Commentary: Philippines spat plays into China’s hands

By Peter Apps | Reuters | September 7, 2016

(Note: paragraph 4 contains language that may offend some readers)

If you’re a historic U.S. ally under mounting pressure from an emerging superpower like China, it’s probably not a good idea to use a crude sexual epithet to describe the American president. Filipino leader Rodrigo Duterte, though, is far from a normal president. And his behavior – and that of his government – is increasingly posing a serious challenge to Washington on an ever-growing variety of levels.

Washington’s relations with the Philippines have always been complex. The Philippines were one of the very few U.S. colonies overseas before they were granted independence in 1946, although the United States retained several sovereign bases. With the rise of China and growing confrontation in the South China Sea, most experts believed links would become notably stronger – indeed, that assumption was one of the linchpins of U.S. thinking, particularly after the Obama administration announced its “Asia pivot” in 2012.

The election of President Duterte in May this year, however, has made that relationship increasingly difficult, if not outright impossible. So far, the geostrategic implications of that move have been limited. But the longer he stays in office – and the worse his relations become with the United States in particular and the broader international community in general – the starker they will become.

In some ways, the White House may have been relieved that in calling Obama a “son of a bitch” – or in some translations, “whore” – Duterte finally pushed things too far. The comments, recorded in a conversation with mostly Filipino journalists, prompted the White House to cancel a planned bilateral meeting due to take place in an Asian security conference in Laos. Prior to the announcement, it was already shaping up to be a diplomatic disaster.

At the heart of the problem is Duterte’s “war on drugs”. In his election campaign, the Filipino president bluntly pledged to reduce crime by killing drug dealers, making it clear that during his tenure law enforcement agencies would be unencumbered by anything approaching legal process.

It was, essentially, an unapologetic pledge to enforce resource a campaign of extrajudicial murder. His government has been as good as its word. Around 900 people have been killed in police operations since July 1, with a further 1500 unsolved murders described officially as “under investigation” but which rights groups say in many cases appear to be government-sanctioned extrajudicial contract killings.

The human consequences have been deeply unpleasant. In August, the BBC profiled one of a growing number of female contract killers who said she had been paid by the government to kill several drug dealers, usually in cold blood. Unsurprisingly, public criticism of the campaign is relatively rare – not least because of rumors that political and personal scores may be being settled amid the crackdown.

Unsavory activities by America’s allies are hardly new. U.S.-backed Latin American governments often ran a variety of death squads, particularly during the 1980s. Duterte, however, has made a point of boasting of the killings while demonstrating ever less tolerance for criticism. That has included threatening to leave the United Nations after condemnation from UN agencies and officials.

The outburst against Obama followed news reports that the U.S. president was aiming to be similarly critical.

The geopolitical implications make this remarkably messy. The United States cannot endorse – or even deal closely with – a leader who revels quite so clearly in tearing up the internationally accepted norms of law and order. America’s entire Asian strategy, meanwhile, is dependent on building closer ties to countries like the Philippines and, ironically, stressing the importance of following internationally accepted rules on a wide range of other issues. Read more…


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