In less than twelve months, Rodrigo Duterte will be stepping down as the sixteenth president of the Philippines. He will have spent six years trying, among other things, to change the course of history between the Philippines and the United States, China and the rest of the world. Has he succeeded or failed? The jury is still out.
The Philippines is America’s oldest Asian ally. Colonized by Spain from 1521 to 1896, the Philippines declared its independence from Spain on June 12, 1896, but was ceded by Spain to the United States for twenty million dollars at the end of the Spanish-American War in the Treaty of Paris of December 10, 1898. It became a US colony after a short Philippine-American war from 1899 to 1902, then regained its independence on July 4, 1946. In 1962, it changed its independence day celebration from July 4 to June 12.
Writing in Le Monde in mid-September 1966, the journalist Jean Wetz said the Philippines lived inside a Spanish convent for nearly four hundred years, and inside Hollywood for the next fifty years. In October 2016, less than four months into his presidency, Duterte went to China to proclaim his government’s economic and military “separation” from the US, and its “alignment with China and Russia against the world.”
Thunderous applause greeted him in Beijing, but neither Chinese president Xi Jinping nor Russian President Vladimir Putin ever said a word about his proposed “alliance with China and Russia against the world.”
Has Duterte, in fact, succeeded in “separating” the Philippines from the US? Has he reshaped the US-China competition for influence in the Indo-Pacific? Has he, by his initiative, brought pride, honor, comfort, joy, or self-confidence to any number of Filipinos? These are some of the questions Filipinos must ask themselves.
When Ferdinand Marcos went to China to establish diplomatic relations in 1975 (I was part of the official entourage), he agreed to honor Beijing’s “One-China policy” provided the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) immediately and permanently cut off all forms of assistance and support to the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). In contrast, when Duterte kowtowed to China, he ignored its most egregious acts against the Philippines and some of the poorest Filipinos. He came, beggar’s bowl in hand, to proclaim himself as a supplicant and the Philippines as a “vassal and mendicant state.”
Despite having become the world’s fastest-growing market economy, China has remained a communist state. Duterte has had no problem with that. He was ready to share power with the communists, even without a binding peace agreement. His first Cabinet appointees included well-known members of the CPP central committee. Since the early 1990’s, however, China has created enormous national sovereignty and territorial problems that demanded an adequate Philippine response. Duterte did not seem obliged to provide such a response.
In 1994, China occupied and militarized Mischief Reef, a low-tide elevation in the Spratlys 130 nautical miles west of Palawan. In 2012, China engaged the Philippines in a standoff in Scarborough Shoal, some 115 nautical miles off Zambales, after Chinese fishing vessels took out a large variety of endangered species, and a Philippine Navy patrol ship tried to stop the poachers. In response to US mediation, the Philippine side withdrew to pave the way for a negotiated settlement, but the Chinese side stayed, blockaded the area and barred Filipino fishers from entering their own fishing ground.
In 2013, the Aquino government asked the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague to arbitrate. China rejected the process. But on July 12, 2016, the PCA ruled in favor of the Philippines, saying China’s maritime claims under the so-called nine-dash line, had no legal basis. Filipinos were ecstatic, but Duterte was as disappointed as the Chinese. Xi offered Duterte $24 billion in economic grants and aid. Only a portion of it has been released, but Duterte has become China’s most frequent honored guest, reportedly assured of Xi’s full protection from any possible coup.
Duterte believes raising any issue against China would risk hostilities. The Philippines has a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the US, supported by a 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which I helped sponsor in the Senate, and a 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). All this is nothing against China’s nuclear might. But one could have learned how the tiny island of Cuba managed its antagonistic relations with the US from 1959, or how the Scandinavian countries managed to engage Soviet submarines in their waters during the Cold War. Still, on February 11, 2020, (in a tantrum), Duterte decided to terminate the VFA, which alone allows the US to conduct defensive military exercises in the Philippines.
The VFA was to expire after six months. But on June 2, 2020, after US President Donald Trump blasted China for its expansionist activities in the South China Sea, Duterte unilaterally moved the expiry date from August 11 to December 11, 2020. That date has long passed. Then on September 22, 2020, Duterte finally recognized the PCA arbitral award. Addressing the 75th UN General Assembly in New York—-his first such address to the UN body—-he said, “The award is now part of international law, beyond compromise, and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish or abandon. We firmly reject attempts to undermine it.”
Then six months later, in March 2021, he said the arbitral award is just “a piece of paper” that can be thrown away. On July 12, 2021, the fifth anniversary of the award, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman echoed Duterte saying, the award is “nothing more than a piece of waste paper.”
Duterte wants his daughter Sara Duterte-Carpio, mayor of Davao city, to run in the May 9, 2022 presidential elections, with himself as vice-president. The Constitution bans political dynasties, but no enabling law implements this ban. There is no organized political opposition, no independent public opinion, and no viable free press either. Although local candidates supported by Sara have consistently lost in Davao, Duterte is in control of the three coequal branches of government, including the Commission on Elections. Smartmatic, the Venezuelan election provider, runs the voting machines, without regard to the safety devices and accuracy mechanisms which the Comelec had dispensed with in previous elections.
But the pandemic, which has not allowed people to congregate even for religious reasons, could give Duterte a convenient excuse to postpone the elections and extend his term indefinitely, without the people’s consent. He could opt for this as he faces a possible investigation and indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague for crimes against humanity, in connection with his drug war that is believed to have killed anywhere from 12,000 to 30,000 victims between July 2016 and March 2019, before he stormed out of the ICC.
Duterte could even make good his long-standing threat to declare a “revolutionary government” (RevGov) and replace the existing political structure with an ill-disguised dictatorship possibly “protected” by President Xi or “manufactured in Beijing.” Tragedy could then turn into farce, as Marx famously put it, unless the military, as the constitutional “protector of the people and the state,” with the citizens’ solid support, decides to thwart it.
(The writer, 81, served in the Philippine Cabinet for ten years, in the Legislature for fifteen years, and in journalism and humanitarian work for more than half of his close to sixty years in public life. As presidential spokesman and information secretary, he accompanied President Marcos on his state visit to China in 1975; as Senate majority leader, he co-sponsored the Senate resolution of concurrence in the ratification of the Visiting Forces Agreement between the Philippines and the US in 1999. His articles have appeared in major Philippine newspapers and in the Wall Street Journal (both Asia and US) and the International Herald Tribune, among others. His latest book, “All Is Grace,” an autobiography,” is due from Europe Books, London, and La Solidaridad Publishing House, Manila, this fall.)