Philippines, Underestimate Rodrigo Duterte At Your Peril

The controversial new Filippino president, who arrives in China today, has mostly garnered attention for his brutal crackdown on drug dealers. But his ambitions go far beyond.

Rodrigo Duterte in Jolo, Philippines, on Aug.12
Rodrigo Duterte in Jolo, Philippines, on Aug.12
Michel De Grandi


Rodrigo Duterte has all the airs of the Sheriff of Nottingham. But more surprisingly, there may also be some similarities between the Philippines controversial new president and Robin Hood.

Having recently passed his 100th day as president (and begun on a momentous visit to China on Tuesday), Duterte has already left his mark, though not always in the best manner possible.

In just a few months, he made brutality, rudeness and crude language his hallmark. He spared nobody. Pope Francis, Barack Obama and the members of the European Parliament were among his targets.

As soon as he was elected to power, Duterte followed through on his campaign promise to be a ruthless righter of wrongs. He gave himself six months to clean the archipelago from drug trafficking, and launched a violent campaign in June against drug lords that showed the extent of his taste for prompt and direct action.

More than 2,300 people have been killed: more than 1,500 by the police and others by vigilante groups responding to his calls to target traffickers. But focusing solely on this anti-drug campaign may miss other significant features of his reign so far. "This war against crime isn't the only action he's initiated," notes David Camroux, a researcher at Paris's Sciences Po's Center for International Studies who is currently teaching at the Vietnam National University in Hanoi.

In early August, Duterte announced a unilateral ceasefire with Communist rebel groups — the first step towards peace negotiations. Similarly, he alluded to the possibility of talks with Abu Sayyaf, an Islamist militant group active in the Philippines and Malaysia. More peaceful actions, for certain, aimed at a far-reaching national reconciliation.

Had he focused exclusively on the fight against drugs, Duterte would have run the risk of scaring off foreign investors and dragging the economy down as a result, a hypothesis the Standard & Poor's rating agency has also noted.

Buoyed by his popular support, especially among the middle class, this former lawyer is expanding nationwide the recipes that made him so successful as mayor of Davao, a city of 1.6 million residents in northern Philippines. In 20 years, he changed "his" city's look and feel, as Davao became both a cleaner and safer place to live.

Marcos model

But he had done more, including vast improvements to social services. The fact that he himself took part in a local death squad, as he admitted during the campaign, does not mean he is a one-issue president. Behind the cowboy image hides another more political character, which also plays out in foreign policy.

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Duterte and Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev in in Vientiane, Laos on Sept. 8 — Photo: Presidential Communications Operations Office

As soon as he was installed in the Malacañang Palace, the head of state openly distanced himself from the United States, despite a mutual defense treaty signed in 1951. Duterte called for an end of joint patrols in the South China Sea with the U.S. and the departure of GIs from the Philippines. "I do not want a rift with America. But they have to go," he said.

His approach on that topic is the exact opposite of his predecessor's. Former President Benigno Aquino conformed to the letter with Washington's policy and had authorized the American fleet to use the former U.S. naval base in Subic Bay, which had been returned to civilian use in the 1990s. Duterte instead is determined to show he's the master of his own backyard, and intends to remain so as long as he is in office.

His visit this week aimed at restarting dialogue with Beijing comes despite the two countries' competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. China has unilaterally annexed a vast part of the Spratly Islands, creating territorial conflicts with the Philippines and its neighbors. But Duterte sees that easing tensions with China could be a massive diplomatic success.

In July, the permanent court of arbitration in The Hague repudiated Beijing and ruled that it had no historic rights over these islands, and therefore no legitimacy to occupy them, a decision that irked China. But cleverly, Duterte instead told China, "Build us a railway just like the one you built in Africa and let's set aside disagreements for a while."

All things considered, this offer to bury the hatchet — even just temporarily — is a real blessing for China. Not only does it ease relations with Manila, but it also allows Beijing to weaken the American influence in this part of the world.

The Philippine president recently told young army recruits that he didn't want to start a conflict with any country. But he does want the freedom to obtain weapons from Russia or China, in another nose-thumbing move aimed at Washington: Under the 1951 agreement, the U.S. is supposed to supply Manila with 75% of its military needs.

Duterte is a nostalgic of the presidency of Ferdinand Marcos, who, between 1965 and 1986, imposed martial law but also plundered the country with his greed and corruption. As such, Duterte wants first and foremost to assert his own strategy: put his house back in order, apply a reconciliation policy and find a balance in the Philippines' relations with the major powers. Just 100 days since taking office, this most controversial leader has managed to enforce a form of terror around his own country, and to surprise — if not confuse — his neighbors and allies abroad.

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