Duterte plays a long game to secure Philippine advantage

Duterte plays a long game to secure Philippine advantage

Behind the crude populism, President Duterte has an intuitive grasp of what is best for the Philippines, Jonathan Bogais argues.

Intellectual and political debate about Rodrigo Duterte since his election as Philippine president in June 2016 has been based on an abundance of bias and a paucity of fact.

That Duterte is a populist and holds radical, unconventional views are simple facts, but they are just that—and as facts, they are all too simple.

The real question concerns their significance and interpretation. Despite a widespread tendency to assume the contrary, neither of the central terms in play here, populist and radical, carry a single, straightforward or unequivocal meaning.

Duterte’s populism, however crude it may appear, seems fundamentally based on a form of rebellion against his country’s political structures since its independence from the United States, and the inability of its successive leaders to assume the responsibilities associated with independence and to protect Philippine sovereignty.

Three main issues at stake: extrajudicial killings of drug dealers and users; addressing poverty and inequality; and, the The Hague Ruling against China on the South China Sea crisis.

Extrajudicial killings

Duterte’s support for extrajudicial killing of drug dealers and users has raised grave concerns in the international community in that the killings challenge international human rights conventions and covenants. However, many Filipinos whose lives—or that of people they know—have been shattered by drug-related problems would argue this point.

The Philippines’ drug-related problems are not disconnected to the presence of the United States in the country after the Second World War. They are endemic and far from improving, contrary to claims made by non-governmental organisations and ill-informed commentators outside the Philippines. They are part of a widespread problem involving long-lasting corruption at all levels of business, politics, administration and the security apparatus—a legacy of decades of elite family rule connecting back, in part, to the 1902 Philippine Organic Act administered by the then US Bureau of Insular Affairs.

Violence is indiscriminate. After Syria and Iraq, the Philippines is the most dangerous place—and has been for years—for reporting, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Yet the Philippines is not—and has not been—a war zone.

For Duterte, his new ‘war on drugs’ is no different from the ‘wars on terror’ fought by other countries to protect their populations. He sees measures used by leaders of other countries to fight their wars—killings, torture and secrecy. Hence, he is unapologetic for the measures needed to fight his.

War is war. Duterte’s clear frustration no doubt comes from criticisms of his methods by those who are also committing crimes—or supporting them—while claiming legitimacy for their actions and refusing him the right to claim legitimacy for his.

Many Filipinos at home and overseas are aware of the perceived double standard. Reports are emerging that they are opening up to tell their stories about how gangs wrecked lives, unveiling the true extent of the problem. Discreetly, as if they feared reprisals for just telling the stories, they welcome Duterte’s drive against drugs, while admitting—apologetically—that they or their relatives voted for him. This is the real and popular impact of this crisis on normal people.

In this highly corrupt, top-down environment little of the wealth generated nationally, or through foreign investment and aid, ever reaches those at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale.

In March 2016, The Philippine Statistics Authority released the country’s official poverty statistics for the first semester of 2015. The incidence of poverty was estimated at 26.3 per cent (25 million out a population of 98 million).The proportion of Filipinos whose incomes fall below the food threshold was estimated at 12.1 per cent (12 million).


Even more striking is the misery of the poor and the enormous gap between them and the rich, despite the growth of the economy. This is an ideal environment for the proliferation of drug-related problems. Gangs, often closely networking with the elites and, at times, acting intrajudicially, have been able to take advantage of vast numbers of vulnerable young people to conduct their trade with little or no challenge from the authorities.

Families that have ruled the country for the past 70 years have profited from the hardship suffered by a large percentage of the population. No wonder Duterte received such support at the last election and that his popularity is growing, despite his excesses.

Paradoxically, Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino, provided him with a powerful mechanism to address economic issues and meet his electoral commitments—The Hague Ruling.

Aquino launched a case at The Hague against China over its appropriation of a number of reefs claimed by the Philippines as part of its territory. A strong critic of China, Aquino received strong support for this action from the US and its regional allies, including Australia.

Eager to enforce its hegemonic status over the Indo–Asia–Pacific, the US took the opportunity to justify its strategic military campaign to contain China’s own strategic expansion. The South China Sea became the centrepiece of this strategic confrontation that soon involved several countries.

Unfortunately for US strategists, The Hague ruling was made after the Philippines election. Had it come before, Aquino would almost certainly have tested the outcome by demanding China’s departure from the reefs, a move that would have increased tension in an already highly polarised space.

There is little doubt Aquino would have taken advantage of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between the US and the Philippines to force a confrontation—political if not military—and involve the US and its allies. Manila and Washington would have embarked on a sustained campaign to gather international support for the tribunal’s ruling from like-minded countries, such as Australia, Japan, and European states, and from the Philippines’ Southeast Asian neighbours. These dynamics would have laid the conditions for a sustained multilateral campaign to deter and isolate China, and reach an eventual political compromise to manage the dispute under US terms.

Most strategists and analysts, however, failed to grasp the seriousness of the narco–socioeconomic situation in the Philippines, and therefore did not anticipate Duterte’s victory against a wide range of candidates, mostly in support of the United States.

International strategy

Unlike many populist leaders, Duterte has, over a long political career, developed the cunning to see opportunities and grab them at the right time. Although many Filipinos favour the US over China, few would want to become pawns in a conflict that would serve mostly the interests of Washington and its allies, with little benefits to them. This element played a role into Duterte’s election victory.

The Hague ruling gave Duterte the opportunity and leverage to engage in a process of asymmetric counterbalancing—bilateral negotiations with China to secure the economic support he needed to meet his electoral commitments.

Having campaigned on domestic issues, and with the leverage he gained from The Hague ruling, Duterte was in a position of strength to negotiate with Beijing, unlike his predecessors. His position also gave China the means to exit, at least temporarily, an ambiguous strategic situation without losing face. This compromise is about maintaining status quos, including with the US, rather than resolving conflict. It may also point the way for future compromises by creating a level of ambiguity from which innovative new status quos may emerge.

Duterte’s decision to reject US demands that he enforce The Hague ruling is a setback for Washington, and his rebuff will no doubt come at a price

On his recent visit to China, Duterte secured commitments for the economic assistance he needed. A much larger than expected business delegation accompanied him, a sign that Duterte is trying to appease a business community concerned by his drives, and with whom he will need to negotiate later.

Meanwhile, Filipino fishermen appear to have returned unchallenged to the reefs. Chinese navy vessels appear to have vanished, leaving only a coastguard presence. The crisis has not been resolved, but tension has eased, which is certainly better for the region at the moment than another confrontation—although some commentators may disagree.

Duterte’s decision to reject US demands that he enforce The Hague ruling is a setback for Washington, and his rebuff will no doubt come at a price. The US is the Philippines’ third-largest trading partner, after Japan and China, and number-two investor, providing over one-fifth of foreign direct investment in 2013.

The US is also the largest source of remittances to the Philippine economy, thanks to the huge Filipino–American community, and is a major provider of development assistance. Washington’s influence in the Philippines, especially among middle to upper classes and with the ‘families’, is strong. Most well-off Filipinos would probably want to return as soon as possible to the modus operandi that worked so well for them before, and it is clear Duterte has quickly made many powerful enemies.

In the context of the South China Sea crisis, and ultimately in the United States’ overall Indo–Asia–Pacific strategy, Duterte’s shift towards China is not critical. Washington’s asymmetric sea-to-land strategy is based on zones of influence centred on Diego Garcia, the Cocos, Guam, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan and Australia, and its new ally, Vietnam, will be a substitute for Manila until a new government sympathetic to the US takes over from Duterte. Washington will ride the wave.

Meanwhile, it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of Duterte’s intuitive knowledge of the Philippines’ needs, as the US did with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Associating Duterte with other populist leaders would be superficial and fail to take into consideration his ability to understand and manipulate a complex domestic and international agenda to his advantage, and to that of the people he cares about.

Featured image:
President Duterte: not to be underestimated. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Jonathan Bogais Dr Jean Jonathan Bogais, is a psycho-sociologist, analyst and negotiator specialising in conflict, violence ethics and complex systems - and in Southeast Asia. He is also an associate professor (adjunct) at the University of Sydney (School of Social and Political Sciences) and a senior fellow at the German-Southeast Asian Center of Excellence for Public Policy and Good Governance in the Faculty of Law at Thammasat University, Bangkok. His website is

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