Following the alleged death squads in the war against crime and drugs, Time magazine nicknamed the next Philippine president, Rodrigo “Rody” Duterte, the “Punisher” already in 2002. More recently, the Washington Post defined him as a “dangerous strong man” and “populist demagogue, while New York Times opted for the term “new strongman of Manila” (although Duterte has been the mayor of Davao since the 1980s). In turn, comedian John Oliver called him the “Trump of the East,” while the Council for Foreign Relations sees his rise as a “very troubling sign for the Philippines politics and for democracy in Southeast Asia.”
Indeed, toward the end of the 2016 election campaigns, U.S. observers have seen Rodrigo Duterte in dark terms, which reflects Washington’s unease with the new president’s expected policies. In the Philippines, the majority of voters felt very differently. The 2016 election was widely debated among some 60 million voting-age Filipinos who represent a youthful nation of almost 100 million people at home and 10 million abroad. It attracted a historic 82% voter turnout.
For the first time, Philippines is poised to have its first president who is a self-declared socialist, from the volatile region of Mindanao, hopes to overcome corruption, crime and poverty, and plans to transform the nation’s economy, politics, and defense.
It is a tall order but heralds a purposeful effort to make a difference – including a shift in the Philippine-U.S.-China relations.
A Philippine pivot
While most Filipinos continue to feel a special affinity to the U.S., most have not forgotten the brutal rule of President Ferdinand Marcos (1965-86) and his close relationship with the Reagan administration when the Philippines became known as the “sick man of Asia” and which, eventually, led to the departure of U.S. forces in the early 1990s.
However, Manila remains Washington’s longtime non-NATO ally. The security relationship rests on the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), which was reinforced by the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the 2002 Mutual Logistics and Support Agreement (MLSA), coupled with the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which allows the U.S. to boost its military presence in the Philippines and returned U.S. Navy to Subic Bay.
These moves have complemented Washington’s rebalance in Southeast Asia. In 2011, the Obama administration began to execute its pivot to Asia, including the plan to move the majority of U.S. warships to Asia Pacific by 2020. In March, Manila and Washington agreed on some half a dozen Philippine locations covered by the defense pact.
As the incumbent President Benigno Aquino III and his foreign minister Albert del Rosario rejected bilateral talks with China, disputes were taken to the international court. Instead, the two have pushed for an alliance with Washington, joint military exercises and cooperation with Vietnam and Japan.
In contrast, Duterte would like to recalibrate the Philippines-U.S.-China triangular relations. His concern is that one-sided cooperation with the U.S. may result in friction not just with China but Islamic extremism in the Southern Philippines. Conversely, economic cooperation – including Chinese capital and infrastructure investment by the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank – could accelerate Philippine development.
Treasure hunter or CIA monster
The Duterte loyalists’ concerns about U.S. interventionism go back to the so-called Meiring case, which was recently reported by New York Times as a psychological melodrama which “fuels Rodrigo Duterte’s ‘hatred’ of the US.” In fact, the real implications are economic, political and military. The debacle stems from an odd hotel explosion in Davao in May 2002, which led to charges against Michael Terrence Meiring (who he also used Vande-Meer family name in the U.S.) for possession of explosives. After a metal box exploded in his Evergreen Hotel room, Meiring’s legs were mangled. He was taken to hospital but vanished soon as men representing the FBI or the NSA carrying high-powered firearms took him in the dark of night and flew him out of the country without permission.
The extraction was facilitated by U.S. Embassy’s Vice-Consul (who became the US Security Council’s director for South Asia in 2010). The suspicious blast took place amid a wave of terror bombings, which caused dozens of Filipinos their lives, while the U.S. and Philippine troops conducted anti-terror exercises. As a result, Duterte has blocked U.S. requests to base drones or spy planes at Davao’s old airport.
Officially, Meiring had spent years in Mindanao hunting for treasure left by Japanese occupying forces in World War II. Unofficially, police found ammonium nitrate, electronic apparatus, powerful high-tech explosives, U.S. Federal Reserve notes, and “highly-confidential” documents in his hotel room.
Reportedly, Meiring had have spent millions of dollars and have close ties with well-placed government authorities in Southern Mindanao, as well as among Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the New People’s Army (NPA), and Abu Sayyaf – the feared terrorist organization, which former Marcos opponent and Senate President Aquilino Pimentel Jr. once described as a “CIA monster” because the intelligence agency helped to train the group.
Strategy of tension, Southeast Asian style
In Washington, the Meiring case has been discounted as conspiracy speculation. In the Philippines, many see Meiring as a CIA operative who traveled among separatist Islamic rebels to gather intelligence or to push Manila to approve greater U.S. military assistance (the MLSA ensued in November 2002). It predated 9/11 by months, though.
In January 2001, an influential RAND report advised Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to re-base American forces in the Philippines (which materialized only months ago) to retain U.S. military dominance in Asia. As RAND members, Rumsfeld, along with Vice President Dick Cheney and Pentagon’s Paul Wolfowitz, saw China as a strategic rival. The RAND report was aligned with the Bush National Security Strategy, which legitimized pre-emptive strikes to enforce US global primacy.
In particular, it advocated the use of “regional states in developing a hedge against the possible emergence of an overly aggressive China.” This was predicated on peacetime military engagement with Southeast Asian states, a diversified network of access arrangements, and strengthened military ties with the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam.
In this view, the Meiring case was just another part of a Southeast Asian “strategy of tension,” along with its precursor in postwar Italy, Operation Gladio and other “shock doctrines.” As a violation of the Philippine sovereignty, it infuriated Duterte who hopes to unite the Filipinos and rejects tacit policies to divide and rule them.
As Filipinos voted Duterte their next president, the U.S. Navy sent its third warship in less than seven months into the waters of the disputed South China Sea. While neither Washington nor Beijing seeks a direct confrontation in the region, the Obama administration’s efforts signal an effort to shape the status quo before Duterte’s inauguration. Time will run out by June 30.
Duterte’s likely effort to hedge bets between U.S. security assurance and Chinese economic cooperation supports a peace and development scenario. However, his administration will face significant strategy-of-tension pressures – in which any major failure could result in regression toward conflict and confrontation.