As Duterte goes to China, what’s in store for the Philippines?

As Duterte goes to China, what’s in store for the Philippines?
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Behind his ruthless anti-drug campaigns, crude insults, and foreign policy direction, Rodrigo Duterte is trying to consolidate his power. But his means to do so might backfire and undermine his right to rule.

One hundred days into his presidency, the Philippines’ new president shocked the world with his war on drugs and his inflammatory rhetoric. Most important is his growing hostility towards the US, as well as his desire to settle territorial disputes with China, improve ties, and increase cooperation.   

War on drugs and economic reforms are the key to Duterte’s political power

Just over three months into office, the president is delivering what he promised during the election campaigns as he continues to cement his populous legitimacy into solid political power.

His high profile anti-illegal drug movement that has led to the death of more than 3,000 people so far has drawn condemnation from the international community, human rights activists, and several local NGOs. Despite this, the president’s campaign has seen widespread support, and his approval rate remains high. As far as the economy is concerned, he kickstarted a number of economic reforms including tax reforms and a reduction in bureaucracy, which has helped to speed up infrastructure projects and investments.

While his economic policies have garnered praise from domestic business communities, over the last three months, the international media attention has been focused on his efforts to combat illegal drugs and improve relations with China at the expense of breaking ties with the US. The former, the Philippines’ big neighbour, is able to help Duterte achieve his two priorities.  

With regards to the war on drugs, China shows sympathy; with the latter, China could provide financial support and technical assistance. Neither of these would be met from the West. So it makes sense that Duterte’s first foreign state visit was to bring a delegation to Beijing this week, a trip that was initially planned for two days but extended to four days. Filipino executives are keen to secure deals to improve the island nation’s infrastructure and boost investment in manufacturing and agriculture.

However, Duterte’s means and tools to consolidate his political power are not without risks and challenges.

War on drugs leads to legal concerns and inflicts anti-west sentiment from pro-Duterte supporters

The high profile anti-illegal drug policy could backfire as a result of extrajudicial killing, if in fact court cases are brought against policy enforcers and the master behind the actions. This could lead to questions about the legitimacy of a president who empowers police to carry out killings.  Human rights activists warn that Duterte’s enforcer Roland Dela Rosa could be a focus if there is ever an independent inquiry into the mass violence. In fact, the International Criminal Court has stated that they are monitoring the development to determine whether to open a preliminary investigation.  

ICC allegations could fuel tension between the president and Western governments, as well as create friction between the international community and pro-Duterte Filipinos. Filipinos are showing dissatisfaction on social platforms, criticising the international media’s negative coverage of the anti-illegal drug campaign.

US for China?

If Duterte manages to secure a good deal from Beijing and receive support from China, his regime will be boosted, provided that he doesn’t ignore many of the Philippines’ national interests, i.e., territorial rights. That being said, how much trust China has in the new leadership remains to be seen. The previous administration had once turned its back on China as soon as it had secured trade and investment agreements. This record is still vivid in Beijing’s memory.

The US is also not going to sit still for long. The Philippines plays an important role to the US’ pivot to Asia. The country is currently enjoying a break from Washington because of the US presidential elections.  

However, as the new US administration settles in in the next six months, the US will utilise its tools to ensure that the Philippines does not weaken its bilateral defence ties or undermine its strategic interests.  

The president could run the risk of failing to convince China and antagonising the US. The Philippines needs to balance the trilateral relations carefully. Businesses and investors will need to observe the dynamics here very closely.  

A military coup remains a big threat to Duterte’s rule

Duterte’s distancing from the US could also upset the armed forces, from which the president has less support. The president had toured all of the military base camps within his first three months in office, trying to bolster nationalism within the armed forces. He has also promised to double soldiers’ salaries.

He even framed the previous popular President Fidel Ramos‘s criticisms of his vulgar comments and statements to weaken ties with the US as ‘fatherly advice’, owing to Mr Ramos’ close relations with the military. But just how effective his efforts to prevent attempted coups has been still remains to be seen. A potential coup will become very likely if the president is perceived to be sacrificing territorial sovereignty for Chinese Renminbi.

Long-term economy plagued by domestic and external challenges

Foreign investors reacted to the new Philippines by withdrawing capital from the Filipino stock market. Given that the country’s fundamental economy remains strong, at least in the short term, the Philippines can rely on previous economic success. Owing to the former president’s market-friendly economic policies, what once had been “Asia’s sick man” has become one of the fast growing countries in the region. The Philippines experienced a growth rate of 6% between 2012 and 2015. But in the long term, the country needs foreign investment in infrastructure. However, the country is troubled with domestic and external uncertainties that require Duterte to manoeuvre carefully.

About Author

Qingzhen Chen

Qingzhen is a GRI Senior Analyst and a research analyst for an international information company. Her research focuses on China and the Asia Pacific. Previously she was a market researcher for PwC. She has gained regional knowledge from internships with the UNDP, China Policy, and the Royal United Services Institute. She holds a BA in Politics and East European Studies and an MSc in Security Studies from University College London.