President Rodrigo Duterte, rattled by criticism over extra-judicial killings in the war on drugs, questions American moralising and ambivalence in Asia-Pacific
In the last six decades, as America came, went and then came again, the Philippines has been playing catch-up with its affluent East Asian “dragon” neighbours. The Philippines remains bogged by woes stemming from lack of infrastructure, entrenched political corruption, over-dependence on the services sector (59% of GDP, 2015), unemployment (high at 6.5%, 2015), active presence of the Abu Sayyaf Group in western Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago (Southern Philippines) and a huge social problem. i.e. widespread drug abuse.
The commonly used drug, colloquially called Shabu or ice, crystal meth or methamphetamine, is easily available and cheap—10% of the population use the drug. If drug-lords, pushers and addicts make for a bleak story, bleaker still is the low number of rehabilitation centres: 45 nationwide at the last count.
Duterte came to power in 2016 as a strongman, the backdrop being his track record in Davao, where as a mayor he cleaned up the city in more ways than one-particularly going after drug-pushers. As President, Duterte sought to replicate the Davao model nationwide, which provides the backdrop to understanding the current war on drugs. Incidentally, allegations have surfaced that during Duterte’s term in Davao, death squads routinely hacked bodies (of drug-pushers), then dumped them into the sea and, in one stance, as a witness claimed in a hearing in the Philippine Senate (September 2016), fed alive to a crocodile.
In 2016, over 3,000 people have died in extra-judicial killings. Over 20,000 have been arrested; 735,000 have surrendered, so much so that jails are tightly packed with traffickers and drug-lords. Duterte himself declared, “Hitler massacred 3 million Jews. Now there are 3 million addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them,” drawing the ire of millions worldwide.
This is where America came in, asking the Philippines to reign in on its war on drugs. This, while noble and justifiable, would have worked better, as locals say, if America came up with a concrete solution to address the problem, instead of talking down. American-backed initiatives, such as supporting drives to build drug rehabilitation centres, help in the crackdown on drug-making labs, vocational training of traffickers and drug-abusers are the need of the day-where the American hand would make a difference. Philstar (an online portal of daily newspapers covering the Philippines) has reported that America will be providing $180 million in assistance in the fiscal year 2017 (October 1, 2016, to September 30, 2017).
Meanwhile, the Philippines has long been in an acrimonious dispute with China, taking China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague in line with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 2012. China has been treading the disputed waters of South China Sea with overtures in the Johnson South Reef (1988), occupation of Mischief Reef (in 1994, barely 130 km off the Philippines eastern island of Palawan) and dispute with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal (2012), where Filipino fishermen have been obstructed. Both China and the ASEAN are signatories to the Declaration of Conduct in the South China Sea (2002). In 2013, China defined an Air Defence Identification Zone, covering almost all of the East China Sea.
Meanwhile, the tribunal award went in favour of the Philippines-China’s historical claims were debunked as lacking legal basis. Two, many features in the South China Sea which have witnessed a flurry of construction activities (lighthouses, airstrips) by China were deemed as low-tide elevations, nullifying the Chinese demand for delimiting the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Mischief Reef, which China built facilities on in the 1990s, was deemed a low-tide elevation located in the Philippine EEZ.
On one hand, the situation in the South China Sea has been such that US Navy admiral Harry Harris observed “China is creating a great wall of sand with dredges and bulldozers.” On the other hand, scholars have noted Chinese commentators likening China’s aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines as the two pillars of the navy-“the two wings of a bird.” Though China’s maritime abilities are still significantly behind Russia and America, it is steadily playing catch-up.
China’s ambitions in the South China Sea and its face-off with the Philippines have not thwarted it from wooing the country with aid, including some for against its war on drugs committing to build rehabilitation centres.
Ironically, despite what America has to say about the war on drugs in the Philippines, newspapers have reported that three in four Filipinos approve of what Duterte is doing, that the anti-crime drive has 84% approval and that the Third Quarter Social Weather Survey, 2016, by Social Weather Stations, shows 76% satisfied and 11% dissatisfied, with a net satisfaction rating of +64 (implying very good) in what Duterte is doing.
While Chinese ambitions and Filipino support for Duterte may not be music to America, it certainly speaks volumes about China’s steady rise as well as the gloom within the Philippines to have thrown their weight behind the President. In other words, if America is the self-foisted “pivot”—as President Obama imagined it—so be it, but as the world’s second-largest democracy, this comes with putting its money where its mouth is: In the social quagmire of the Philippines to bring together human rights abuses to an end, without minding Duterte’s manners or lack of it. President Obama has left a legacy where his successor must do the math-for “pivot” does not come with ambiguity nor as Chinese friends trailblazing across the globe show, on the cheap.
This is the concluding article of the two-part series.
The author is a Singapore-based Sinologist and adjunct fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. She is the author of “Finding India in China”. Views are personal