admits no knowledge of economics, ignores the inconvenient facts that the nation has a gigantic goods trade deficit with China – and that excludes a large smuggling trade including drugs – but surpluses with Japan and the US. Most export manufacturing investment is from Japan. The services and remittance earnings which compensate for the Philippines’ huge overall trade gap come largely from the US, Europe and the Middle East. Of course, in theory, there is now a chance to sell more to China. But what other than mangoes and bananas? The illegally mined nickel ore which Duterte has (reasonably) banned?
China is offering multibillion dollar lures to build badly needed infrastructure. But for 10 years, the Philippines has been running an external surplus and has much unused foreign borrowing capacity, public and private. Its problem has been implementation more than money. Lack of strings or need for economic justification may mean that Chinese-led projects move faster. But no one should underestimate their potential to increase suspicion of China. The current popularity of the “drug war” can only carry other policies a limited distance.
Any attempt to re-orient foreign policy can only be held back by his personal behaviour and erratic pronouncements. They reflect poorly on the Philippines’ chances of progressing to becoming a well-governed and prosperous society if its public delights in a caricature of some tough-guy leader from a third-rate television series. Whatever neighbours think of his foreign policies, his personal behaviour either offends or is regarded as indicative of a nation with a deficit in self-respect.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator