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How Do You Handle a Problem Like Rodrigo Duterte?

Awkwardly, apparently.

Awkward 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.

Read it.  Repeatedly!  Tweet it! And tell your family and friends.  Gotta build traffic.

As a 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 to a fine piece by Adele Webb of the University of Sydney on the same theme.  So I do not have this corner all to myself.]

Long 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.

I’ve written some pretty nifty pieces on the issues surrounding Duterte and the US:

Mindanao, Duterte, and the Real History of the Philippines

Meiring, Murder, Subversion, and Treason: Duterte’s Beef with US

Mamasapano: The Philippines’ Benghazi

Here’s 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 killings.

To 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 big deal.

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.

The 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 these ramifications.

Also I haven’t seen a lot of reporting on the fact that Duterte’s drug war necessitates deeper PRC-Philippine engagement in several important aspects.

First 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.

On the 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 August:

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 death squads.

Though virtually unreported in the Western media, over 700,000 users have turned themselves in.

Let me repeat that.  700,000 drug users have turned themselves in.

And 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 Magsaysay.

Duterte has turned to the PRC to demand they fund construction of drug treatment facilities, and the PRC has obliged.  According to Duterte and his spokesman, preparatory work for the Magsaysay facility has already begun.

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 workers.

I expect the Pentagon is quietly fuming at Duterte’s presumption.

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 war.

And 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.

So 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.

It 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).

Interesting, no?

But an 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 Philippines.

The US 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.

For 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.

Third, 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 imperial botch.

No 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 probably justified.

So I 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.

There 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.

The US 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.

The best way to understand Duterte is to listen to him in his own words sans filter.

Here’s the video of his infamous press conference before he embarked to Laos.

Only 19 minutes and well worth your time.  At the end, you’ll understand Duterte and his priorities pretty well.

And at 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 dignity:

There are others with mental capacity of dogs who lap at the ass of the Americans.

As it transpired, Duterte discarded his prepared remarks in Vientiane to deliver a denunciation of US historical crimes in Mindanao, complete with atrocity photos.

Duterte says a lot of interesting and important things.  But I doubt you’ll read a lot about them in the Western papers.

More articles by:

Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

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