Rodrigo Duterte, the then-mayor of Davao, on the cover of Esquire Philippines in March 2015. Photo: Esquire Magazine / Jason Quibilan
Karim Raslan
Karim Raslan

Has Rodrigo Duterte squandered his one chance to transform the Philippines?

  • The economy is doing well, but the Philippine president’s much vaunted ‘Build Build Build’ infrastructure programme appears to be flailing
  • And recent moves against the media and the US reveal his propensity to go after personal enemies, even if it isn’t in the country’s best interests
On Monday, February 10, Philippine Solicitor General Jose Calida filed a “quo warranto” petition against ABS-CBN – a perceived critic of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and the country’s most popular television station, with more than 72.3 million weekly viewers and a 47 per cent viewership share – in effect, attempting to force it off the air.

Then, the next day, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr signed a notice terminating the country’s Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US.

What scrapping Philippines-US military pact means for the South China Sea

Many see the Philippine strongman as an erratic, Trump-like figure. He is not. He is deliberate, determined and deadly. But time is running out for Duterte. The Philippines will soon be gearing up for the 2022 presidential polls for which the former mayor of Davao cannot stand – since the fall of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, the country’s presidents can only hold office for one six-year term.

The question must be asked then, has Duterte squandered his chance to transform the nation?

Duterte’s Solicitor General, Jose Calida. Photo: Philstar
While the economy is chugging along well, with 5.9 per cent GDP growth in 2019 according to the World Bank, his all-important “Build Build Build” infrastructure programme is moving far too slowly.

Duterte won an immense electoral mandate in 2016 and is still hugely popular, with an 87 per cent approval rating as of December according to pollsters Pulse Asia, but has he wasted this?

Has the pursuit of personal enemies such as ABS-CBN, kicking out the Americans and pivoting to China distracted Malacanang?

Investment from China has been pitifully small – and nothing like the US$9 billion Duterte promised back in 2016. Indeed, the proliferation of shady Chinese online gaming businesses in the Philippines has led to a popular backlash among ordinary Filipinos.
Activists and media organisations in the Philippines have publicly denounced Duterte’s recent onslaught on ABS-CBN as an attack on press freedom. Photo: ABS-CBN

Certainly, Duterte has never hidden his obsessions. His dislike of ABS-CBN and the storied Lopez family who control the publicly listed TV station was well known. Similarly, with the US. In both cases his animus runs deep.

Full disclosure: my “Ceritalah” column is syndicated with ABS-CBN and I have appeared many times on “Headstart”, the station’s early morning news show whose lead news anchor Karen Davila – a good friend – terrorises all her guests with equal vigour.

Critics slam Duterte’s move to axe broadcaster ABS-CBN’s franchise

Still, the former Davao mayor’s relentless pursuit of the station combined with his administration’s attacks on online news portal Rappler – run by former CNN anchor Maria Ressa – and the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper underlines his disregard for media freedoms and the critical importance of checks and balances to executive power.

The solicitor-general claimed that ABS-CBN has engaged in “highly abusive practices”, including allegedly violating foreign ownership caps. For the record, media companies in the Philippines must be 100 per cent locally owned.

US and Philippine troops pictured at the opening of a joint military exercise in 2015. Photo: EPA

The move against the US is even more dramatic, signalling the end to a checkered 120 year-long shared history. The VFA allowed American troops to be rotated into the Philippines for humanitarian assistance and military exercises. The two countries have other treaties, including the 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty and the 2014 Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement – but both are moot without the VFA.

To be sure, Duterte has always been anti-American. As Davao mayor, he was reported to have been angered over a 2002 incident where US agents controversially extricated an American who allegedly detonated an explosive device in a local hotel, before authorities had a chance to interrogate the man.

As president, Duterte famously said that he was “separating” from the US – the Philippines’ former colonial master – seeking closer ties with China and Russia instead.

But defence cooperation with the Americans – facilitated by the VFA – continued.

However, then the US visa of a former police chief-turned-senator and ally of Duterte’s, Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa, was cancelled, supposedly because of the latter’s involvement in the president’s bloody “war on drugs”.

Duterte – already seething at US criticism of his anti-drug campaign and other issues – vowed and then went ahead with the cancellation of the VFA, which will lapse in 180 days.

The VFA matters not only because it acts as a deterrent to Chinese aggression. The US also helps provide training and technical assistance to the Philippine military, including during the 2017 Marawi siege.

Duterte also claims that cancelling the VFA strengthens Philippine sovereignty and independence. But he has been deafeningly silent on China’s many violations of his country’s territory in the South China/West Philippine Sea.

Duterte favours ties with President Xi Jinping’s China over the US, the Philippines’ former colonial master. Photo: Reuters

Indeed, his insistence on doubling down with China is inexplicable given that most other Asean nations are trying to lessen their economic and political dependence on Beijing – especially since the onset of the coronavirus panic.

And as Locsin conceded in his testimony to the Philippines’ senate, “Terminating the VFA will negatively impact the Philippines’ defence and security arrangements”. He also noted that the US is the Philippines third-largest trading partner – bilateral trade stands at some US$8.7 billion – its biggest export market, the fifth-largest source of investment and third-largest source of tourism, with about 1 million arrivals in 2018 alone.

Moreover, Duterte’s actions jeopardise the interests of the 3.3 million-strong Philippine diaspora in the US, who contribute 36.8 per cent of inbound remittances – making America the highest source country. And what about the 1.2 million Filipinos who work in business process outsourcing – many of whom are employed by American firms?

Philippine presidents only get one chance. Duterte may well have missed his.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Has Duterte lost his chance to transform the Philippines?