Philippine President Duterte Sows Chaos Internationally

What kind of drugs – or to be polite, medicines – is President Duterte taking? This is a serious question. It is hard to remember any Asian leader in the past half century whose behavior has been so erratic, whose pronouncements so damaging to the position and image of his country.

Meanwhile his actions appear those of the coward. His populist war on drugs has so far seen the killing in cold blood of perhaps 2,500 citizens, mostly poor people alleged to be vendors or users of illegal substances such as shabu, the Philippine slang term for methamphetamine. But he has run a mile from confrontation with real power, namely China, despite its continued aggression against Philippine rights in the Scarborough/Panatag shoal and elsewhere in the South China Sea, appearing to end security cooperation with the United States and go to the Chinese aggressor in search of arms. He is doing his best to throw away the huge boost to the Philippines’ rights provided by the Court of Arbitration.

All this is done in the name of nationalism. Reminding the Americans of their killings of Filipinos when they invaded 118 years ago is all very well and good but has scant relevance to the issues the nation faces today. Indeed it is more a reminder of the ease with which Filipino politicians quickly become allies of aggressive foreign powers to defend their own local interests, as happened during the Japanese occupation in 1942-45.

Quite what is behind Duterte’s grudge against the US is not entirely clear. But personal grudges are no way to conduct national policy. It may be that US military advisers have achieved little in helping combat Abu Sayyaf in the Sulu archipelago, but the announcing that you intend to throw them out as though they were a liability is a bizarre outburst rather than a considered plan to use other means to root out the group.

Nor are have Americans, including Obama, been the only targets of Duterte’s brainstroms. Ban Ki-moon, the Pope, indeed anyone daring to criticise his campaign of murder in the name of suppressing the drug trade. The US is mature enough and has enough long-term interests to put a stoic face on the insults. But foreigners in general have taken note of a newly unstable element now at large in the region.

So far it seems Duterte’s cowardly bravado has gone well with most of his countrymen. But these “action man” displays are being viewed with a mix of horror, bewilderment and above all contempt for a nation led by such a figure. Ask the Japanese, who are the major donors of coastguard vessels intended to enable the Philippines to defend its seas, and more important than China as a foreign investor in productive enterprises. Ask the Vietnamese, the one country in facing Chinese expansion in the region that has shown a willingness to be shot at in defending it rights, a willingness to arm itself with firepower which will not defeat China but show a readiness to resist.

Ask even the Indonesians who after years of pretending there was no problem with China have taken to arresting and destroying Chinese and other illegal fishing boats. Ask any of the European countries such as Germany whose investment is sought what they now think of standards of governance and law in the Philippines.

Duterte’s claimed radicalism has so far been seen to be largely a sham. That is not surprising given that he is not a politician from the grass roots but inheritor of position – his father was governor of Davao province (now divided into two) and family members run Davao city. He is in fact rather typical of the local warlordism and personal rule that has plagued the nation since independence and would probably be strengthened if the federal system he proposes were adopted.

Efforts to engage the remnants of the communist insurgency may bear fruit but otherwise there is nothing in his agenda or appointments to suggest domestic reforms beyond what was in process under his predecessor. But the drug killings and the erratic foreign policy have not only showed up so much about his own personality and behaviour. They have underlined the weakness of national institutions.

The lawmakers have effectively joined the Duterte bandwagon to secure their own pecuniary and other advantages so are barely a brake on presidential abuse of power. The judiciary and the churches are likewise proving feeble defenders of due process. And can one really believe that the police is any cleaner now than three months ago?

Or that the supposed law and order campaign will now target jueteng, the illegal gambling which funds many politicians and may well be as socially damaging as drugs. The president has apparently put that in the “too hard” basket.

In a few short weeks, Duterte has eroded much of what was gained under the previous administration in terms of the nation’s reputation for improving governance and judicial standards. Economic policy has thus far not been directly affected, but the link between a stable system and medium to long-term growth means that much more of this kind of behaviour by the President will be reflected in social and economic development. The people will reap what they have sowed.

Past presidencies promising order from brute force have ended in tears. Ferdinand Marcos led a “crime-busting” wave that temporarily cleared the streets of thugs, only to end up in ugly dictatorship. Erap Estrada, the cinematic playboy, promised the poor – as Duterte has – of a new dawn. We know how that ended. Somewhere along the line, not now but eventually, the Philippines will have had enough of another strongman. It will be time to start again. But this benighted island nation doesn’t appear about to learn its lesson very soon, to its sorrow.