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 â€" 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.

Duterte and Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev in in Vientiane, Laos on Sept. 8 â€" 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 â€" even just temporarily â€" 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 â€" if not confuse â€" his neighbors and allies abroad.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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