Trade outcome vital to success of ASEAN Summit

March 18, 2018

Trade outcome vital to success of ASEAN Summit

by Mari Pangestu and Peter Drysdale
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Economists Dr Mari Elka Pangestu (above) and Dr. Peter Drysdale

Australia has been an ASEAN dialogue partner since 1974, an acknowledgement of the centrality of ASEAN to Australia’s regional security. There have been ASEAN summits with Japan, China, the United States and India but the ASEAN summit in Sydney this weekend is the first in Australia.

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The Host, ASEAN-Australia Special Summit 2018, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull

The summit comes at a time when leaders in ASEAN and Australia confront a number of strategic choices. None is more important than how they respond to the threat to the global trading system, the foundation of East Asia’s prosperity and a critical element in its security.

ASEAN centrality has been an organising framework for Asian economic policy cooperation over the past half century.

The retreat of the United States under President Trump from leading the global economic order; the rise of China with its assertive stance on the South China Sea and its infrastructure development ‘carrot’ in the Belt and Road Initiative; a putative ‘Quad’ configuration of Indo-Pacific power around the US, India, Japan and Australia; and the North Korea crisis all present significant challenges to ASEAN’s central role in the region.

Last week, Mr Trump fired the first shots in what could become a global trade war with the imposition of 25 per cent tariffs on steel imports and 10 per cent tariffs on aluminium. The action, taken under the Section 232 national security provisions of US trade law, risks provoking tit-for-tat retaliation by trading partners who, unlike Canada, Mexico and Australia, aren’t able to negotiate exemption from its impact. It also risks the WTO rules-based trading system.

Mounting uncertainty has affected confidence in trade and economic recovery since Trump translated his campaign protectionist rhetoric into an ‘America First’ agenda. But the White House announcement last week threw the international system into chaos. If Trump’s imposition of these tariffs on a flimsy national security pretext does not outright flout the rules of the WTO, then it at least flouts its widely shared norms.

The response from the European Commission was to ‘do the same stupid things to respond to stupid things’ — promising retaliatory tariffs on a range of US exports into Europe, from Harley-Davidson motor bikes to bourbon whisky. The tariff imposts also launched a process in which partners like Australia successfully begged exemption on various grounds both sound and spurious, all of which are in clear violation of the understanding that trade will be conducted under internationally agreed rules, not ad hoc bilateral deals. That’s the beginning of the rot; it may be a short-term tactical victory for countries like Australia, but it is not effective trade policy strategy.

What can be done now?

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Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (R) waves with ASEAN leaders (L to 2nd R) Laos’ Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah and Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-O-Cha for a family picture at the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Sydney on March 17, 2018.

The strategic objective is to keep the WTO system alive in the face of a potentially mortal threat. The United States is playing itself out of the system. Learning to live without the United States as a rules- and norms-enforcer won’t be easy, but it is the only response that will protect the system and avoid the large-scale economic cost and the dangerous political consequences of an escalating trade war.

Asia’s response to the Trump trade threat is critical for the international system. Asia’s prosperity and political stability depends critically on its integration into the global economy through the rules-based trading system which has underpinned the growth of Asian interdependence, Asia’s economic prosperity and its political security.

China is in Trump’s cross hairs as ‘the cause of US trade deficits because of its violation of trade rules’. But China is also a crucial stakeholder in the rules-based system through its largely faithful observance of the protocols of its accession to the WTO in 2001 and the huge trade in Asia and around the world that has been built on that.

Locking in China’s entrenchment to the WTO system — and resistance to the temptation to take retaliatory actions in the face of Mr Trump’s trade antics — is thus a major element in the system’s defence.

As China and the US stare each other down with a potentially devastating trade war on the horizon, it may seem strange to turn to ASEAN, but it has a central role in the collective response to Asia’s present predicament. That is because of ASEAN leadership in the strategic conception and negotiation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in East Asia.

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RCEP includes not only the ten ASEAN economies but also Japan, South Korea, China, India, Australia and New Zealand. It’s a coalition of countries with the economic weight to deliver a powerful message to the world. The signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement without the United States in Chile last week was a start in defence of the global trading system. But that agreement doesn’t include China or most of ASEAN and is not systemically important enough to make the difference. RCEP is.

The threat to the multilateral trading system is more important than the still unfinished business on the Korean peninsula and worries about the South China Sea.

ASEAN, with Indonesia at its core, is a regional enterprise with a distinctly global outlook and objectives. Intra-regional trade is only 24 per cent of ASEAN’s total trade but it is deeply integrated into trade globally.

The Australia–ASEAN summit is a singularly important opportunity for setting out strategic interests in these economic dimensions of regional security and ASEAN’s role in achieving them. A declaration from the Sydney summit that commits to avoiding retaliation to US protectionism and elevating the momentum in RCEP will help cement a broader coalition of Asian economies, including China, Japan, South Korea and India, to holding firm on the international trading system.

It will also ensure ASEAN’s continuing centrality in cooperation across the region.

Dr. Mari Pangestu is former Indonesian Trade Minister and Professor at the University of Indonesia. Dr. Peter Drysdale is Professor of Economics and Head of the Asian Bureau of Economic Research and Co-Editor of East Asia Forum in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the ANU. This article was also published in the Australian Financial Review on 15 March 2018.


Four Challenges for Australia–ASEAN Relations

March 16, 2018

Four Challenges for Australia–ASEAN Relations

by Anthony Milner, Asialink

Image result for asean-australia special summit 2018Sydney plays host to ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in 2018, 

ASEAN is back on Australia’s agenda. The media release for the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper states that Australia’s first foreign policy priority is to ‘increase [its] efforts to ensure [Australia] remain[s] a leading partner for Southeast Asia’. At a time of deep uncertainty, engaging with ASEAN is a prudent policy direction. But Australia faces at least four challenges.

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First, the Australian government will struggle to maintain its priority on ASEAN. For some years, Australian commentary has been preoccupied with the US–China issue. The Australian government needs to explain that ASEAN is the central element in its overall Asia strategy, without implying that US–China issues are any less important. Deepening relations with ASEAN will make Australia a less lonely country and strengthen its influence in both Washington and Beijing.

Second, Australia is in some ways a less attractive partner for ASEAN than it once was. Compared with the 1970s — when Australia became ASEAN’s first dialogue partner — its economy is now far smaller than the ASEAN economy and its military advantage is also lessened. Not only are Japan and China massive economic partners for the region but South Korea — a minor economy in the 1970s — is now more important than Australia. The diminished position of the United States, Australia’s much-proclaimed ally, is a further element in this changed balance.

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Third, Australia needs to recognise and navigate differences between ASEAN and Australian policy objectives. For instance, there has long been anxiety in ASEAN about being forced to take sides in struggles between major powers. In the Cold War, a number of ASEAN countries resisted joining the US-led Southeast Asian Treaty Organisation and supported maintaining ‘equidistance’ between rival blocs. It is not surprising to encounter ASEAN concern about meetings between senior officials from Australia, Japan, India and the United States to discuss closer ‘quadrilateral’ cooperation. Such initiatives inevitably sharpen the sense of a pro-democracy gang-up on China.

Canberra needs to make it clear that its foreign policy has long been tailored to Australian rather than US interests — especially when the 2017 White Paper actually highlights the need ‘to broaden and deepen our alliance cooperation’.

For many years, Australia has focused on building ‘Pacific’ or ‘Asia Pacific’ institutions with a strong US presence. In contrast, ASEAN tends to favour an ‘East Asia’ concept and to concentrate on building the ASEAN community itself.

Today Australia’s advocacy of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept is causing confusion. The White Paper’s insistence that the Indo-Pacific is the region of ‘primary importance to Australia’ may seem a non-controversial innovation in Australia’s foreign policy rhetoric, but in Southeast Asia and China it is seen to diminish the term ‘Asia’ and imply an anti-China mindset.

There is sensitivity about terminology, partly because it can reveal serious policy orientation. It is regrettable that official Australian statements tend to refer to ‘Southeast Asia’, not ‘ASEAN’. Australia needs to emphasise that it is not hesitating on the project of building a strong ASEAN community.

A further divergence in policy of growing significance concerns China. ASEAN commentators seem less suspicious than Australians of China’s policies, including the Belt and Road Initiative. Informed by centuries of experience in handling China, ASEAN favours a policy of signalling support for China-led projects and only arguing hard about the details. ASEAN analysts do not advocate a subservient approach. They seek smart accommodation, not confrontation, with China.

In all these policy areas Australia will require a comprehensive and often subtle understanding of ASEAN perspectives. This raises the question of whether the government, media and university system still possess the level of Southeast Asia expertise achieved in the 1970s.

The fourth challenge that Australia faces with ASEAN concerns political culture. When Australian governments speak about ‘work[ing] more closely with the region’s major democracies’, they run up against the ideological tolerance that is a hallmark of ASEAN thinking. This tolerance underpinned, for instance, ASEAN’s rapid pursuit of relations with Communist Indochina after the United States’ withdrawal in the 1970s.

Australians do not reflect enough on how their liberal heritage may sharpen the sense of Australia being an outsider in many Southeast Asian eyes. Hostility to liberalism has been expressed not only in Islamic circles in Southeast Asia. Political change in Thailand and the Philippines suggests a reduced commitment to liberal values, and distinguished Singapore sociologist Chua Beng Huat has drawn attention to the determined rejection of Western-style liberalism in Lee Kuan Yew’s state.

A decade or so ago, Australian commentators thought they had heard the end of the ‘Asian values’ debate. As Australia works at being ASEAN’s ‘leading partner’, government officials and public intellectuals may well have to engage in more serious dialogue about values and ideology.

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Anthony Milner is Professorial Fellow at Asialink, University of Melbourne and Visiting Professor at the Asia-Europe Institute, University of Malaya. He is Emeritus Professor at The Australian National University.

This article appeared in the most recent version of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Why ASEAN matters’.


Fighting Piracy on the ASEAN Seas

March 16, 2018

Fighting Piracy on the ASEAN Seas

by Tai Wei Lim

Almost half of the world’s pirate attacks happen in Southeast Asia. Among the most common locations for attacks is the Strait of Malacca, where tankers carry oil from the Gulf region to China, Japan, and South Korea, and via Singapore’s refineries.

As piracy becomes more prevalent, collaboration across the ASEAN region is more necessary than ever.

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Ever since oil was discovered in the Gulf area in the 20th century, the maritime route from the Gulf region to East Asia passing through the Strait of Malacca has been the most important passageway for East-West global trade. A recent increase in piracy incidents highlights the need for effective ways to ensure the security of oil shipping in the region.

Malacca Strait, Choke Point for Oil Shipping

The Persian Gulf region supplies about a third of the world’s oil and fulfils most of the major Northeast Asian countries’ (China, Japan, and South Korea, or CJK) oil needs. Oil makes up a large percentage of the Gulf region’s exports overseas and constitutes the crucial backbone of the Gulf economies.

Traveling between Sumatra (to the west of the Strait of Malacca) and the Gulf of Thailand/Malay Peninsula, oil tankers carry their precious cargo to refineries in Singapore for processing. Singapore’s oil refineries on Jurong Island, west of the main island, are some of the largest in the world.

Forty-one percent of the world’s pirate attacks between 1995 and 2003 occurred in Southeast Asia.

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Alternative routes exist, but they add a couple of days to the trip. The fact that the Strait of Malacca is such a convenient, thus popular, route also makes it a choke point for oil shipping.

Oil from the Gulf area destined for Northeast Asia is transported through places like the Gulf of Aden, Strait of Hormuz, Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal, Andaman Sea, Gulf of Thailand, Strait of Malacca, and South China Sea before reaching its destination. Besides adverse natural conditions, tankers also run the risk of encountering manmade dangers like piracy.

Forty-one percent of the world’s pirate attacks between 1995 and 2003 occurred in Southeast Asia. Pirates operate using small boats and skiffs that are fast and can hide easily in littoral zones. They use small arms for speedy operations, which include kidnapping for ransom, stealing oil from ships, robbing crew members, stealing cargo, and even stealing entire ships and repainting them for sale. Although tankers are only one of the categories of ships targeted by pirates, the oil they transport accounts for very real strategic stakes.

Efforts to Secure Maritime Trade

Since WWII, the US has widely been credited as the security guarantor of Pacific maritime trade, with its 7th Fleet based in Hawaii, Guam, and Japan. The Americans were engaged in an alliance with Japan in the 1960s and kept the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) open for trade. The US was considered a benign superpower, welcomed by countries to keep regional and global trade going.

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More countries have developed an interest in Maritime Southeast Asia in recent years. The US and Japan have been lobbying for the opportunity to increase naval presence and to have direct patrols in the region. India has a naval fleet at the mouth of the Andaman Sea, just before it extends into the Strait of Malacca.

The Indian Navy is watching and extending its influence in the Strait of Malacca not only in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, but also on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which are geographically close to Southeast Asia. As for the Chinese, they have organized naval drills with their Malaysian partners in the Strait of Malacca.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has resolved to manage piracy in the region and is making important collective efforts to do so. When all the navies of Southeast Asia work together in tasks like patrolling, they constitute a formidable force that can deter piracy.

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The Malacca Straits Coordinated Patrol (MALSINDO) is reflective of such efforts to use joint resources to repel piracy. MALSINDO was started by the littoral states in the Strait of Malacca, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia, in 2004. It is complemented by the “Eye in the Sky” (EiS) mechanism, which is one of the most sophisticated air-based patrol systems in the region.

ASEAN has resolved to manage piracy in the region and is making important collective efforts to do so. The circle of states and countries involved in anti-piracy activities is now expanding. Since naval personnel from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore gathered in 2008 to start the Malacca Strait Patrols Information System, Thailand has also begun participating in air patrols.

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In addition to short-term mitigation measures, funding should also be allocated to training that leads to the long-term professionalization of maritime police units. For instance, the Malaysian government has contributed funds to the World Maritime University and the IMO International Maritime Law Institute (IMLI) to expand the infrastructure of these institutions. It has also dispatched officers to study at the schools.

Preventing a New Surge in Piracy

The latest statistics indicate that rates of piracy and armed robberies at sea went up again in 2017. According to the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) Information Sharing Centre, possible factors include complacency among crews and a decrease in surveillance by littoral countries, but the overall situation is much improved when compared to the 1990s.

Pirates, for their part, are also becoming more sophisticated in their operations. They have evolved from generic groups of criminals to vast webs of operatives with specialized skills. Some of these specialized roles include counterfeiters, informants embedded in shipping companies, ship brokers, robbers, and middlemen who assemble all the stakeholders (and, of course, the pirates themselves).


These pirate teams are small and can carry out surgical operations. After they transfer the stolen goods onto their own vessels, they ship the goods to other port cities, sometimes with fake documentation, to sell them.

Anti-piracy measures are one area of policy on which almost all nations in the region can agree. All of the countries benefit from the mitigation of strife, as well as increased maritime safety. Success in anti-piracy efforts can also lead to the region taking on more responsibility in global maritime security.

So far, each ASEAN country has been able to proceed with its anti-piracy contributions according to its own national needs and at a pace that it is comfortable with. That ASEAN is a collective that seeks consensus is one of its strengths. The problem of piracy in the Strait of Malacca is too large for any single littoral state to resolve. As piracy continually reinvents itself, it takes all the stakeholders working together to combat this problem in one of the world’s most congested spaces.

Tai Wei Lim is an adjunct research fellow at the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore.

This was written for Asia Global Online, a publication of the Asia Global Institute, at Hong Kong University.


ASEAN’s renewed centrality

March 14, 2018

ASEAN’s renewed centrality

Author: Editorial Board, East Asia Forum

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US President Trump fired the first shots in what could become a global trade war this week with the imposition of 25 per cent tariffs on imports of steel and 10 per cent tariffs on aluminium. The action, taken under the national security provisions of US trade law (Section 232), risks provoking tit-for-tat retaliation by trading partners who, unlike Canada, Mexico and Australia, aren’t able to negotiate exemption from its impact, and corrosion of the WTO rules-based trading system.

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Cambodian Prime Minister Samdech Tech Hun Sen

The White House announcement throws the international trade rulebook out the window. If the Trump administration’s imposition of these tariffs on a flimsy national security pretext does not outright flout the rules of the WTO, then it at least flouts its widely shared norms.

The response from the European Commission was to ‘do the same stupid things to respond to stupid things’ — promising retaliatory tariffs on a range of US exports into Europe, from Harley-Davidson motor bikes to bourbon whiskey. The tariff imposts also launched a process in which trading partners like Australia successfully begged exemption on various grounds both sound and spurious, all of which are nonetheless in clear violation of the understanding that trade will be conducted under internationally agreed rules, not ad hoc bilateral deals.

That’s the beginning of the rot; it may be a short-term tactical victory for countries like Australia, but it is certainly not effective strategic play.

What happens now?

US commentators reckon that a challenge of the Trump tariffs before a WTO dispute panel is a no-win game. If the European Union takes the United States to the WTO (as it has promised to do) and loses under Article XXI, which allows trade restrictions on national security grounds, the ruling will open countries to restrict imports however they choose on ‘national security grounds’. If the United States loses, it will surely reject the ruling, rendering the WTO dispute process effectively dead.

The strategic objective is to keep the WTO system alive in the face of this potentially mortal threat. The United States is playing itself out of the system. Learning to live without the United States as a rules- and norms-enforcer won’t be easy, but it is the only response that will protect the system and avoid the large-scale economic cost and dangerous political consequences of an escalating trade war.

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The strategic response to the Trump trade threat is more important to Asia than to any other major centre of international trade. Asia’s prosperity and political stability depends critically on its integration into the global economy through the rules-based trading system. The global trading system has underpinned the growth of Asian interdependence, Asia’s economic prosperity and its political security.

China, in particular, is in Trump’s cross hairs as ‘the cause of US trade deficits because of its violation of trade rules’. But China is also a crucial stakeholder in the rules-based system through its largely faithful observance of the protocols of its accession to the WTO in 2001 and the huge trade in Asia and around the world that has been built on that.

Locking in China’s entrenchment to the WTO system — and resisting the temptation to take retaliatory actions in the face of Mr Trump’s trade antics — is thus a major element in the system’s defence.

As China and the United States stare each other down with a potentially devastating trade war on the horizon, it may seem strange to turn to ASEAN, but it has a central role in the collective response to Asia’s present predicament.

ASEAN centrality has been an organising platform for Asian economic policy cooperation over the past half century, as explained in the issue of East Asia Forum Quarterly ‘ASEAN Matters‘ released today.

The retreat of the United States from leading the global order and the reversal of its pivot to Asia; the rise of China with its aggressive stance on the South China Sea and its infrastructure development ‘carrot’ in the Belt and Road Initiative; a putative ‘Quad’ configuration of Indo-Pacific power around the US, India, Japan and Australia; and the hot spot in North Korea all present challenges to ASEAN’s central role in the region.

ASEAN leadership in the negotiation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in East Asia renews its centrality in Asia’s response to the present uncertainties.

RCEP includes not only the ten ASEAN economies but also Japan, South Korea, China, India, Australia and New Zealand. It is a coalition of countries with the economic weight to deliver a powerful message to the world. Without movement in ASEAN, RCEP is unable to go anywhere. The signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement without the United States (TPP-11) in Chile last week was a start in defence of the global trading system. But the TPP-11 is not systemically important enough to make the difference. RCEP is.

The threat to security in our region is now much more about the dangers to the multilateral trading system than anything else, despite the still unfinished business on the Korean peninsula.

The Australia–ASEAN summit next weekend is a singularly important opportunity for setting out joint interests on the economic dimensions of regional security and ASEAN’s role in achieving them. ASEAN, with Indonesia at its core, is a regional enterprise with a distinctly global outlook and objectives. A declaration from the Sydney summit that commits to elevating the momentum in RCEP will help cement a broader coalition of Asian economies, including China, Japan, South Korea and India, to holding firm on the international trading system. It will also ensure ASEAN’s continuing centrality in economic cooperation across the region.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

The latest edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘ASEAN matters’, is available to read here.

Foreign Policy: US’ New Military Strategy (Quad) to contain China

March 12, 2018

Foreign Policy: US’ New Military Strategy (Quad) to contain China

By: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Over recent months, the ‘Quad,’ the nickname for a regional mechanism comprising the US, Australia, Japan and India and ostensibly established as a security forum by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe almost a decade ago, has increasingly evolved into a central tenet of the US’s new military strategy vis-à-vis China.

Using words taken from the US National Security Strategy document, China is regarded as a “revisionist power” that must be contained and whose increasing influence counterbalanced through alternative economic and military means.

The Quad largely went dormant following the withdrawal of Australia during the tenure of the dovish Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister. But Abe, Australian and Indian Premiers Malcolm Turnbull and Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump agreed in Manila last November to revive it. China – and the rest of the world – were delivered a bristling message on the sidelines of the ASSEAN and East Asia summits in Manila last November.

It was a message that was reinforced two weeks ago at a summit in New Delhi in which naval chiefs of the four countries, known formally as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, shared the stage to grapple with what regional news reports termed as “Chinese unilateralism,” which needs to be countered through reviving the Quad, which is seen in China as nothing less than an “Asian NATO.”

Image result for Admiral Harry HarrisCommander of US Armed Forces in Asia, Admiral Harry Harris, has been nominated to the position of US Ambassador to Australia.


Representative of the member countries expressed their views, but the reported star of the show was Admiral Harry Harris, the Commander of the US Pacific Command in Hawaii and the next US Ambassador to Australia. Targeting China in perhaps the most explicit terms, Harris said: “The reality is that China is a disruptive transitional force in the Indo-Pacific, they are the owner of the trust deficit in the region,” adding that China’s intent is not only to dominate singlehandedly the South China Sea but also to rival if not match the American military power and force it out of the region.

Harris’s words were corroborated by the Australian Navy Chief who called upon the members to take concrete action against the PLA’s Navy.

A revival is, therefore, clearly in place here. But there are different objectives working behind it. For the US, the primary motivation is that it wants to maintain its erstwhile position in the region as the guarantor of security, a position that has been considerably damaged by the Trump Aadministration’s own scrapping the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

While TPP itself could have been an effective alternative to China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), the Quad revival is taking place as a military strategy signifying that the US wants to keep its focus on the military aspects of its engagement with the region, and that it aims to maintain economic relations on bilateral terms, as emphasized on a number of occasions by the Trump administration.

For instance, Japan has its own concerns, which are not just militaristic. While the US seems intent on keeping the Quad a security arrangement, a successor-alternative to the “Asia Pivot” and rebranding it as a pivot to the Indo-Pacific, Japan’s aims are more diverse.

Tokyo has already pledged US$200 billion as an alternative to China’s BRI and promised to invest this money into building infrastructure around the world. Japan, using the Asian Development Bank as the primary vehicle of investment and loans, seems to be intent upon countering China and its ambitious Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), but nonetheless remains interested in maintaining a sound economic relationship with China.

This is purely economic competition, not simply containment of a “revisionist power.” China is already Japan’s second-biggest export market and Australia’s No. 1 export market as well. Wouldn’t containing China then mean a potential economic loss? And wouldn’t a military containment of China establish a conflict of interests between the Quad members? It’s hard to deny.

As for Australia, it was only a few months ago when Canberra signed a Memorandum of Understanding with China, regarding BRI, signaling Australia’s increasing accommodation with China’s economic overtures.

Then there is India, which had a tough last year with China due to the border standoff between Indian and Chinese armed forces over Chinese construction of a road on the Bhutan border. There have been other provocations including a contest for influence in the Maldives.  But in fact their bilateral relations have eased and both countries have increasingly started to show sensitivity to each other’s interests. While this easing doesn’t necessarily imply a major transformation, it does indicate that India is not simply following in the US’s footsteps leading to military containment of China.

 As has been reported, the Modi government recently took the extraordinary step of preventing its officials from attending functions marking the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s exile in India. Clearly, India was showing a lot of sensitivity to the understanding that had was reached between both countries during the recent visit to China by India’s Foreign Secretary, Vijay Gokhale. As such, while the official Indian readout on Gokhale’s discussions in Beijing included aspects of bi-lateral interests, the catchwords were “mutual respect and sensitivity to each other’s concerns and aspirations.”

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Therefore, the US campaign to rope India into its new containment strategy has its limitations. For one thing, while all the Quad member countries except the US want to continue to use the US presence as a counterweight to China, they are more interested in balancing their relations with China than simply taking part in a strategy that stands little chance of success. For another, China’s rapidly increasing economic and military presence in Asia, although it has its own pitfalls, is likely to inhibit other, lesser countries from supporting the Quad.

On the contrary, a military revival of the Quad with its emphasis on countering China might divide the region further and take it towards a highly tense, zero-sum competition. India’s revised China strategy indicates that it would continue to prefer to follow an independent policy vis-à-vis China rather than toe the US line and end up facing stand-offs in the Himalayas.

China, sensing this buildup, has already responded by increasing its defense spending, calling the increase a necessary ‘element of peace,’ thus proving that the adversarial and aggressive depiction of China would do little to develop non-aggressive and non-military relations between the US and China on the one hand, and between China and other regional countries, particularly the Quad members, on the other. Therefore, from the very beginning of its nascent revival, the Quad seems to have been set on a self-defeating path.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistani academic and regular contributor to Asia Sentinel

The Portrait of a strong leader and tough guy–Rodrigo Duterte of The Philippines

March 12, 2018

The Portrait of a strong leader and tough guy–Rodrigo Duterte of The Philippines

Letter from the Philippines

by Adrian Chen

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Two Tough Guys–Rodrigo Duterte and Samdech Hun Sen of Cambodia: they are passionate their countries and they mean business.

In May, Rodrigo Duterte, the provincial Mayor who had just been elected President of the Philippines after promising to rid the country of crime and drugs by killing thousands of criminals, vowed to stop swearing. He told reporters, “Don’t fuck with me.” He called political figures “gay.” When a reporter asked about his health, he replied, “How is your wife’s vagina? Is it smelly? Or not smelly? Give me a report.” In an overwhelmingly Catholic country, he swore at the Pope. At first, he defended his language as a gesture of radical populism. “I am testing the élite in this country,” he said. “Because we are fundamentally a feudal country.” But, the day after the election, he appeared with a popular televangelist and said, “I need to control my mouth.” He compared his forthcoming transformation to that of a caterpillar changing into a butterfly. “If you are the President of the country, you need to be prim and proper,” he said. His inaugural speech, in June, was obscenity-free.

The resolution didn’t last. Duterte’s war on drugs has resulted in the deaths of more than three thousand people, drawing condemnation from human-rights groups and Western governments. In early September (2016) before the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in Laos, a journalist asked Duterte what he would say if President Barack Obama raised the issue of human rights. “You know, the Philippines is not a vassal state,” he replied. “We have long ceased to be a colony of the United States.” Alternating between English and Tagalog, and pounding on the lectern, Duterte, it was widely reported, said of Obama, “Son of a whore, I’ll curse you at that forum.”


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Duterte does not, as he has put it, “give a shit” about human rights, which he sees as a Western obsession that keeps the Philippines from taking the action necessary to clean up the country. He is also hypersensitive to criticism. “Duterte’s weakness is, really, he’s a tough guy,” Greco Belgica, a Filipino politician and an ally of Duterte’s, said. “You do not talk down to a tough guy. He’ll snap.”

The day after insulting Obama, Duterte released a statement expressing regret that his comment “came across as a personal attack on the U.S. President.” In his outburst, Duterte had used the Tagalog phrase putang ina, which means, literally, “your mother is a whore.” But it is also used to communicate frustration, as in “son of a bitch.” “It’s just an expression,” Salvador Panelo, Duterte’s Chief Legal Counsel, explained to the press. “I don’t think it was directed to President Obama.” A columnist for the Philippine Daily Inquirer provided foreign journalists with a satirical guide to “Dutertespeak”: “Putang ina really means ‘I firmly believe you are mistaken.’ ”

Duterte thinks out loud, in long, rambling monologues, laced with inscrutable jokes and wild exaggeration. His manner is central to his populist image, but it inevitably leads to misunderstanding, even among Filipino journalists. Ernie Abella, Duterte’s spokesman, recently pleaded with the Presidential press corps to use its “creative imagination” when interpreting Duterte’s comments.


Image result for rodrigo duterte and donald trumpThere is mutual respect between Duterte and Donald Trump


On September 7th, the second day of the ASEAN summit, Duterte and Obama met briefly for the first time. Obama later described their encounter: “It was not a long interaction, and what I indicated to him is that my team should be meeting with his and determine how we can move forward on a whole range of issues.” Duterte presented a starker version: “I told him in a holding room, ‘President Obama, I’m President Duterte. I never made that statement. Check it out.’ ” According to Duterte, Obama was dismissive, and replied, “My men will talk to you.”

The next day, Duterte showed ASEAN delegates, including Obama, photographs of Muslims who had been killed by U.S. soldiers in the Philippines in the early twentieth century. “This is human rights,” Duterte recalled telling the delegates. “Do not tell me this is water under the bridge. A human-rights violation, whether committed by Moses or Abraham, is still a violation of human rights.”

What began as a reaction to a personal slight has led to a dramatic shift in foreign relations. Duterte has increasingly, if fitfully, signaled his intention to distance himself from the United States, the Philippines’ closest ally, in favor of China, which previous governments have viewed warily. In September, he called for the withdrawal of a contingent of U.S. military advisers and for the end of annual joint combat exercises between the two nations. (Last week, he approved limited exercises.) During a state visit to Beijing in October, he announced a “separation” from the United States. “America has lost now,” he told a group of Chinese businessmen. “I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow. And maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines, and Russia.”

As Erwin Romulo, a former editor of Esquire Philippines, told me, “There are no slow news days anymore in the Philippines.”

“Your X-rays are kind of depressing, so here’s Susan and me in front of the Eiffel Tower.

Duterte has an eighty-six-per-cent approval rating in the Philippines, but his break with America has proved controversial. Opinion surveys regularly find the Philippines to be among the most pro-American countries. The language of instruction in schools is English, and basketball is a national obsession. Around four million Filipinos live and work in the U.S., and the country is one of the Philippines’ most important trading partners. American interests have typically made up a large proportion of foreign investment in the Philippines. In the Manila Standard, the widely respected former President Fidel Ramos compared Duterte to the captain of a sinking ship. Even many on the Philippine left, who decry U.S. influence, worry that Duterte may be trading one imperial master for another.

Image result for Fidel Ramos on Duterte

Former President of The Philippines Fidel Ramos

Duterte’s pivot to China is a rebuke to the Obama Administration’s foreign-policy shift away from the Middle East and toward Asia. But a senior State Department official said that he thought the talk of a complete realignment with China was largely bluster. “The issue is not so much what he says—the issue is what he does,” the official said. He pointed out that the U.S. and the Philippines are so deeply entwined that it would take longer than one Presidential term to unravel their ties. “That said, if he’s absolutely determined, he could do a lot of damage to the U.S.-Philippine relationship.”

Since the overthrow of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, in 1986, the Philippines has been a democracy, if an often dysfunctional one. Duterte’s actions challenge the liberal Western values that are enshrined in the Philippine constitution. Although he styles himself a revolutionary, Duterte seems uncertain about what kind of order will replace the one he aims to overthrow, or whether he will be around to see it. He often intimates that he may not live to finish his term, whether because of overwork and age—he is seventy-one—or something more sinister. “Will I survive the six years?” he asked recently. “I’d make a prediction: maybe not.”


The Philippines has had an “up-and-down love affair with the Americans,” Senator Alan Peter Cayetano told me when we met in Manila, in September. Cayetano had been Duterte’s running mate, but Presidents and Vice-Presidents are elected separately in the Philippines, and he lost. We met in an office belonging to his wife, the mayor of Taguig City, thirty minutes southeast of Manila, among the glittering high-rises of the financial district known as Bonifacio Global City.

In 1898, after winning the Spanish-American War, the United States took possession of the Philippines. President William McKinley assured Filipinos that America’s aim was “benevolent assimilation,” but the U.S. Army proceeded to crush a burgeoning independence movement. Under Theodore Roosevelt, the U.S. established a legislature in Manila with the aim of schooling Filipinos in the ways of representative democracy. But, with American acquiescence, the legislature was monopolized by a small group of élite landowners, bolstering the power of an oligarchy that continues to dominate political life. Cayetano explained that Duterte spoke harshly of the United States because of its checkered past in the region. “We embraced and loved the Americans, but, at the same time, rather than freeing, they colonized us,” he said. “This mix brought out strong, passionate feelings of both love and hate for our former colonizers.”

The U.S. military presence has been the most divisive issue. During the Second World War, the Japanese military occupied the Philippines for more than three years. In October, 1944, U.S. forces returned to the country, and its islands served as an important staging ground in the Pacific Theatre. In 1946, the country was granted formal independence. Soon after, the U.S. secured a treaty that allowed it to maintain a permanent military presence, and thousands of troops were stationed at two huge bases (Subic Bay and Clarks Air Base) throughout the Cold War. Nationalists and leftists protested against the bases, which they saw as symbols of America’s colonial legacy. In 1991, amid rising anger at a new base treaty, the Senate declined to renew the lease. But, in 2014, President Benigno Aquino III, Duterte’s pro-American predecessor, signed an agreement allowing U.S. troops to return on a temporary basis.

Image result for Clarks Air Base

Clarks Air Force Base, Philippines

Duterte is the first President to come from the island of Mindanao, which has a particularly fraught history with the U.S. military. Mindanao, the biggest of the southern islands, is home to the country’s large Muslim minority; for more than three hundred years, while the Spanish conquered the north and converted its people to Catholicism, the Muslim tribes in the southern islands resisted. When the U.S. instituted a civilian colonial authority over the Philippines, Mindanao was put under military rule and subjected to a campaign of pacification which resulted in many thousands of deaths. To people in Manila, Mindanao is known for guerrilla fighters and rampaging kidnap-for-ransom gangs. It is also home to the New People’s Army—the armed wing of the Communist Party—and an assortment of Muslim rebel groups, including Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist organization that recently pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In the past fifty years, tens of thousands of people have been killed and millions have been displaced in Mindanao’s overlapping conflicts.

For twenty-one years, Duterte was the mayor of Davao, a city of two million in Mindanao, and he often brings up abuses from the colonial era in his anti-American rants. But he has said that a more recent incident was responsible for what he calls his “hatred” of America. In 2002, not long after U.S. special forces launched an operation against Abu Sayyaf in Mindanao, Michael Meiring, an American treasure hunter, was staying in a hotel in Davao when a cache of dynamite stored in his room exploded. There were rumors in Davao that Meiring was a C.I.A. agent. In Duterte’s telling, two F.B.I. agents took Meiring from his hospital room and repatriated him before he could be questioned by local authorities. Duterte was furious at what he saw as an infringement of his authority as mayor. He said he demanded that the U.S. Ambassador at the time, Francis Ricciardone, conduct an investigation, and he has fumed about the lack of answers ever since. (In an e-mail, Ricciardone told me that he did not recall discussing the case with Duterte, but he called the allegations “preposterous.”)

“He’s pulled out the H.R. file! This is it, folks—the Atomic Performance Review!”

Since then, Duterte has repeatedly expressed his displeasure with the U.S. military presence in Mindanao. In 2007, he refused to let the U.S. and the Philippines hold joint military exercises in Davao, saying that such drills would be a magnet for terrorists. “Because of their arrogance and pretended superiority, the Americans invaded Iraq to kill Saddam Hussein but ended up destroying the country,” he said. “We don’t want that to happen to us.” In 2013, he denied requests to launch American drone flights from Davao. “I do not want it,” he said. “I do not want trouble and killings.”

Duterte comes from a provincial political dynasty. His father, Vicente, was related to Ramon Durano, a notorious warlord in the central province of Cebu. In the late nineteen-forties, Vicente served as mayor of Danao City. Rodrigo Duterte was born in 1945, the second of five children. After the Second World War, Filipinos flocked to sparsely populated areas of Mindanao, seeking economic opportunity. In 1950, the Duterte family moved to Davao, a frontier town of plantations and indigenous tribes that was settled by American military veterans. Property disputes were common, and Duterte says that his family’s first home was demolished because it was built on someone else’s land. But the family’s hardship was short-lived. In 1959, Vicente became governor of the province of Davao, and today the Dutertes are the dominant political force in the region. Duterte’s daughter, Sara, is the mayor of Davao City, and his eldest son, Paolo, is vice-mayor. His younger brother, Benjamin, has served as a city councilman.

At a café in a Davao City mall, I met Duterte’s younger sister, Jocellyn, who works as a real-estate agent. A slender, elegant woman in her sixties with short-cropped hair, she was accompanied by two male assistants. Her composed manner bore little resemblance to her brother’s theatrical truculence. She spoke deliberately, referring to Duterte as “the Mayor” or “the President.”

Jocellyn described a childhood dominated by her father’s political career. Starting at 8 A.M., the house would fill with locals seeking jobs or favors. “You’re always in the public eye,” she said. “You hardly had any freedom.”

Rodrigo Duterte was fascinated by his family’s bodyguards. “He was always in the company of policemen, military men,” Jocellyn said. As a teen-ager, he was fond of motorcycles, girls, and guns, interests that distracted him from his studies. It took him seven years to finish high school.

According to Jocellyn, Duterte was peculiarly sensitive. “He could look at a dead body or a gunshot victim, but when he sees his own blood he faints,” she said. She recalled one day when he was playing with a gun and his finger got caught in the slide. “We were all looking at it, and it looked all right,” she said. “We saw him getting paler by the minute.” Jocellyn told me that when Duterte feels threatened he lashes out.

Duterte’s mother, Soledad, a teacher and a well-known social activist, was a strict disciplinarian who often punished Rodrigo by making him kneel on the ground and pray for hours at a time. When she got fed up with his staying out late, she locked him out of the house. He started sleeping in a shed.

In 1965, Ferdinand Marcos, a young provincial senator, won the Presidency of the Philippines with the pledge “This nation can be great again.” Marcos appeared to have the will necessary to reduce the influence of the colonial élite. He was viewed as a technocrat, but he merely replaced the old oligarchy with his own friends and relatives, including his glamorous wife, Imelda. Over time, his family amassed a fortune of up to ten billion dollars. In 1972, during his second term, Marcos declared martial law, citing Communist and Muslim insurgencies. Marcos’s closest advisers, who were known as the Rolex 12, for the wristwatches that he supposedly gave them, rounded up and tortured the regime’s political rivals.

Vicente Duterte was briefly a member of Marcos’s cabinet—Duterte has said that his father was a supporter “until the end”—while Soledad was a leading anti-Marcos protester in Davao. Duterte, at least initially, took after his mother. At the Lyceum of the Philippines University, in Manila, Duterte studied under José Maria Sison, the now exiled founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines. Sison saw U.S. imperialism and the Philippines’ feudal state as inextricably linked: in exchange for maintaining access to military bases during the Vietnam War, the U.S. allowed Marcos to continue to oppress the Philippines. Duterte joined Sison’s “nationalist youth” organization, Kabataang Makabayan, and he still occasionally speaks fondly of Sison. Soon after Duterte was elected President, Sison released a recording of a Skype call in which an unusually deferential Duterte chats with him about ongoing peace talks with the New People’s Army.

Duterte attended law school in Manila. According to a story he recounted with glee on the campaign trail, while he was a law student he shot a bullying classmate in the leg. The classmate sustained only a minor wound, and, thanks to the intervention of sympathetic professors, Duterte was allowed to graduate. Despite his leftist tendencies, he took a job as a prosecutor in Davao. The Marcos regime had jailed tens of thousands of prisoners, and one of Duterte’s tasks was prosecuting political subversives. According to Luz Ilagan, a former congresswoman from Davao, Duterte was able to help dissidents without compromising his position in the government. Ilagan’s husband, Laurente Ilagan, was one of three human-rights attorneys in Davao who were arrested in the nineteen-eighties. Duterte made sure that he wasn’t abused, and they later became friends.“The best he could do was to take custody of the activists, to insure that they would be physically safe,” Ilagan told me.

“I still think what unites us is crisper and more refreshing than what divides us.”

On August 21, 1983, after three years in exile in the United States, the opposition leader Benigno Aquino, Jr., was shot dead after he landed at the Manila airport. The assassination galvanized the anti-Marcos forces, culminating in the People Power revolution of February, 1986. Disaffected military leaders staged a coup, and hundreds of thousands of protesters flooded the EDSA highway around Manila to demand that Marcos resign. Finally, Ronald Reagan, who had long seen Marcos as a valuable ally in the fight against Communism, withdrew his support. Marcos fled the Philippines for Hawaii, leaving the Presidency to Corazon Aquino, the widow of Benigno.

The new government asked Soledad Duterte to be Vice-Mayor of Davao, and she recommended her son instead. In 1988, Duterte ran for mayor. According to Carlos Zarate, a reporter for a local paper at the time, Duterte was the chosen candidate of Marcos loyalists who had been deposed during the revolution. “That was a very peculiar situation,” Zarate said. “He was the candidate of some pro-Marcos guys but he was also close to the left.” Duterte campaigned on a law-and-order platform and won.

Davao was one of the most violent cities in the Philippines. It was there that Communist rebels, after years of waging war in the countryside, first experimented with urban warfare. The New People’s Army was firmly entrenched in the slums, where it drew support from a population fed up with corrupt police and an abusive military. N.P.A. “sparrow squads” assassinated police officers and government officials; in turn, a government-backed vigilante group known as Alsa Masa, or Masses Arise, murdered Communists. Criminal gangs kidnapped prominent members of the business community, targeting them for ransom. The Bankerohan Bridge, over the Davao River, became known as a dumping place for bodies. If a victim had been dispatched with a single bullet, journalists would attribute the killing to N.P.A. assassins.

Duterte took over the kidnapping investigations, working closely with REACT, a network of businessmen. They developed a rudimentary tracking system: when a kidnapper used a pay phone to make a ransom call, REACT members were alerted by C.B. radio. They would sound their car horns in distinctive patterns, according to which neighborhood they were stationed in, and, based on the honking in the background, investigators could get a rough idea of where the kidnappers were calling from. After Duterte solved a couple of high-profile cases, the number of kidnappings decreased.

In Davao, Duterte, known as Digong, is more popular than ever. When I visited in September, a few months after the election, civic groups, nurses, and local politicians had hung congratulatory banners from the concrete buildings that line the major streets. A barbecued-chicken restaurant was offering a discount in honor of Duterte’s election. His house, a modest two-story green building, has become a tourist attraction; a cardboard cutout of the President stood in the driveway, and, a few houses down the block, a teen-age boy sold Duterte key chains and mugs to tourists.

Residents of Davao credit Duterte with bringing prosperity to their city. A self-described socialist, Duterte nonetheless championed pro-business policies and employed market-oriented officials in the city government. His administration lured investors with tax breaks and incentives. There was a seventy-two-hour deadline on the processing of business permits, after which any delay would have to be explained to Duterte. A board made up of government officials and business leaders aggressively courted investors in Manila and abroad, resulting in a growing outsourcing industry and the construction of high-rise condominiums and malls. In 2014, Davao’s economy grew 9.4 per cent, a rate higher than that of any other region. As President, Duterte has promised to implement the “Davao model” nationwide.

Today Davao has a central 911 system, and new police vehicles can be seen whipping around the city. The absurdly low speed limit of about twenty miles per hour is strictly enforced, as is a public smoking ban. Residents see these small disciplinary measures as indicative of the strength of Duterte’s political will. One local businessman recounted with admiration the time he tried to talk his way out of a ticket for smoking. The Police Officer told him he had to fine him, because he did not want to make the Mayor mad.


In 1996, in a press conference, Duterte announced a crackdown on petty crime. According to a journalist named Editha Caduaya, soon afterward, seven alleged criminals—drug dealers and purse snatchers—were killed in one day. Some of the bodies were dumped, along with a cardboard sign that read “Solugoón Sa Katawhan” (“Servant of the People”). Between 1998 and 2009, Human Rights Watch reported a total of eight hundred and fourteen killings, mostly of teen-agers, street kids who were small-time drug dealers or petty thieves. The killings were attributed to a shadowy vigilante group called the Davao Death Squad. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, the D.D.S. often worked in a style known in the Philippines as “riding in tandem”: two men on a motorcycle ride up to a target, shoot him with a handgun, and speed off. D.D.S. members told H.R.W. that they worked off a list given to them by police officers and were paid between five thousand and fifty thousand pesos ($104 to $1,041) per target. One member said that the police had established a bidding process to choose among various cells of hit men. “If several cells want the job, they would discuss which cell can do it better,” he said.

For a death squad, the D.D.S. has a surprisingly good reputation. “The killings had the support or backing of the middle classes,” a journalist in Davao told me. “They said that it makes the city safe.” Another resident said, “The general sense is, if you don’t do anything bad, you don’t have anything to fear. It’s become like the bogeyman that you tell the kids about.” In 2012, a local television channel polled its viewers on their preferred response to a crime wave that was sweeping the city; sixty-seven per cent suggested reviving the D.D.S.

“I said no. Hamsters are a gateway pet.”

Duterte has frequently spoken approvingly of the killings and intimated that he had a hand in the D.D.S. When Caduaya asked him about his role, he told her, “I am a lawyer and I will not do the extra-judicial thing, but I will clean the city for my people to live in peace.” Caduaya told me, “We know he is there, but you cannot see him.” A 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks reported that Duterte had “all but admitted his role” in the D.D.S. to the Commission on Human Rights. When the commission’s regional director pleaded with Duterte to stop the killings, he reportedly responded, “I’m not done yet.”

It is difficult to find a resident of Davao who is willing to speak out against the death squads. One day I visited Clarita Alia, a sixty-two-year-old vegetable vender, who became a strident critic of Duterte after her four teen-age sons were killed within six years. She lives in a one-room shack on a narrow street in Bankerohan, the site of the largest market in Davao. An ancient television sat on a plastic barrel, and bedding and clothes were stacked along one wall. Alia sat cross-legged on a wooden bed frame with no mattress; next to her, her daughter played with her three-year-old granddaughter. When I asked Alia what she thought of Duterte, she said, “He is a demon.”

Speaking in Bisaya, the regional language, she explained that her trouble began in July, 2001, when police came to her home to arrest her eighteen-year-old-son, Richard, for an alleged rape. They had no warrant, so she sent them away. One of the officers told her that if she didn’t allow them to arrest Richard all of her sons would be killed. On July 17th, Richard was stabbed to death. Less than three months later, her son Christopher was also stabbed to death. Bobby was killed in 2002, Fernando in 2007. “I have heartaches even now,” she told me, starting to cry. “Every interview, I keep crying. If they were still alive, they could help me make a living.”

The Alia boys were troublesome street kids, typical targets of the D.D.S. The police told Alia that her sons had been killed in gang wars, but they never produced suspects. I asked Alia who she believed was responsible. “Who but Digong?” she replied.

Before Richard was killed, he sought help from Tambayan, a nongovernmental organization that provides aid to Davao’s street children. As more children turned up dead, Tambayan began to agitate for Duterte to stop the killings. The group organized mothers who had lost children to the killings and staged a protest outside city hall. In 2002, Tambayan invited Duterte to a forum of twenty mothers, but he didn’t show up. Duterte does not hide his disdain for victims of the D.D.S. “I’m more interested in solving crimes against innocent people,” he told a reporter from the Washington Post, in 2003. “I’m not at all interested in the killings of criminals, especially people involved with drugs.”

Alia had written a letter that she intended to read to Duterte at the forum. She keeps it in a plastic folder along with news clippings of her interviews. She handed me the creased and yellowed paper, which read, “If a child has committed a crime, it is not necessary that his life should be lost. They don’t deserve to die, because they can change. . . . Where is the justice? Is it only for the rich?”

Alia tries to persuade other mothers to speak up. Some are afraid, she said; others seem resigned to the fact that this was the fate of children who stepped out of line in Duterte’s Davao. “There are mothers who approach me who also cry, but then fall silent,” she said. “I asked them, ‘What if your child is innocent?’ And they just fall silent.”


In 2013, a grassroots movement on social media arose, urging Duterte to run for President. He responded with a performance of agonized indecision. One day he would lament that he was too old for the long hours required of a President and too poor to fund the campaign; the next day he would muse about the dire actions he would take if elected. “If ever I get to file my certificate of candidacy for President, I am telling the Filipino people not to vote for me, because it will be bloody,” he said in a TV interview in August, 2015.

In November, 2015, shortly before the start of the Presidential campaign, at a birthday party for a law-school classmate, Duterte announced that he was running. He became a replacement candidate for P.D.P.-Laban, a nearly moribund party that was founded in the nineteen-eighties to oppose Marcos. Duterte had neither the family name nor the party machinery that is typically needed to compete in a Presidential election. The early front-runner, Senator Grace Poe, is the daughter of the hugely popular movie star Fernando Poe, Jr.; another favorite, Manuel (Mar) Roxas II, the grandson of former President Manuel Roxas, was a member of Benigno Aquino III’s cabinet.

Duterte focussed on illegal drugs, an issue that has never registered among voters’ major concerns. “The usual top three problems would be health, education, housing,” Cayetano told me. But the Philippines’ close proximity to China has made it a lucrative market for drug smugglers. Methamphetamine, known as shabu, is widely abused, especially in the slums, where pedicab drivers and day laborers use the drug in order to work longer hours. Cayetano said, “He was bullheaded in telling people our problem is drugs. We’re nearly a narco-state, and our police are afraid. Our judges, fiscals”—prosecutors—“are either afraid or on the take. Congressmen are in it, mayors are in it.” The idea that drug traffickers have penetrated the government did not seem outlandish to many Filipinos, who have seen two Presidents in the past fifteen years enmeshed in racketeering scandals involving illegal gambling syndicates.

“In case you hadn’t noticed, we can all fly.”

Duterte speaks of drug use as an existential threat, a “contamination” that will destroy the country unless radical action is taken. “They are the living walking dead,” he said of shabu users. “They are of no use to society anymore.” Duterte sees drug use as a symptom of a government’s ineffectiveness, but his animus suggests a personal vendetta. Duterte, who has four children by two women, was asked at a Presidential debate what he would do if he caught his children using drugs. “None of my children are into illegal drugs,” he responded. “But my order is, even if it is a member of my family, kill him.” The WikiLeaks cable reported that the regional director of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights had claimed that one of Duterte’s sons had a history of drug abuse. “The Mayor channeled his anger over his son’s drug use not just against drug pushers, but also drug users, eventually leading him to embrace vigilante killings as a means to reduce crime,” the report read. After one of Duterte’s political opponents raised the allegation of drug abuse, Duterte’s eldest son, Paolo, took a drug test and publicized his clean result.


Duterte’s campaign had a rocky start. In a speech announcing his candidacy, he rambled on for more than an hour, offering an account of personally killing kidnappers and setting their car on fire, pledging to kill “up to a hundred thousand criminals” when elected, and boasting of his womanizing. “If I can love a hundred million and one, I can love four women at the same time,” he said.

Duterte’s language confirmed his image as a political outsider. “It was something people could relate to,” Pia Ranada, a reporter at the news Web site Rappler, told me. She said that Duterte came across as “the father who would protect you but also the masa leader, the populist leader who will look after your interests, who cares for you because he’s one of you.”

On the campaign trail, Duterte typically wore a plaid shirt and jeans. On the rare occasions when he wore a barong, a formal embroidered shirt, he rolled up the sleeves. He spoke not in the English-Tagalog mixture of the capital but in a creole of English, Tagalog, and Bisaya known as Davao Tagalog. At the beginning of the campaign, he ushered Ranada and another journalist into his house in Davao and showed off the traditional tabò, or water dipper, that he used to bathe. His one extravagance was a large collection of shoes, which he joked was the only thing that he had in common with Imelda Marcos.

This was not quite true. Duterte took from the Marcos years an ability to play both sides of a messy conflict. Marcos, who died in 1989, in Honolulu, is still surprisingly popular in the Philippines; most of his loyalists never lost faith, and many younger Filipinos look back at the charismatic leader with a kind of secondhand nostalgia. During the campaign, Duterte courted Marcos loyalists assiduously, making it a priority to rebury Marcos in the national Heroes Cemetery. He reportedly considered Marcos’s son, a fifty-nine-year-old senator named Ferdinand (Bongbong) Marcos, Jr., as a running mate, and he praised the elder Marcos, saying that he would have been the Philippines’ best President, “if he did not become a dictator.”

Nicole Curato, a sociologist at the University of Canberra, was doing field work in the slums of Tacloban, a provincial capital in the central Philippines, and saw the excitement inspired by Duterte’s candidacy. “It was a very do-it-yourself campaign,” she said. To attract crowds to rallies, politicians typically rely on a strategy known as hakot, in which poor Filipinos are given a free meal, a couple of hundred pesos, and a campaign shirt, and are bused from the slums to the city plaza, where they cheer for the chosen candidate. But Curato said that Duterte’s supporters borrowed money to get to the plaza themselves. Duterte is perpetually late, which meant that supporters might be kept waiting in the sweltering heat for as long as seven hours. Yet it seemed not to bother them. “People were really crazy about him,” Ranada told me. “It’s the only word for it.”

Duterte relied on an army of volunteers to publicize his campaign on social media. The Philippines has among the highest rates of social-media use in the world, in large part because millions of Filipinos employed abroad use it to keep in touch with their families. Overseas workers were a crucial segment of Duterte’s supporters. Since they were spread out all over the world, they could post pro-Duterte messages on Facebook at all hours. One of Duterte’s most rabid supporters was a pop star and sex blogger named Mocha Uson, the leader of a girl group called the Mocha Girls. When Duterte was accused of sexism, she posted on Facebook an account of how, when the Mocha Girls came to Davao, he was always a gentleman, unlike most mayors, who tried to arrange liaisons with them.

Duterte won in a landslide, earning six million more votes than Mar Roxas. Many people saw his victory as a protest against the political élite’s continuing inability to address the country’s problems. Duterte’s predecessor, the reformist Benigno Aquino III, had some success addressing corruption and introduced some economic reforms, but Filipinos saw little change in their lives: they still endured hellish commutes on crumbling roads; they continued to be victimized by crime, corrupt police, and a broken justice system; and about a quarter of them still lived in poverty. If these were the fruits of liberal democracy, many thought, perhaps it was time to try something new. “It’s a repudiation of the past six years of a regime that claims to be after good governance, participatory democracy, but really it doesn’t deliver the goods,” Curato said.

In June, Duterte held a victory party at the Davao City Crocodile Park. In a speech in front of two hundred thousand supporters, he received the loudest applause when he addressed drug dealers. “You sons of bitches,” he said. “I will really kill you.”


During Duterte’s first hundred days in office, the drug war was carried out with a distinctly Filipino mixture of high drama, mass spectacle, and enigmatic violence. In early August, in a speech at a naval base, Duterte read out a list of more than a hundred and fifty politicians and police officers who he alleged were involved in the illegal drug trade, the first of a number of “narcolists” that he released in the following months. It was a tactic from his days as mayor, when he went on his weekly television show, “Gikan Sa Masa, Para Sa Masa,” and read lists of names of alleged criminals and drug dealers, many of whom ended up as victims of the D.D.S.

In Duterte’s first three months as President, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, which has been monitoring the killings, listed more than fourteen hundred drug users killed by police and vigilantes. Front pages were filled with photos of the bloodstained victims, bound and gagged with duct tape, who had been shot in the head or garrotted; cardboard signs around their necks served as a warning to others. In the slums of the big cities, police carried out Operation Tokhang, or “knock and plead,” visiting the homes of people who were suspected of involvement with drugs and urging them to turn themselves in. Government reports boasted that seven hundred thousand “drug personalities” surrendered in the first two months in mass ceremonies in malls, city plazas, and auditoriums. An administration official told me that the “Guinness Book of World Records” expressed interest in certifying it as the biggest mass surrender of criminals in history.

From Davao, Duterte brought with him Ronald (the Rock) dela Rosa, who had served as the city’s Police Chief, and made him head of the Philippine National Police. The federal police are notorious for corruption, and Duterte has promised to clean up the force, calling out “ninja” cops who resell drugs confiscated in busts. But he dismissed those killed by police as “drug-crazed” maniacs who had resisted arrest, and claimed that murders attributed to the vigilantes were the result of gang wars. In August, Dela Rosa announced that the campaign had already cut the crime rate in half. The killings have done little to diminish Duterte’s popularity. “It’s part of this narrative that killing has been normalized,” Curato, the sociologist, told me. “Before, it’s the state that turns a blind eye on it, and now a broader society is also willing to just turn a blind eye on the culture of violence.” Extrajudicial killing is common enough that there’s a slang term for it: “salvaging,” which, according to the writer Jose F. Lacuna, derives from the Tagalog salbahe, meaning “wild” or “savage.”

Not long after Duterte took office, the Philippine Commission on Human Rights started a task force to investigate the extrajudicial killings. Chito Gascon, the head of the C.H.R., has warned Duterte that he risks prosecution by the International Criminal Court if he fails to halt them. In September, I met with the leader of the task force, Gwen Pimentel-Gana, at her office. Above her desk hangs a portrait of her father, Aquilino Pimentel, Jr., a Senator who was imprisoned by the Marcos regime.

Pimentel-Gana told me that in the first sixty days of the Duterte administration the commission opened more than two hundred investigations into extrajudicial killings, slightly less than half as many as were opened during the entire six years of the Aquino administration. “We now will have to tell the government,” she said, “in your fight against crime or in your fight against drugs, do not forget that lives of people are sacred.”

When I asked her whether Duterte’s rhetoric was encouraging the killings, she was equivocal: “It’s so difficult sometimes to try to interpret what he’s saying, because one time he says, ‘I’m not for human rights.’ The next time he says, ‘All those who are abusing their authority will be punished.’ ” I asked her about the difference between her tone and that of Human Rights Watch, which has declared the drug war a “human-rights calamity.” She replied brusquely. “I will talk like a Filipino, O.K.?” she said. “An ordinary worker—he goes home every night and, for the first time, when he passes through the narrow streets of his home in a shanty or what, he does not see any more drunkards or people smoking on the streets or children running around and being just left there, abandoned. He sees clean streets, peaceful at night. What would you say?”

Yet an overwhelming number of those killed in Duterte’s drug war have been poor. When asked recently about criticism from anti-poverty groups, Duterte explained that poor people are easier targets. Rich people do drugs on private jets, and “I cannot afford the fighter planes,” he said. Jose Manuel Diokno, a human-rights lawyer, told me, “Those who have a name or have some influence or hold some position who are implicated in the drug trade are given an investigation, they’re given due process. But poorer people whose names appear on the list are just simply killed.” Diokno is the dean of the law school at De La Salle University, in Manila, and the head of the Free Legal Assistance Group, founded by his father during the Marcos era to provide legal assistance to victims of martial law; his father was an opposition senator who was imprisoned for two years without charge.

We spoke on the forty-fourth anniversary of the declaration of martial law. Diokno was preparing to lead a candlelight vigil that evening. He said of that period, “A small segment of the population were branded as Communists. They were depicted as people who are godless, who have no regard for human life. The reasoning then was, since they are like that, then they are not human.” He continued, “Instead of being branded a Communist today, you’re branded a drug user or a drug addict or a drug pusher.”

Diokno pointed to the impunity afforded the Marcoses and their cronies, who have never faced charges. In many cases, they have returned to positions of influence. “The more the authorities encourage themselves and other people to take the law into their own hands, then the more our system is going to become weaker and weaker,” Diokno said. “My fear is that, at some point, it will collapse. If that happens, what will replace it?”

“You need to stop focussing on getting drunk and start focussing on being drunk.”

In August, the Senate launched a probe into the killings. The first witness was a woman named Harra Kazuo, the wife of a man who was arrested for shabu possession and killed while detained at a police station. She appeared before the Senate with her face hidden behind large sunglasses, her hair wrapped in a colorful scarf. Police claimed that her husband attempted to grab an officer’s gun, but investigators found that he had been beaten so badly by police that he could not have posed a threat. Kazuo alleged that police officers had previously extorted money from her husband. One investigator for the Commission on Human Rights told me that he believed most of the police killings in the days after Duterte’s election were done to conceal crimes committed by the cops themselves. “It will cover up their bad purpose, and they might get promoted,” he said.

On September 12th, a packed audience in the small Senate chamber heard a remarkable story. Edgar Matobato, an unassuming man with a mop of salt-and-pepper hair, claimed to have been a member of the Davao Death Squad. For more than an hour he calmly narrated a gruesome tale that sounded like the treatment for a Quentin Tarantino film. He said that the squad had as many as five hundred members, and that Duterte was intimately involved in its operation. According to Matobato, Duterte had ordered the killings of a local radio host; the romantic rival of his son Paolo; and his sister Jocellyn’s alleged lover, a dance instructor. (When I asked Jocellyn about Matobato’s testimony, she seemed particularly offended by the suggestion that she had been romantically involved with her dance instructor. “Are you kidding?” she said, scowling. “I’ve been dancing for twenty years. I’ve never involved myself in such a way, emotionally or in any way, with any dance instructor.”) Matobato said that he had personally killed fifty people, either kidnapping a victim before garrotting him in a van or shooting him in the street. The D.D.S. would then chop the victim into pieces and bury him in a quarry owned by one of Duterte’s political allies. Matobato said that he had witnessed Duterte empty two magazines from an Uzi into an agent from the National Bureau of Investigations. (Duterte has said he does not know Matobato, and referred to his testimony as “perjury.”)

The hearings were led by Senator Leila De Lima, a former Secretary of Justice with a reputation for doggedness. In 2009, as chair of the Commission on Human Rights, she opened a high-profile investigation into links between Duterte and the D.D.S. It was the first serious inquiry by Philippine authorities into the D.D.S. De Lima is an imposing woman, with cropped hair and square glasses. She strode into her Senate office nearly three hours past our scheduled interview time, after denouncing Duterte’s latest outrage to a scrum of reporters in the hall, and then disappeared for twenty minutes behind the privacy screen around her desk, like a stage actor collecting herself after a performance.

“Based on what I saw, what I heard, and what we have researched on the phenomenon of killings in Davao, I have no doubt in my mind that there existed such a death squad,” De Lima told me. “It had the acquiescence, at the very least, of the city government, particularly then Mayor Duterte.” De Lima and Duterte have publicly feuded ever since. “I lambasted him in public, lectured him on human rights,” she said. “I think he has not forgotten that.”

In August, Duterte held a press conference in which he accused De Lima of accepting campaign donations from prisoners in exchange for turning a blind eye to drug dealing at New Bilibid, the Philippines’ largest prison. He alleged that De Lima was having an affair with her driver, who acted as the bagman. Duterte’s allies in the House launched their own investigation into De Lima. Drug lords were taken from New Bilibid and brought to the chamber to describe how they had lived like kings in prison—with prostitutes, karaoke, Jacuzzis. Much was made of a purported sex tape featuring De Lima and her driver, and some congressmen threatened to play the tape at the hearing. Duterte claimed to have watched the tape. “Every time I view the video, I lose my appetite,” he joked at a press conference. De Lima denied the allegations about the sex tape, and told me, “The entire government machinery is going after me, making my life so difficult now, and hoping that I will just surrender in defeat.” Duterte’s supporters on social media have followed his example, viciously attacking De Lima and other critics. Nearly every journalist I spoke with mentioned a newly oppressive atmosphere online, in which people have begun to restrain their opinions for fear of provoking an angry mob.

As I travelled around Manila, it seemed that every taxi-driver on the congested roads had the radio tuned to the hearings in the House and the Senate; televisions in every bar were playing them, too. When the hearings occurred simultaneously, one news channel showed them in split-screen. But the public fascination centered more on the political showdown between De Lima and Duterte than on Matobato’s revelations. Filipinos are wary of assigning credibility to information presented at Senate hearings, where anything can be entered into the public record without even the modest protections of the Philippines’ liberal libel laws.

The historian Alfred McCoy has described the Philippine Senate as “a collection of basketball players, television personalities, movie stars, and failed coup plotters.” One member of the Justice Committee investigating the extrajudicial killings was Antonio Trillanes IV, who has led two coup attempts. Another, Panfilo Lacson, who headed an élite Manila police squad in the nineties, was accused of massacring eleven unarmed bank robbers. Senator Manny Pacquiao, the boxing star and Duterte ally, led an effort to depose De Lima as leader of the Senate hearings. Her replacement was Senator Richard Gordon, who recently suggested giving Duterte the power to suspend habeas corpus. After the Matobato hearing, a journalist texted me, “What you witnessed was another installment of our national telenovela.”

“I’m not wasting my life online—I’m building my brand.”

On September 17th, a few weeks after the ASEAN summit, Duterte’s administration secured the release of Kjartan Sekkingstad, a Norwegian who had been kidnapped by the Islamic terrorist group Abu Sayyaf the previous fall. Abu Sayyaf fighters had stormed a beach resort on an island near Davao and bundled Sekkingstad and three other men into a speedboat. Two of the men, Robert Hall and John Ridsdel, both Canadians, were beheaded. Abu Sayyaf, which has only about four hundred fighters, has conducted a series of kidnappings, beheadings, and bombings. In 2004, the group bombed a ferry near Manila, killing a hundred and sixteen people, the worst terrorist attack in the history of the Philippines. In August, Duterte ordered the military to destroy Abu Sayyaf.

Image result for norway's Kjartan Sekkingstad,

Released Norwegian hostage Kjartan Sekkingstad, front row left, poses with Moro National Liberation Front

Even as Duterte takes a ruthless approach to drug dealers and petty criminals, he has shown sympathy to various rebel groups that have been in a violent struggle against the state for more than fifty years. As mayor of Davao, he posed for snapshots with commanders in Communist guerrilla camps and urged local businesses to pay the so-called “revolutionary taxes” that the Communists demanded in the areas they controlled. He considers Nur Misuari, the leader of the Moro National Liberation Front, a rebel group fighting for an independent Muslim nation, a friend. In 2013, after Misuari was accused of orchestrating a siege of the town of Zamboanga, leaving a dozen residents dead, the government issued a warrant for his arrest. Duterte gave Misuari’s wife sanctuary in Davao. The M.N.L.F. has repaid him by keeping its fighters out of Davao. Ruben Bangayan, a wealthy businessman and a longtime supporter of Duterte’s, said that Duterte told the rebels, “If you want to come to Davao, you are welcome, but no guns.” Bangayan framed Duterte’s actions as sage pragmatism. “He built on good relationships with those groups for the selfish purpose of peace in Davao,” he said. “You had to do that.”

The day that Sekkingstad was released, I was in Davao with Ruben Bangayan and his brother Eddie. Sekkingstad had been married to their late cousin, and after he was kidnapped Eddie asked Duterte, who was still the Mayor, for help. “He said, ‘I will try,’ ” Eddie told me. “He always helps when it comes to kidnappings.” Eddie had rented the private jet that was, at that moment, preparing to fly Sekkingstad to Davao.

Eddie explained that Abu Sayyaf had turned Sekkingstad over to the M.N.L.F.; like Abu Sayyaf, the M.N.L.F. has its stronghold on the island of Jolo, off the southwestern coast of Mindanao. Duterte later revealed that Nur Misuari had been crucial to the negotiations over Sekkingstad.

The weather in Jolo turned stormy that evening, and they could not fly Sekkingstad out. I joined the Bangayans the next afternoon when they went to meet him. In order to avoid the media, the plan was to fly Sekkingstad to a beach resort in the city and clean him up before bringing him to the press conference. We made our way down a narrow road lined with thatch-roofed bamboo-and-concrete shanties, and pulled into the parking lot of the Seagull White Sands Beach Resort. Beyond a beach where families were playing volleyball, a concrete pier jutted into the sea. The Norwegian Ambassador, Erik Førner, and his entourage were waiting on a helipad at the end of the pier. A black helicopter approached, circled three times, and touched down, sending up a spray of seawater. The door opened, and Sekkingstad stepped out, supported by Jess Dureza, an adviser of Duterte’s who had led the negotiations. Sekkingstad had a huge beard and long scraggly hair that whipped in the wind from the helicopter blades. He wore an ill-fitting camouflage jacket with a bright-red M.N.L.F. patch. The jacket revealed his emaciated forearms. Sekkingstad hugged the Ambassador and the Bangayans, and we hustled back to the beach, through the throng of families, who were now recording the scene on their cell phones. They burst into applause.

I asked Dureza, who wore mirrored Oakley sunglasses and a black flight vest over a Jaguar racing shirt, how he’d been able to free Sekkingstad. “Magic, magic,” he said, with a laugh. “I can negotiate with anyone except my own wife!” (It was later reported that Sekkingstad had been ransomed for more than six hundred thousand dollars.)

The Norwegians and Sekkingstad went off into the hotel. A few minutes later, Sekkingstad emerged, his gaunt face clean-shaven and his hair roughly shorn, his body swimming in the shirt and slacks that the Bangayans had provided.

The Filipinos and the Norwegians huddled together to plan the rest of the evening. The Norwegians claimed that Sekkingstad had asked to be flown immediately from Manila to Norway, where his family was waiting, while the Filipinos insisted that he wanted to stay in Davao.

I sat at a nearby table, straining to make out the conversation. Dureza said, “It is very important that we brief him for intelligence.” He argued that the Bangayans deserved to spend some time with Sekkingstad before he was whisked away. “He lived with them, and, I tell you, the Bangayans did a lot to bring him out,” Dureza said. A Norwegian security officer continued to press his case, and Dureza started to shout, pounding his fist on the table. “Why are you telling him that you need to take him out of Davao tonight?” he said. “You are still on Philippines territory!”

The argument lasted only a few minutes. Soon Dureza was laughing and shaking Førner’s hand. It was settled: Sekkingstad would fly to Manila directly after meeting with Duterte, who was in Davao, where he spends almost every weekend.

“Fall makes him sad.”

The press conference was scheduled for 7 P.M. at the nearby Matina Enclaves, a luxury condominium development owned by one of Duterte’s supporters. Forty journalists, photographers, and TV cameramen waited in a small meeting room with a podium. Duterte was more punctual than usual: at 8:22 P.M., his arrival was announced with a song, “Duterte for Real Reform,” by the Filipino folk star Freddie Aguilar. Aguilar had written the song for Duterte’s campaign, and a recording is played before most of his public appearances. (Sample lyrics: “Look around you / Crime is rampant / Rape, drugs, and stealing / Should be stopped.”) Duterte was accompanied by a number of security guards, who have adopted the President’s plaid shirt as their uniform. As the Norwegians and the Bangayans took their seats, Duterte chatted with a couple of journalists. When Dureza took the podium, Duterte stood awkwardly in front of him until an aide instructed him to sit next to Sekkingstad.

“Mr. President, may I then therefore present to you Kjartan Sekkingstad, who is now a free man,” Dureza said. Duterte took the podium. He spoke in a low, halting monotone, as if he had something else on his mind. “First of all, I would like to thank the efforts—the efforts beyond human patience—of Secretary Dureza and, of course, Nur Misuari,” Duterte said. He went on, “I was just, you know, up there directing the traffic of where and how to go about the job.” He put his hand to his face, stroking his chin with his thumb, which heightened his air of disinterest. He often makes this gesture while speaking; after a comedy show parodied the tic, he explained that he does it to soothe a nerve that was damaged in a motorcycle accident.

He trailed off, then turned to a subject that he clearly found more engaging. “The problem is,” he said, raising his voice and his eyebrows, “is it safe in Mindanao?”

As the Norwegians looked on, Duterte held forth on the chaos that he saw engulfing his country: “We are racked with so many problems—kidnapping in the south, terrorism, drugs.” He said that drug money had corrupted even the smallest unit of local government, the barangay. “The barangay captains connive or coöperate or extend assistance to terrorists and drugs,” he said. “And that will be the start of our perdition and our agony.”

He had a new narcolist, which he had checked twice for accuracy. During the campaign, Duterte had promised to end crime and drug abuse in three to six months, but now he threw up his hands as he pleaded for more time. “Maybe another six months,” he said. “I didn’t have any idea that there were hundreds of thousands of people already in the drug business.”

He turned to Sekkingstad and assured him that his captors would be held accountable. “I assure you,” he said. “When the time comes, I will inform you. I will just inform you that we have been able to catch up with them.” His casual tone belied a menacing subtext.

“Your travails in life are over, until such time that we get the one true justice.” He paused, then said, “We will give them that, if that is what they want.” ♦


This article appears in the print edition of the November 21, 2016, issue, with the headline “The Tough Guy.

  • Adrian Chen joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2016.

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