In recent weeks, there have been several commentaries reporting a temporary new norm in the South China Sea (SCS) — realpolitik’s triumph over moralpolitik and the rapid decline of regional US soft power. But current developments suggest otherwise. Years of ill-advised US acquiescence and accommodation (strategic patience and wishful thinking) in the SCS appear to be over for now.
There indeed seems to be a new norm emerging in the SCS. But it is more reflective of the new muscular US National Security Strategy and US National Defense Strategy that call for an embrace of strategic great power competition with China than of a decline of US influence in the region.
Many countries are now firmly pushing back against Chinese unilateral expansionism in the SCS. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reportedly declared that he was ready and willing to go to war with China over SCS resources. A prominent Taiwanese think tank has proposed leasing Taiwan-occupied Taiping Island to the US military. And at the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue, the United States, India, Vietnam, France and the United Kingdom all spoke strongly against China’s assertive and destabilising actions in the SCS.
These words are being backed up by actions.
Washington disinvited Beijing to the 2018 Rim of the Pacific naval exercise on the grounds that Chinese actions in the SCS run counter to international norms and the pursuit of free and open seas. US freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) and presence operations in the SCS continue, and US defence officials are reportedly considering a more assertive program that could include longer patrols, more ships and closer surveillance of Chinese facilities.
London and Paris have joined Washington to challenge Beijing in the SCS. Both have conducted naval operations in the SCS to put pressure on China’s increased militarization of the disputed and contested waters.
Vietnam continues the modest expansion of its outposts in the Spratly Islands. With the latest construction at Ladd Reef, Hanoi has made small and incremental upgrades to 21 of its 49 outposts in recent years. The construction work also underscores a new facet of Vietnam’s military doctrine in the SCS — the employment of a maritime militia that will emulate China’s maritime militia, which China uses to enhance its presence and operations in the contested waters without provoking a military response from other countries.
Malaysia — like Vietnam and the Philippines — is embarking on a military buildup to better protect its maritime claims and interests in the SCS. Kuala Lumpur recently announced that it would upgrade its naval aircraft as well as purchase ship-based naval helicopters. The enhanced naval aviation capabilities are intended to support an ongoing comprehensive modernization of its surface fleet.
The aforementioned commentaries on the SCS also repeat some familiar Chinese perspectives on US FONOPs and US intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations that require some US perspectives for a more balanced understanding of the issues.
US FONOPs are an important expression of and are recognised by international law. The purpose and intent of US FONOPs are clearly laid out in US policy, and all operations are meticulously documented and published every year. On the whole, US FONOPs challenge excessive maritime claims in the SCS, not competing sovereignty claims; do not discriminate against particular states, but rather focus on the claims that individual states assert; are deliberate in nature, but are not deliberate provocations; and contest unilateral restrictions on freedom of navigation and overflight rather than accept rhetoric.
US ISR operations — which are conducted inside other countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs) — are lawful under customary international law and Article 58 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
The Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning steaming forward the South China Sea.
The Chinese argument on the permissibility of military activities in EEZs is counter to the US position. The United States believes that while coastal states under UNCLOS have the right to regulate economic activities in their EEZs, they do not have the right to regulate foreign military activities in their EEZs.
Beijing contends that military activities — such as ISR flights, maritime survey operations and military exercises — on the high seas and in EEZs are unlawful according to UNCLOS, and that it is a requirement under UNCLOS that the high seas are used only for peaceful purposes, despite itself doing exactly the opposite.
Beijing’s interpretation of UNCLOS is a minority position held by 27 states, while the vast majority of states (over 100, including all permanent United Nations Security Council members other than China) do not hold this position.
The region and the world have come to the realisation that Beijing’s actions in the SCS are dangerously undermining the extant global order that China itself has benefited from. Other countries must now be more assertive to encourage and challenge China to become a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system. Otherwise, Beijing will be further emboldened to expand and accelerate its campaign to control the disputed and contested strategic waterway through which trillions of dollars of global trade flows each year.
Tuan N Pham is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed therein are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US Government.
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.”
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.
There 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 EsquirePhilippines, told me, “There are no slow news days anymore in the Philippines.”
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.
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.
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.”)
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.”
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.
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.
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.” ♦
In a series of public lectures beginning in 2016, Professor Terence Gomez began to distil the findings of his latest research into corporate governance in Malaysia. The first finding was a marked reduction in the holding of private directorships by members of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition. The second was a major growth in the influence and power of Government Linked Companies (GLCs; individual state-owned enterprises) and Government Linked Investment Companies (GLICs; state-owned investment vehicles) over the Malaysian economy.
What such findings did was to challenge typical understandings of “money politics”, and the relationship between politics and business, in Malaysia. The data pointed not towards the direct influence of the political class over private enterprise, but rather a growing centralisation of economic and political power in the Office of the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance (an office which is today held concurrently), and the influence of the state over the economy through the GLCs and seven large GLICs. The resulting book, Minister of Finance Incorporated: Ownership and Control of Corporate Malaysia, written alongside Gomez’s team of research assistants, has brought into the spotlight not only problems of political centralisation and GLC/GLIC governance reform, but also the effect of the very structure of the Malaysian economy on the country’s continuing prospects for development. (Disclosure: the author works for Gerakbudaya, the Malaysia/Singapore publisher of Prof Gomez’s book, but writes here in a personal capacity.)
Malaysia’s state developmentalism
Many of the GLICs have their origins in the period from the 1950s to the 1970s, and during this time came to play an important role in the project of state developmentalism. Gomez, however, marks the Asian Financial Crisis—and the political and economic crisis it produced—as a crucial moment in the emergence of GLCs and GLICs. With highly indebted, “too-big-to-fail” companies in the private sector bankrupted by the crisis, GLICs were mobilised by the government to bail them out. After Anwar Ibrahim’s failed challenge to the leadership of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, GLICs were mobilised to appropriate the businesses of Anwar’s cronies.
The growth of GLICs was then a means to resolve the contradictions and limitations of the political and economic development that arose under Mahathir. This was to continue during the fallout of the conflict between Mahathir and Daim Zainuddin—which saw the assets of Daim’s allies and proxies transferred to GLICs—and a program of bank consolidation which, in the name of rationalisation, drastically increased the role of government in the banking sector.
The growing importance of the GLICs to economic development seen in the attention paid to them by Malaysia’s next two prime ministers. Under Abdullah Badawi the GLC Transformation Programme was launched. It sought to have GLCs operate on a more commercial basis, divesting from non-core investments, offering higher dividend returns, cooperating more with the private sector, and internationalising their operations. Just as significantly, through the emphasis on the vendor system, they were to help link up Malaysia’s large SME sector with local and foreign supply chains.
When Najib came to power with his transformation agenda, he noted the way in which rentseeking and patronage was harming the economy. Through the New Economic Model he called for the reduction in the role of the state in business, an overhaul of the system of race-based affirmative action, and the reform and privatisation of GLCs. Nevertheless, pushback from prominent politicians such as Mahathir and right-wing Malay NGOs led to a reversal of this policy. By 2013, Najib had unveiled the Bumiputera Economic Empowerment (BEE) policy which, against the prescriptions of the New Economic Model, mobilised GLCs to promote “market friendly affirmative action” through the Bumiputera Vendor Development Programme. From 2009 onwards, Najib would increasingly tap GLCs to generate growth and infrastructure development, as well as to draw investments from foreign State Owned Enterprises (SOEs), particularly from China, which saw the state come to play an increasingly dominant role in the economy.
This about turn was more than anything rooted in the political legacy of the New Economic Policy, with its twin-pronged focus on state intervention to correct race-based distributional inequalities and to promote continuous economic development.
Ownership and control
When James Puthucheary, from his cell in Changi Prison, embarked on his investigation into the structure and organisation of the Malayan economy, it was to the twin problems of ownership and control that he turned. Defined, he argued, by an uneven and unequal model of colonial development, the central economic problem of Malaya was not the role played by the Chinese middleman but the domination of foreign clearing houses and foreign capital over key areas of economic life. This structure was, he said, central to understanding the exploitation of the peasant as well as the limitations on the future development of the Malayan economy. To overcome this, Puthucheary would argue for a program of state intervention in the economy to mobilise the state to overcome existing inequalities and unevenness and to transform the dominant model of ownership and control.
Post-1969, intervention occurred under the New Economic Policy, but without reaching a fundamental resolution to the uneven patterns of ownership and control. While foreign ownership of the economy was reduced, this was largely undertaken without radically affecting major foreign interests in the economy. Malaysia’s development was to continue to depend heavily on foreign direct investment rather than domestic capital, ensuring that, unlike South Korea and Taiwan, Malaysia wasn’t to nurture domestic giants such as Samsung or Foxconn. Rather, the state, in alliance with wealthy tycoons, was to play an increasing role in the economy, maintaining a centralisation and inequality of assets and wealth, both through systems of selective privatisation and later through the GLCs.
More recently, one of the findings of Gomez’s research is the resurgence of foreign ownership in the Malaysian economy, with companies such as Digi, Nestlé, and British American Tobacco leading the list of Malaysian companies by market capitalisation, highlighting the continuing dependence and openness of the Malaysian economy. Meanwhile, in the realm of rural development, the focus was not on major land redistribution—which kickstarted economic miracles in South Korea and Taiwan—but more selective land distribution through FELDA and rural development schemes.
Central to Puthucheary’s analysis of ownership and control was the problem of national development, both in terms of the development of a nation out of the various races of Malaya and the mobilisation of the economy for the development and prosperity of such a nation. In similar terms, central to the critique of Gomez and others of the NEP has been its inability to promote such a meaningful and broad-based national development. Gomez’s research into relations between politics and business has been highly critical of the role of selective privatisation and bumiputera equity quotas in the promotion of money politics at the expense of meaningful economic development.
In a 2005 report, Gomez, alongside Lim Teck Ghee, was also to note how the focus on bumiputera equity had ignored the problem of the broad-based development of the Malay community and the growth of the country’s SMEs. He noted how within the SME sphere successful multi-ethnic business relations were being fostered outside of the scope of the NEP. In his latest book, Gomez has highlighted the role played by the concentration of economic control in the Ministry of Finance in disincentivising industrial growth and investment for fear of expropriation of business by the state—evidenced, he argues, by Malaysia’s premature deindustrialisation, and the growing dominance of the service sector within the Malaysian economy.
Here the problem of the middle-income trap emerges as central to the contemporary pattern of ownership and control as outlined by Gomez—and thus the problem of the inner limits of modes of development, as proposed by Puthucheary, becomes restated. Today, can a political economy model defined by high levels of centralisation, and dominated by the interests of GLICs, provide the kind of broad-based economic development that can move Malaysia, and bangsa Malaysia, towards high-income status? Or is a new model of ownership and control required?
The new developmentalism in Southeast Asia
In an earlier co-edited volume, Government-Linked Companies and Sustainable, Equitable Development, Gomez and other scholars highlighted the growing importance of GLCs and SOEs in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis in challenging liberal capitalist understandings of economic development. Taking a broader view, Joshua Kurtlantzick has highlighted the contemporary resurgence of state capitalism within global political economy. Fundamental to this has been the growing importance of SOEs, from Petrobras in Brazil to Gazprom in Russia or Deutsche Bahn in Germany.
This tendency is becoming increasingly evident in Southeast Asia’s contemporary political economy.
In Indonesia, SOEs have formed the centrepiece of Joko Widodo’s developmental agenda, being mobilised to fill the gaps in the development of major infrastructure projects, where the private sector has been reluctant to invest in high-risk or capital intensive projects, while busying itself with rent-seeking behaviour. More recently, Danang Widoyoko has read the fall of former Jakarta governor Ahok as a struggle between Ahok’s SOE-centric development agenda—evident in the major land clearance projects in Jakarta—and politically-connected private interests who came to resent the increased role of SOEs in key economic sectors. The struggle in Jakarta was thus, on Widoyoko’s reading, a struggle between two factions of capital: state, and crony.
In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte has begun to pursue a similarly ambitious development agenda, headlined by massive infrastructure plans, under his “Build, Build, Build” program. Similar to the case of Indonesia, in the face of private sector inertia in infrastructure development the state has moved in to directly finance and organise such infrastructure projects both through the mobilisation of SOEs as well as through the promotion of public-private partnerships. The emphasis in the Philippines, however, is on the public sector’s leading projects through “Hybrid PPPs”, with projects then subsequently bid out to the private sector. Such a program relies heavily on Chinese official development assistance, with Duterte keen to see the Philippines integrated into China’s Belt and Road initiative.
In Thailand, control and reform of SOEs has been a point of struggle between the military and the followers of Thaksin Shinawatra. SOE reform has emerged as an important plank of junta policy, led by an attempt to form a strategic holding company capable of managing SOEs, similar to Singapore’s Temasek or Malaysia’s Khazanah. More recently, in response to a slowdown in the Thai economy, the government has ramped up spending through SOEs, in particular through a new series of infrastructure projects with the aim of boosting growth.
Yet this trend does not represent the re-emergence of a postcolonial developmental state, of the kind Puthucheary and his contemporaries examined. Instead, a new model is emerging, one which tends to blur the difference between the state and market, led by the growing importance of substantially commercialised GLCs, GLICs and SOEs.
If in the 1980s the emergence of “state corporatism”—with concepts such as Malaysia Incorporated—saw close cooperation between the corporate sector and the state, the growing importance of GLCs and GLICs has increasingly promoted parts of the state which do themselves function as corporate entities. Such arrangements allow the state to assume the organisational effectiveness of the market-driven corporate organisation, in combination with the executive authority of the state and offering governments the ability to both financialise assets and render debts “off the books”.
Such strategies are not only economically useful, but also relevant in electoral terms in Southeast Asia. In the context of Indonesia, Eve Warburton has talked of the emergence of a new developmentalism, which places a developmental nationalism at the heart of the political arena—not dissimilar to the effect of Dutertenomics in the Philippines. In the Malaysian context Bridget Welsh has talked of a commercialisation of electoral politics, highlighting the importance of financial transactions emanating from the state and big business in the accrual of electoral support.
In both of these forms, GLCs and GLICs have emerged as central to electoral politics. In the case of Malaysia they have formed the direct vehicles through which the government can raise (or launder) campaign finances, and provide electoral groups with patronage resources during election periods. More generally, they have become vehicles to fill the gap created by the demise of the classic developmental state, exemplified by the establishment of GLC foundations from Yayasan 1MDB, to Yayasan Rakyat 1Malaysia and Yayasan Hasanah, and through the practice of corporate social responsibility. In the same way, GLCs are increasingly used as vehicles for policies of affirmative action or “sustainable” and “inclusive” development.
This process does not continue uncontested. In Malaysia, a debate is emerging regarding the role played by GLCs and GLICs, and around the role of the state in the corporate sector. The liberal Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) has called for government divestment from GLCs, particularly highlighting the tendencies for GLCs to crowd out private sector investment (to which one prominent GLIC responded at length). The G25, a group of Malay thought leaders, has called in a new report for a review of the economic efficacy and impact of GLCs and GLICs, urging the privatisation of non-strategic GLCs and the regulation of existing GLCs to turn them into a catalyst of private sector growth.
The opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan used its 2018 Alternative Budget to note the contemporary problem of premature deindustrialisation, and argued for an industrialisation policy driven by SMEs. A key component of this is the privatisation of GLCs, to produce a more level playing field for private enterprise. To this end, Pakatan Harapan proposes to promote a better environment for FDI as well as incentivising domestic direct investments through tax cuts. Yet whether or not this will remain possible, and whether or not it would lapse into FDI-driven privatisation and liberalisation, remains an important question.
For his part, Gomez has noted the ability of GLCs to perform well and contribute towards economic growth. Yet he remains a critic of their centralised political control, and of their use as mechanisms for race-based affirmative action by a predatory state. Such a dichotomy is also applicable to many developing states: while SOEs can help resolve some of the contradictions of economic liberalisation and privatisation, and can act as engines for growth, their ability to act as engines of economic transformation—raising states up the economic value chain—remains more doubtful, as does their ability to produce broad-based and inclusive economic development.
Today this realisation is itself at the centre of ongoing processes of reform within the developmental state. Yet such projects of reform have been undertaken within the context of self-imposed limits, guaranteeing such reforms remain largely conservative: the resurgence of the developmental state in its contemporary form does not imply a substantial redistribution of economic power, let alone its democratisation.
The political power of labour has continuously been suppressed through a curtailment of labour organisation. Welfare policy has been restricted to hardcore poverty alleviation largely through micro-credit schemes and cash transfers, as against more robust responses to marketplace disadvantage. In the area of investment, the emphasis upon fiscal restraint and debt management has meant not only a lack of industrial investment programs, but also a lack of meaningful investment in education and skills, particularly through higher education reform. Similarly, while the rationalisation of the state apparatus has been a central theme for many governments, a more meaningful redistribution of public funds towards development and away from traditional power centres, such as the security sector or bureaucracy, has been ignored. Most importantly, the question of inequality has been constrained to the arena of populist politics, leaving the economic and political problems of unequal distributions of wealth, income, and opportunity unresolved. In short, the “revolution from above” has been particularly wary of any “revolution from below”.
This program of limited reformism has reproduced a limited model of development, one which a growing source of discontent. On the one hand a politician such as Rodrigo Duterte has been able to rise to power on an impatience with the outcomes of state-led reform, while on the other hand there has emerged a growing politicisation of current models of development in the form of growing labour activism, popular protests (such as those in Malaysia against GST and the TPP), as well the growth of political movements that place at the centre of their politics problems of labour, welfare, investment, state reform, and inequality.
What is needed today is a critique of contemporary processes of reform capable of exposing their limitations and contradictions, and which therefore lays the groundwork for a politics of development that brings into question contemporary patterns of ownership and control, and their effect on development. Terence Gomez’s critique of government–business ties in Malaysia’s current model of development, and their relationship to the rise of GLCs and GLICs, marks a particularly important step in this direction.
The ‘United States Factor’ in Southeast Asia: The Philippine and Singaporean (Re)assesments
By Ithrana Lawrence
Despite reports on the unpredictability of Washington’s Asia policy, the Trump Administration, through telephone diplomacy, high-level bilateral visits, attendance at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), East Asian Summit (EAS) and bilateral meetings in Vietnam and the Philippines, has displayed a “post-pivot” US commitment to the region and its multilateral initiatives. This aside, its engagement framed by collective action on North Korea, and a lack of specific concrete regional cooperatives, plays into Southeast Asia’s long-term anxiety.
This anxiety is addressed by Southeast Asian leaders recalibrating their external engagements, including relations with the United States, in their strategic pursuit of policy maneuverability, autonomy, and prosperity. The cases of the Philippines and Singapore highlight how regional countries are coping with “The United States Factor”.
The Philippines’ Realignment under President Rodrigo Duterte
Under President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ perception of the US role in the region has changed. Although recognized as a major non-NATO US ally since 2003, the Philippines increasingly views China as an important and economically attractive source of support, and Manila has shown an increasing willingness to accommodate Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea (SCS). Despite a 66 year-old alliance, the Philippines is diverging from the United States on issues of security and governance.
Duterte’s announced “separation” from the United States and refusal to visit Washington despite Trump’s invitation are efforts to chart an independent foreign policy. Distance from the U.S. is a price President Duterte seems eager to pay. Although the Obama-Aquino administrations’ Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) allowing US military forces and weapons to be stationed in the Philippines was ruled constitutional and has not been abrogated, Manila is wary of implementation. For example, the Philippine Defense Secretary remarked it was “unlikely” that the United States would be allowed to conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) from the Philippines “to avoid any provocative actions that can escalate tensions” as the “US can fly over there coming from other bases.” Similarly, Duterte downplayed US assistance in Marawi despite the US Embassy in Manila reporting a donation of planes, weapons, technical assistance, and humanitarian aid worth $56 million in 2017 – recognizing instead the contributions of China and Russia on the same day Secretary of Defense Mattis arrived in Manila.
Doubts about US commitment of the United States to defend the Philippines in the event of a conflict with China in the South China Sea have driven President Duterte to chart an engagement strategy avoiding over-reliance on Washington. China’s symbolic $14.4 million arms package was delivered as the US Congress disapproved a sale of assault rifles for the Philippine National Police (PNP) due to concerns of state sanctioned human rights violations in the ‘war on drugs’. The Philippines has leveraged competition in the region, securing Beijing’s pledge of $24 billion in infrastructure (including free infrastructure) projects in Davao and Manila, and $22.7 million in Marawi; alongside Tokyo’s $8.8 billion “maximum support” to rebuild Marawi.
Duterte’s Philippines has shown selective accommodation to China’s assertiveness as it recognizes the opportunities of engaging a rising China. Recent examples include the removal of a hut on a sandbar upon Beijing’s protest, not openly protesting territorial incursions, and allowing Chinese ships to survey within Philippine territory. That being said, the Philippines remains committed to its territorial sovereignty, with the Philippine Navy deployed to guard current claims.
The Trump administration’s generally absent rhetoric on human rights, and praise for the war on drugs has improved bilateral leadership camaraderie. All anti-US outbursts over the year aside, President Duterte’s ‘karaoke diplomacy’ at the ASEAN Summit gala dinner signals an affinity for the commander in chief of the United States.
Singapore’s Longstanding Alignment
Despite China’s growing economic significance, political assertiveness, and security provocations in the SCS, Singapore’s alignment responses have been different than those of the Philippines. Singapore is partnering closer with Washington than with Beijing on most issues, and the United States is still viewed as an indispensable partner, significant to the development and security of the island state. While Singapore boasts a high degree of military technology, interoperability, and physical infrastructure to host the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s logistics command, its refusal to be recognized as a major non-NATO US ally reflects the island-state’s maintenance of a public non-aligned strategic engagement.
Although China is the island-state’s top trading partner, the United States remains its largest foreign investor with stock totaling $228 billion and an annual bilateral trade surplus. Singapore’s open support of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s July 2016 ruling and non-claimant concern over freedom of navigation in its regional waters faced high-cost pressure from Beijing: seizure of military equipment in Hong Kong en-route from exercises in Taiwan, cancellation of the 2016 high level Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC) and apparent non-invitation of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. Although showing resolve to face China’s growing pressure, a subsequent delegation of high-level officials to Beijing followed by Prime Minister Lee’s own visit is symbolic of Beijing’s growing significance as a partner not to be openly defied. Singapore looks to harness China’s economic engagement with the region specifically as a global financial services hub for the Belt and Road Initiative and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
Singapore remains a strong advocate for US engagement in the region, with a pledge to facilitate initiatives for regional counter-terrorism efforts upon assuming ASEAN Chairmanship in 2018. Bilaterally, Prime Minister Lee’s pledge to extend to 2018 his country’s support for the anti-IS coalition in the Middle East (the only Asian country to contribute personnel) and deployment of helicopters to hurricane relief efforts in Texas are symbolic of Singapore’s activism and the leadership’s institutionalized affinity for the United States. The progressive deepening of defense cooperatives also witnessed the first bilateral naval exercise taking place off the coast of Guam, following the deployment of the Singapore Air Force (RSAF) there for joint training in April.
The lack of transparency on Malaysia’s deals with China is worrying
The Philippine and Singaporean alignments demonstrate models that can be expanded to other Southeast Asian countries. There are signs countries like Indonesia and Malaysia are reassessing the traditional role of the United States and to a certain extent adjusting their external engagements as the systemic conditions that placed the United States as the key security protector, economic patron, and diplomatic partner at the end of the Cold War are changing. Future research on asymmetrical alignment under uncertainty should examine these states.
About the Author
Ithrana Lawrence, is a former Visiting Fellow at the East-West Center in Washington. She can be contacted at Ithrana.L@gmail.com
The East-West Center promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue.
Established by the US Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.
The Asia Pacific Bulletin (APB) series is produced by the East-West Center in Washington.
APB Series Editor: Dr. Satu Limaye, Director, East-West Center in Washington APB Series Coordinator: Peter Valente, East-West Center in Washington
The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the East-West Center or any organization with which the author is affiliated.
President Rodrigo Duterte, who took over the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations a year ago, is responsible for a decision to mute controversy over ownership of the South China Sea that has drastically changed ASEAN’s role in the resolution of the longstanding territorial dispute between its claimant-states and China.
Duterte’s year-long leadership of the 10-member pact was hardly a watershed. Overall, the Philippines did put ASEAN towards a more productive path on some points by steering clear of the more contentious issues of addressing human rights issues or giving claimant states much-needed regional support in their territorial conflict with China.
“Given ASEAN’s constraints and limitations, its modus operandi and increasing workload of consultations and discussions, it is difficult to see what else it [the Philippines] could have done within the one-year chairmanship that could make ASEAN more progressive and more productive,” said Jay Batongbacal, director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.
“It was enough for [the Philippines] to have been able to competently chair and host the meetings without potential serious controversies (particularly regarding the South China Sea and the Rohingya) paralyzing its processes.”
On the issue of the South China Sea and China’s claim to virtually all of it via its so-called Nine-Dash Line, the events of the last year draw a clear contrast to previous actions. Two decades ago, the Philippines had to ask for the help of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) over China’s reported military installations in Mischief reef, an atoll claimed by both Manila and Beijing.
ASEAN came to the rescue with a joint communique calling for a code of conduct in 1996, designed to set restrictions on the construction of buildings and military activity in the sea, which was being claimed by ASEAN members Malaysia and Brunei. Vietnam, another claimant, joined ASEAN later.
Fast forward to 2017. ASEAN, under Duterte’s chairmanship, and China has endorsed a framework for the code of conduct. It was Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi – and not ASEAN – which announced the adoption of the framework at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in August.
It won’t ultimately show ASEAN’s unity. Ironically, even as it signals an important milestone in the history of resolving the maritime rows between China and clamant-states, it also cements the return to settling the territorial discord over South China Sea through bilateral talks – just the way China wants it.
Duterte’s pivot: Good to a point
As the height of irony, the first sign of the thawing of Manila’s cold relations with Beijing started when the Philippines won its dispute against the latter when an international court in The Hague struck down China’s nine-dash claim in July 2016, scoring a significant win for the Philippines which, devoid of military might, had to cast its lot in the international court of arbitration.
It was a historic win in a David-vs-Goliath scenario. But Duterte was quick to change the tone of the triumph, calling “on all those concerned to exercise restraint and sobriety” instead of celebrating the stunning rebuke to China.
There are two major explanations behind Duterte’s lackluster reaction. US President Barack Obama chastised the Philippine leader for alleged human rights violations allegedly committed under Duterte’s violent and murderous war on drugs, sparking a furious response from Duterte, who responds to criticism of his actions with hair-raising rhetoric.
But in addition, Duterte has always maintained that the Philippines is no match for the military and economic superpower China and that as an Asian neighbor it is in the Philippines’ interest to make its own pivot.
That is a mantra that defined the Philippines’ ASEAN chairmanship. And, while it marked a shocking turnaround for the Philippines – which used to be counted on as one of the most aggressive and vocal ASEAN-member states in its opposition to China’s expansionism in South China Sea – it did help keep China at the negotiating table until a framework on the COC was finalized.
“The Duterte administration’s ‘softly’ approach on its disputes with China in South China Sea permitted the framework agreement to be realized,” said Malcolm Cook, Senior Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS)-Yusof Ishak Institute.
Prior to Duterte’s reign, his predecessor Benigno Aquino III explored different ways to strengthen the position of the ASEAN claimant-states. The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs proposed a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Cooperation in the South China Sea in 2011 to enclave the Spratly and Paracel islands and turn them into a Joint Cooperation Area.
The proposal, however, did not gain much support from other ASEAN members. The following year, China and the Philippines would engage in a standoff in the Scarborough Shoal, pushing the Philippines to consider taking the legal route – and eventually winning – against China.
ASEAN, however, was divided over the Philippines’ victory in 2016. While Vietnam lauded it, Cambodia – which considers China a major economic ally – objected to it being referenced in the joint communique at the 2016 ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Vientiane, Laos, resulting in the first time the organization failed to agree on a joint communique.
When the Philippines chaired ASEAN in 2017, it adopted Cambodia’s stance, negating the mention of Manila’s momentous victory in any forum involving ASEAN and China. The Philippines took that a step further by opposing the inclusion of any objection to China’s alleged militarization and land reclamation in South China Sea in the joint communique in August.
In the ASEAN Regional Forum in August 2017, Philippine foreign affairs Sec. Alan Peter Cayetano admitted that the Philippines wanted references to land reclamation and militarization in South China Sea dropped in the joint communique, forcing Vietnam into a corner. “They’re not reclaiming land anymore, so why will you put it again this year?” he said.
In the end though, consensus prevailed and the chairman had to give in. The Philippines withdrew its opposition and the joint communique contained language showing concerns over China’s reported militarization and land reclamation activities.
But up until the 31st ASEAN Summit in November, even as the Philippines was caught in another standoff – albeit briefly – with China in Thitu (Pag-asa) island, the Philippines was still generally cordial in its approach.
The most that Duterte did is to bring up with China the concerns of ASEAN about freedom of navigation in the strategic trade route, which China said it wouldn’t impede.
“The warmer ties between Philippines and China, combined with the chairmanship of the Philippines, were instrumental in drawing down the prominence of the (South China Sea) SCS disputes on the ASEAN agenda, from being a divisive issue in 2013 into a practically peripheral matter in 2017,” Jay Bongalo, director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea said.
“This will allow ASEAN to essentially remove the controversial aspects of the SCS issues from its agenda, move on from playing any really significant role in the resolution of the territorial and jurisdictional rows, and allow the ASEAN claimant countries to deal with their respective issues bilaterally with China.”
Even if the Philippines was able to get the negotiations on the COC going, ASEAN as whole and at its best, will now largely focus on crisis management or prevention. When it comes to resolving territorial tiff, each country will now be left on its own – a crucial victory for Beijing.
ASEAN’s expected “lowest point:” human rights
In the 31st ASEAN Summit, allegations by a long list of human rights organizations over violations and extrajudicial killings in the Philippines were brought up by the US (though this was denied by the Philippines), Canada and New Zealand, countries that are external partners of ASEAN, but not by ASEAN members themselves.
The Philippines, which decried any criticism over the issue from other countries, was also silent on another human rights concern, the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar. The Rohingya ethnic group had to flee the Rakhine state in Myanmar due to cases of persecution and discrimination.
This was a curious reaction as Duterte appeared sympathetic to the state of refugees from the Middle East, even saying that they are welcome to the Philippines. In the case of the Rohingya however, the Philippines drew the line when it did not mention the “Rohingya” in its statement at the UN General Assembly in New York in September. This was challenged by Malaysia, which slammed the statement as a “misrepresentation of reality.””
Malaysia has yet to find an ally from ASEAN. At the ASEAN defense ministers’ meeting, Philippine Defense Sec. Delfina Lorenzana said that ASEAN agreed the Rohingya problem is an “internal matter” in Myanmar.
ASEAN’s hands-off attitude over the human rights problems in the Philippines and Myanmar were to be expected, however according to political analysts given the body’s principle of non-interference.
“ASEAN’s handling of the most prominent human rights issues such as the Rohingya crisis and the drug-related killings in the Philippines are definitely the lowest points in its performance,” Batongbacal said. “However, this is to be expected given ASEAN’s non-interference principle and reluctance to discuss human rights issues, as both directly involve the domestic policies of member-states.”
Malcolm agreed, saying ASEAN’s hands are further tied by its principle to act based on consensus. While saying that ASEAN’s response to the reported human rights violations in the Philippines and Myanmar were far from sufficient, one should not expect much from it.
“As ASEAN is an inter-governmental, consensus-based body, one should not expect much from ASEAN in relation to human rights abuses undertaken by member-states,” Malcolm said. “Quiet diplomacy and moral suasion is the best ASEAN will do in this front.”
There’s one bright spot, however when it comes to ASEAN’s action on rights – and that is the signing of the ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers. The agreement, which gives allows migrant workers to form unions apart from enjoying other rights, came 10 years after ASEAN member-states adopted the Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers in Cebu, Philippines.
United against extremism
ASEAN, while divided on a number of issues, was united when it comes to tackling terrorism, a problem faced by the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. The Philippines in particular just ended a five-month siege in Marawi city, Mindanao which was caused by the ISIS-inspired Maute group.
ASEAN said it will take on additional preventive measures to stop the growth of terrorism in the region. These include education and enlisting the help of the women and youth sector to counter extremist leanings.
When it comes to another threat to security, however – the nuclear ambition of North Korea – ASEAN, while one with the rest of the international community in condemning its launching of intercontinental ballistic missiles, did not go as far as asking its member-countries to cut ties with North Korea.
“Cambodia and Laos in particular have close relations with North Korea and this has not changed despite the focus on international pressure in North Korea,” Malcolm said.
In trademark ASEAN diplomacy, the regional bloc also kept its doors open to North Korea in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). The ARF has previously been touted by ASEAN as a venue for the six-party talks between North Korea, South Korea, the US, Russia, China and Japan.
Not paralyzed by controversy
Under the Philippine chairmanship, Malcom said ASEAN gained some headway when it comes to trade, signing the ASEAN-Hong Kong, China Free Trade Agreement (AHKFTA) and the ASEAN-Hong Kong Investment Agreement which could spur business opportunities in the region. The regional bloc has yet to gain significant progress though in the negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Agreement, which aims to lower tariffs and strengthen regional economic integration and cooperation.
Batongbacal said that ASEAN also deserved some plus points for putting the spotlight on the role of micro, small and medium economic enterprises in economic growth.
“I explained to all of the world leaders, and across Asia, how well the United States is doing. Economic growth has been over 3 percent the last two quarters and is going higher. Unemployment is at its lowest level in 17 years. The stock market has gained trillions of dollars in value since my election and has reached record highs. We are massively increasing our military budget to historic levels .–President Donald J. Trump
Last night, I returned from a historic 12-day trip to Asia. This journey took us to five nations to meet with dozens of foreign leaders, participate in three formal state visits, and attend three key regional summits. It was the longest visit to the region by an American President in more than a quarter of a century.
Everywhere we went, our foreign hosts greeted the American delegation, myself included, with incredible warmth, hospitality, and most importantly respect. And this great respect showed very well our country is — further evidence that America’s renewed confidence and standing in the world has never been stronger than it is right now.
When we are confident in ourselves, our strength, our flag, our history, our values — other nations are confident in us. And when we treat our citizens with the respect they deserve, other countries treat America with the respect that our country so richly deserves.
During our travels, this is exactly what the world saw: a strong, proud, and confident America.
Today, I want to update the American people on the tremendous success of this trip and the progress we’ve made to advance American security and prosperity throughout the year.
When I came into office, our country was faced with a series of growing dangers. These threats included rogue regimes pursuing deadly weapons, foreign powers challenging America’s influence, the spread of the murderous terror group ISIS, and years of unfair trade practices that had dangerously depleted our manufacturing base and wiped out millions and millions of middle-class jobs.
The challenges were inherited, and these products really showed what previous mistakes were made over many years — and even decades — by other administrations. Some of these mistakes were born of indifference and neglect. Others from naïve thinking and misguided judgement. In some cases, the negative influence of partisan politics and special interests was to blame. But the one common thread behind all of these problems was a failure to protect and promote the interests of the American people and American workers.
Upon my inauguration, I pledged that we would rebuild America, restore its economic strength, and defend its national security. With this goal in mind, I vowed that we would reaffirm old alliances and form new friendships in pursuit of shared goals. Above all, I swore that in every decision, with every action, I would put the best interests of the American people first.
Over the past 10 months, traveling across the globe and meeting with world leaders, that is exactly what I have done.
Earlier this year, in Saudi Arabia, I spoke to the leaders of more than 50 Arab and Muslim nations about our strategy to defeat terrorists by stripping them of financing, territory, and ideological support. And I urged the leaders to drive out the terrorists and extremists from their societies. Since that time, we have dealt ISIS one crushing defeat after another.
In Israel, I reaffirmed the unbreakable bond between America and the Jewish State, and I met with leaders of the Palestinian Authority and initiated an effort to facilitate lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
In Brussels, I urged our NATO allies to do more to strengthen our crucial alliance and set the stage for significant increases in member contributions. Billions and billions of dollars are pouring in because of that initiative. NATO, believe me, is very happy with Donald Trump and what I did.
In Warsaw, I declared to the world America’s resolve to preserve and protect Western civilization and the values we hold so dear.
In Rome, Sicily, Hamburg, and Paris, I strengthened our friendships with key allies to promote our shared interests of security and prosperity.
In September, at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, I urged that the nations of the world join in confronting rogue regimes that threaten humanity and laid out a model for international cooperation grounded in respect for sovereignty and the responsibilities that come with it.
On each trip, I have worked to advance American interests and leadership in the world.
And to each of these places, I have carried our vision for a better — a vision for something stronger and sovereign — so important — sovereign and independent nations, rooted in their histories, confident in their destinies, and cooperating together to advance their security, prosperity, and the noble cause of peace.
It was this same vision that I carried to Asia two weeks ago. And it was this same commitment to you, the American people, that was always at the forefront of my mind and my thinking.
Our trip was defined by three core goals. First: to unite the world against the nuclear menace posed by the North Korean regime, a threat that has increased steadily through many administrations and now requires urgent action.
Second: to strengthen America’s alliances and economic partnerships in a free and open Indo-Pacific, made up of thriving, independent nations, respectful of other countries and their own citizens, and safe from foreign domination and economic servitude.
And third: to finally — after many years — insist on fair and reciprocal trade. Fair and reciprocal trade — so important. These two words — fairness and reciprocity — are an open invitation to every country that seeks to do business with the United States, and they are a firm warning to every country that cheats, breaks the rules, and engages in economic aggression — like they’ve been doing in the past, especially in the recent past.
That is why we have almost an $800-billion-a-year trade deficit with other nations. Unacceptable. We are going to start whittling that down, and as fast as possible.
With these goals, it was my profound honor to travel on this journey as your representative. I explained to all of the world leaders, and across Asia, how well the United States is doing. Economic growth has been over 3 percent the last two quarters and is going higher. Unemployment is at its lowest level in 17 years. The stock market has gained trillions of dollars in value since my election and has reached record highs. We are massively increasing our military budget to historic levels. The House has just passed a nearly $700 billion defense package, and it could not come at a better time for our nation.
Once again our country is optimistic about the future, confident in our values, and proud of our history and a role in the world.
I want to thank every citizen of this country for the part you have played in making this great American comeback possible. In Asia, our message was clear and well received: America is here to compete, to do business, and to defend our values and our security.
We began our trip in Hawaii to pay our respects to brave American service members at Pearl Harbor and the United States Pacific Command, the guardian of our security and freedom across the Indo-Pacific region.
As our country prepared to observe Veterans Day, we remembered the incredible sacrifices and courage of all of the veterans whose service has preserved our liberty and a way of life that is very special. We also thanked military families for their support for our brave servicemen and women.
From Hawaii, we traveled to Japan, a crucial U.S. ally and partner in the region . Upon landing in Japan, my first act was to thank the American service members and Japanese Self-Defense Forces who personify the strength of our enduring alliance.
Prime Minister Abe and I agreed on our absolute determination to remain united to achieve the goal of denuclearized North Korea. Shortly following our visit, Japan announced additional sanctions on 35 North Korean entities and individuals. Japan also committed to shouldering more of the burden of our common defense by reimbursing costs borne by American taxpayers, as well as by making deep investments in Japan’s own military. This will include purchases of U.S. advanced capabilities — from jet fighters to missile defense systems worth many, many billions of dollars — and jobs for the American worker.
The Prime Minister and I also discussed ways we can deepen our trade relationship based on the core principles of fairness and reciprocity. I am pleased that since January of this year, Japanese companies have announced investments in the United States worth more than $8 billion — 17,000 jobs. Thank you.
Oh, they don’t have water? That’s okay. What? That’s okay.
THE PRESIDENT: Japanese manufacturers, Toyota and Mazda, announced that they will be opening a new plant in the United States that will create 4,000 jobs.
We also signed agreements between our nations to enhance infrastructure development, increase access to affordable energy, and advance our foreign policy goals through economic investment.
From Japan, we traveled to another key American ally in Asia — the Republic of Korea. My official state visit to South Korea was the first by an American President in 25 years.
Speaking before the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea, I spoke the truth about the evil crimes of the North Korean regime, and I made clear that we will not allow this twisted dictatorship to hold the world hostage to nuclear blackmail.
I called on every nation, including China and Russia, to unite in isolating the North Korean regime — cutting off all ties of trade and commerce — until it stops its dangerous provocation on — and this is the whole key to what we’re doing — on denuclearization. We have to denuclearize North Korea.
We have ended the failed strategy of strategic patience, and, as a result, we have already seen important progress — including tough new sanctions from the U.N. council — we have a Security Council that has been with us and just about with us from the beginning.
South Korea agreed to harmonize sanctions and joined the United States in sanctioning additional rogue actors whose fund and funds have helped North Korea and North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. It’s unacceptable to us.
The United States welcomed the decision of President Moon to remove the payload restrictions on missiles to combat the North Korean threat. And together we reaffirmed our commitment to a campaign of maximum pressure.
Like Japan, South Korea is increasing its defense contributions. During our meetings, President Moon acknowledged his desire for equitable cost-sharing for the United States military forces stationed in South Korea. And I visited soldiers at Camp Humphreys, a brand-new, joint American-South Korean base, paid for almost entirely by the South Korean government. At that base, I discussed with the United States and South Korean military leaders both military options and readiness to respond to North Korean provocation or offensive actions.
During our visit, President Moon and I also discussed America’s commitment to reducing our trade deficit with South Korea. At my discretion and direction, we are currently renegotiating the disastrous U.S.-Korea trade agreement signed under the previous administration. It has been a disaster for the United States.
Last week, 42 South Korean companies announced their intent to invest in projects worth more than $17 billion dollars in the United States, and 24 companies announced plans to purchase $58 billion dollars in American goods and services.
From South Korea, Melania and I traveled to China, where, as in Japan and South Korea, we were greatly honored by the splendor of our reception. Our trip included the first official dinner held for a foreign leader in the Forbidden City since the founding of the modern China, where we enjoyed a very productive evening hosted by President Xi and his wonderful wife, Madam Pung.
During our visit, President Xi pledged to faithfully implement United Nations Security Council resolutions on North Korea and to use his great economic influence over the regime to achieve our common goal of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.
President Xi recognizes that a nuclear North Korea is a grave threat to China, and we agreed that we would not accept a so-called “freeze for freeze” agreement like those that have consistently failed in the past. We made that time is running out and we made it clear, and all options remain on the table.
I also had very candid conversations with President Xi about the need to reduce our staggering trade deficit with China and for our trading relationship to be conducted on a truly fair and equitable basis. We can no longer tolerate unfair trading practices that steal American jobs, wealth, and intellectual property. The days of the United States being taken advantage of are over.
In China, we also announced $250 billion worth in trade-investment deals that will create jobs in the United States.
From China, I flew to the city of Da Nang in Vietnam, to attend the Leaders Meeting for APEC — Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation. There, I spoke to a major gathering of business leaders, where I reminded the world of America’s historic role in the Pacific as a force for freedom and for peace.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks on the final day of the APEC CEO Summit on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ summit in Danang, Vietnam, Friday, Nov. 10, 2017. (Photo | Associated Press)
Standing on this proud history, I offered our vision for robust trading relationships in which Indo-Pacific nations can all prosper and grow together. I announced that the United States is ready to make bilateral trade deals with any nation in the region that wants to be our partner in fair and reciprocal trade.
We will never again turn a blind eye to trading abuses, to cheating, economic aggression, or anything else from countries that profess a belief in open trade, but do not follow the rules or live by its principles themselves.
No international trading organization can function if members are allowed to exploit the openness of others for unfair economic gain. Trade abuses harm the United States and its workers — but no more. No more.
We will take every trade action necessary to achieve the fair and reciprocal treatment that the United States has offered to the rest of the world for decades.
My message has resonated. The 21 APEC leaders — for the first time ever — recognized the importance of fair and reciprocal trade, recognized the need to address unfair trade practices, and acknowledged that the WTO is in strong need of reform. These leaders also noted that countries must do a better job following the rules to which they agreed.
I also made very clear that the United States will promote a free and open Indo-Pacific in which nations enjoy the independence and respect they deserve.
In Vietnam, during a state visit in Hanoi, I also met with President Quang and Prime Minister Fook to discuss the growing friendship between our countries. Our Vietnamese partners are taking new actions to enforce sanctions on North Korea. In addition, we committed to expand trade and investment between our countries, and we pledged to address the imbalances. I am particularly pleased that the United States and Vietnam recently announced $12 billion in commercial agreements, which will include $10 billion in U.S. content.
Finally, I visited the Philippines, where I met with numerous world leaders at the U.S.-ASEAN and East Asia Summits. At ASEAN — the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — we made it clear that no one owns the ocean. Freedom of navigation and overflight are critical to the security and prosperity of all nations.
I also met with the Prime Ministers of India, Australia, and Japan to discuss our shared commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.
During our visit, President Duterte of the Philippines thanked the American people and our armed forces for supporting the recent liberation of Marawi from ISIS. We pledged to strengthen and deepen our long-standing alliance.
At the East Asia Summit, the United States negotiated and signed four important leaders’ statements on the use of chemical weapons, money laundering, poverty alleviation, and countering terrorist propaganda and financing.
And crucially, at both summits and throughout the trip, we asked all nations to support our campaign of maximum pressure for North Korean denuclearization. And they are responding by cutting trade with North Korea, restricting financial ties to the regime, and expelling North Korean diplomats and workers.
Over the last two weeks, we have made historic strides in reasserting American leadership, restoring American security, and reawakening American confidence.
Everywhere we went, I reaffirmed our vision for cooperation between proud, independent and sovereign countries — and I made clear that the United States will be a reliable friend, a strong partner, and a powerful advocate for its own citizens.
The momentum from our trip will launch us on our continued effort to accomplish the three core objectives I outlined: to unite the world against North Korean nuclear threat, to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific region, and to advance fair and reciprocal economic relations with our trading partners and allies in the region.
We have established a new framework for trade that will ensure reciprocity through enforcement actions, reform of international organizations, and new fair trade deals that benefit the United States and our partners.
And we have laid out a pathway toward peace and security in our world where sovereign nations can thrive, flourish, and prosper side-by-side.
This is our beautiful vision for the future. This is a where this vision — this dream — is only possible if America is strong, proud, and free.
As long as we are true to ourselves, faithful to our founding, and loyal to our citizens, then there is no task too great, no dream too large, no goal beyond our reach.
My fellow citizens: America is back. And the future has never looked brighter.
Thank you. God Bless you and God Bless the United States of America. Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you all.