Duterte’s two faces 

President Rodrigo Duterte even wore a suit when he met his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in October. Source: Wikimedia

The colourful Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, continues to surprise. While he shows zero restraint when dealing with his citizens and literally extends his middle finger to international bodies like the EU, he is desperate not to offend China. 

On Friday he said that he was not sure why China’s commerce minister had cancelled his visit, distancing himself from his foreign minister’s comments about the Chinese militarisation of the South China Sea.

Duterte reiterated that he wanted firmer ties with Beijing and that there was no urgency about enforcing last July’s arbitration ruling on the Philippines’ maritime boundaries and sovereign rights. The damning ruling in favour of Manila was brought by then president Benigno Aquino and Duterte has shown little interest in exploiting it.

On Tuesday, Duterte’s foreign secretary, Perfecto Assay, said Asean had “grave concerns” about China putting weapons on its artificially extended islands in the Spratly chain.

“The problem is, I think, Secretary Assay was misunderstood by the Chinese government,” the 71-year-old Duterte declared.

“I would like to assure China, and this is what I had committed to do when I was there, that we will talk as friends.” Duterte’s visit to China last year was noticeable for its restraint, coming on the back of his “son of whore” tirade against then US president Barack Obama.

Chinese Commerce Minister Ago Hunching postponed his official trip on Thursday, without notice, delaying attempts to sign off on about 40 joint projects worth billions of dollars. No reason was given.

Ago was replaced as minister the next day, suggesting internal Communist Party politics might have been the cause of the cancellation.

Since taking office, Duterte has been keen to attract Chinese loans, tourists and infrastructural investment while spurning Manila’s traditional allies in Europe and Washington.

Western nations and international organisations have openly criticised Duterte’s mass slaughter of more than 6,600 supposed drug users and dealers, driving Manila towards Beijing which is far more taciturn when commenting on other nation’s human rights records.

Before he won power, Duterte said he would try to liberate the Philippine islands from Beijing’s grip on a jet ski. This now appears to have been an aberration, one of his many hot-blooded declarations to rouse a crowd, rather than a policy statement.

War with China was not an option, the former Davao mayor said on Friday.

“We cannot go to war because we cannot afford it,” Duterte said in his speech. “And as much as possible, the bilateral relations between the two countries would be enhanced and improved and trade and commerce between the two countries greatly improved.”

Duterte is in need of more allies since his “drugs war” hit the rocks with the execution of a South Korean businessman by his police in their national headquarters.

The highest-profile critic of the war on drugs war was arrested on Friday, although she says she will continue to fight the “sociopathic serial killer” who is head of state.

Senator Leila de Lima told the media she was innocent of the drug-trafficking allegations that could see her jailed for life, as armed officers bundled her away.

“It is my honour to be imprisoned for the things I am fighting for. Please pray for me,” De Lima said at her senate office where she had sought refuge after an arrest warrant was issued.

“They will not be able to silence me and stop me from fighting for the truth and justice and against the daily killings and repression by the Duterte regime.”

The media gathered in large numbers to see the senator taken into custody.

De Lima recorded a video just before her arrest as she called for ordinary Filipinos to show courage and oppose Duterte’s drug war.

“There is no doubt that our president is a murderer and a sociopathic serial killer,” she said in a video posted on Facebook.

She is not the only dissenting voice.

More than 1,000 protesters gathered in Manila on Saturday to mark the anniversary of the 1986 revolt by protesting against Duterte.

Left-wing activists and opposition supporters rallied at the spot where crowds forced Ferdinand Marcos to flee after 20 years of dictatorial rule.

The protesters also condemned Duterte’s anti-drugs bloodshed.

Joining the crowds were Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino and the current vice-president Leni Robredo. She resigned from the cabinet in December after being barred from its meetings because of a falling out with Duterte.

Aquino and Robredo both support De Lima, who announced from her cell: “There is a president who is threatening to re-impose martial law and openly support the killings of thousands of people.

“The grim truth – in the last seven months under Duterte, there were more deaths compared to the 14 years of martial law under the Marcos regime.”

 

Duterte’s appallingly heavy-handed domestic crackdown on alleged drug users goes far beyond the excesses of the greedy Marcos clan. However, his foreign policy might show a little more foresight.

It is easier to rationalise Duterte’s realignment towards Beijing, especially while Donald Trump makes such an unreliable ally. The US is in decline, increasingly isolationist and led by the bizarre Trump, but Beijing appears like a far more vibrant, stable power on Duterte’s doorstep.

For all his Trump-like antics and brutal disregard for human rights, Duterte seems to have made a rational geostrategic decision by backing the Chinese.