President Rodrigo Duterte listens to the welcome remarks of National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA) Director General Alex Monteagudo during the Joint 69th National Security Council and 70th NICA Founding Anniversary on July 31, 2019. Joining the President on stage are Interior and Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año, Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, and National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. KING RODRIGUEZ/PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO

More than three years ago when he came into power, Rodrigo Duterte proudly declared he was the first elected socialist president, boasting of his close relations with the Maoist-led guerrillas who were very active in his home province.

The progressive Left-wing politicians embraced him with open arms after he announced his intention to resume more than three decades of on-again, off-again peace negotiations with the National Democratic Front (NDF), the political arm of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), to end 50 years of protracted guerrilla warfare by the New People’s Army (NPA) in the countryside.

He even appointed several progressive party-list representatives to his Cabinet, including some people known to have been part of the underground movement, and invited Left-leaning personalities to Malacañan Palace, a first in the country’s history.

Duterte’s first State-of-the-Nation Address (SONA) in July 2016 marked the only time security forces and anti-riot police officers did not face tough protesters. There were no anti-government chants, no violent clashes as the president stepped out of Congress to address the crowd of what used to be a noisy protest group.

But that was a short-lived relationship. In about a year’s time, Duterte slowly disengaged and, by now, has totally abandoned his close friends in the Left. Progressive members in the Cabinet and other executive positions were removed and the peace talks were scrapped, with no hope of being revived.

Duterte has finally unsheathed the sword of war as the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police stepped up the government’s counter-insurgency operations in areas where the rebels were active – Negros island, Bicol peninsula and the Caraga and Davao regions on the southern island of Mindanao.

Killings of poor peasants, indigenous people, community organizers, student activists, human rights advocates and lawyers are on the rise outside Manila, as the conflict escalates in known areas where the rebels are operating. The death toll in the government’s counter-insurgency campaign continues to rise as soldiers, police officers and militia members fall to guerrillas’ bullets either in assassination or combat operations.

Retired generals and allies of the president have recently raised the stakes, introducing draconian measures to contain rebels’ activities in schools and communities, like the resurrection of the long dead anti-sedition act and amendment to the Human Security Act. The Department of Justice has also asked the court to declare the CPP-NDF-NPA as terrorist groups, including its leaders and members,

Duterte’s slide to the right is a clear manifestation of the growing influence of a group of powerful ex-generals in his Cabinet. Close to 50 ex-military and police generals have been appointed to executive positions, including in his Cabinet, like Delfin Lorenzana (defense), Hermogenes Esperon (National Security Adviser), Eduardo Año (Interior and Local Government), Gregorio Honasan (Information and Communications Technology), Roy Cimatu (Environment and Natural Resources), Rolando Bautista (Social Welfare and Development) and John Castriciones, a Philippine Military Academy graduate.

Duterte did not hide his efforts to win favor from the military and police from the start. He raised soldiers and police officers’ pay and allowances, provided them decent housing and other welfare benefits, and gave modest modernization funds to upgrade equipment and capability. He has also consistently supported recruitment of more soldiers and police officers.

The uniformed service is the only stable institution in the Philippines capable holding together the country. The president has learned valuable lessons from the experience of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was removed by a military faction backed by a popular revolt in 1986. Marcos used the military to rule with an iron hand after imposing martial law in 1972 to prolong his stay in power beyond the constitutional limit of only two four-year terms.

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo also provided him a good lesson. A military-backed popular uprising installed her in 2001 and loyal generals defended her several times against a group of renegade soldiers out to remove her from power in 2003 and 2007. Lorenzana and Esperon interestingly played key roles as active-duty soldiers in Arroyo’s defense against failed coups, like the Oakwood mutiny, Manila Peninsula siege and Marine Corps standoff.

The more ex-generals joining his Cabinet and getting other executive positions, the greater the influence these generals have on Duterte’s policies, particularly on dealing with Communist rebels. There are now signs the ex-generals are putting pressure on the president to reverse his China policy in the face of rising threats from Beijing’s aggressive and assertive activities in the South China Sea, virtually transporting man-made islands in the Spratly as military bases. In 1995, when it seized control of Mischief Reef, China claimed it was merely building a facility for fishermen.

It remains to be seen if the ex-generals will succeed in forcing Duterte to take a more principled stand on the South China Sea issue. Next week, the president embarks on his fifth visit to Beijing and eighth one-on-one meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Early this month, Duterte and his spokesman, Salvador Panelo, assured Filipinos he would raise the landmark legal decision the Philippines won in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague as well as delays in the conclusion of the regional rules-based Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. However, there are no assurances these issues will be resolved in a brief face-to-face meeting in Beijing.

It is also doubtful if Duterte will heed the ex-generals on the China policy. Domestically, the ex-generals appeared to have prevailed in eliminating the progressive Left from the government and pushing the president to take a hard-line stance against the rebels

How will Duterte handle the increasing pressure from ex-generals to take a tough stand against China? How will the president get away with and continue his close ties with China? Will he finally be held hostage to the interests of the ex-generals, like Arroyo who survived a nine-year rule?