A Concerning Start to the Duterte Presidency


Rodrigo Duterte, the newly minted president of the Philippines, was quick out of the gates after taking office in late June. In an executive order on July 24, Duterte established new freedom of information regulations for the executive branch by circumventing Congress, where freedom of information bills have languished for decades. The president made infrastructure a top priority for his administration, pushing road construction projects around the country along with solutions to many of Manila’s chronic woes such as flooding and the overcrowding of its international airport.

The push for federalism as an alternative system of government, a cornerstone of Duterte’s election campaign and his answer to provinces that feel disenfranchised by the concentration of power in Manila, has already kicked off with a nationwide information campaign.

However, the direction the Duterte administration seems to be taking in other areas is raising eyebrows and in some cases confirming the fears of the president’s critics. Apparent foreign policy passivity, a wave of vigilante killings, and impulsive moves in the nation’s delicate peace process threaten to overshadow the progress under way.

The July 12 ruling by an arbitral tribunal that declared China’s nine-dash line claims in the South China Sea invalid under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea should have been a slam-dunk for Duterte. When the decision came down overwhelmingly in Manila’s favor, the Duterte team should have been ready to mount a full-court press to push the international community to support the ruling—the only tool Manila had to bring pressure to bear on Beijing to comply.

Instead, Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay withdrew the mention of the arbitration decision in an ASEAN joint communiqué issued at the end of the July 25 foreign ministers’ meeting in Laos, after Cambodia objected to its inclusion. Former president Fidel Ramos, who was named by Duterte as his special envoy for negotiations with China, has gone further and suggested the president set the court ruling aside to pursue an agreement.

Duterte has made it clear that his approach to Beijing will be much less provocative than that of his predecessor. While a friendlier approach could open doors to cooperation and possible joint development in the disputed region, the Philippines will need the backing of the international community on the tribunal ruling to bargain effectively. Without the pressure of reputational damage to China, Manila will have minimal leverage to find a compromise with Beijing, which has built a fortified presence on the Spratly Islands chain. By not actively pressing for international pressure against China (so far only seven countries, including the United States and the Philippines, have issued strong statements saying the ruling is binding), diplomatic attention on the ruling may fade, ending much of the leverage Manila had to press Beijing to compromise.

Duterte has also raised eyebrows by saying he will not honor the Philippine pledge in the Paris climate agreement signed in April, in which the Philippines pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 70 percent by 2030. Duterte’s decision to reject the pledge—which the Philippines pushed hard for—raises some apprehension about the lack of concern about the nation’s commitments. Duterte, when reminded that the Philippines had already signed the agreement, replied that it “was not [his] signature.”

It is also surprising that the Philippines would so readily dismiss environmental concerns for the sake of industrial development. Experts have ranked the Philippines the sixth-most-vulnerable country to climate change worldwide. Devastating storms like Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, which was the strongest recorded tropical cyclone to ever make landfall, are expected to become more common and 14 percent stronger by the end of the century. Rising sea levels threaten the homes of millions in the Philippine archipelago.

On the fragile peace process in the nation’s troubled south, Duterte tried to be magnanimous, declaring a unilateral cease-fire with Maoist rebel groups. But when an ambush by the New People’s Army on the island of Mindanao in late July left one soldier dead and four others wounded, Duterte demanded the cease-fire be reciprocated and then abandoned it altogether in less than a week.

Critics from both sides labeled the cease-fire and its withdrawal impulsive, and communist leader Jose Maria Sison—a former professor of Duterte’s who had previously welcomed his election—called the president volatile and said he lacked prudence. Duterte’s rash decision to rescind the cease-fire so quickly may have spoiled at least some of the goodwill that accompanied the election of the first president from Mindanao, and will likely color peace talks scheduled for late August.

But most concerning are Duterte’s tactics in tackling crime and drugs, a top priority in his election campaign. Some of the fears of human rights advocates have been realised in the spate of extrajudicial killings that has erupted since Duterte’s victory. He has encouraged violent retaliation against any drug dealer or financier who does not surrender, and, in the first month of his presidency, Philippine police reported killing more than 300 people in antidrug operations. The Philippine Daily Inquirer, which is keeping a regularly updated “kill list” documenting the casualties, includes killings by civilian vigilantes and shows nearly 500 killings since Duterte’s inauguration.

Criticism of the killings has been muted in the Philippines. In his recent State of the Nation Address, Duterte called for police to redouble their efforts to “put [drug dealers] behind bars or below the ground.” But the Philippines, a country that already struggled with the extrajudicial killings of journalists and politicians before Duterte’s election, can ill afford a nationwide breakdown of rule of law. Already, stories are surfacing in Manila of executed “criminals” with no apparent connection to crime.

For Washington, the extrajudicial killings could eventually become an impediment to closer ties with Manila. The U.S. Congress so far has been quiet about the killings. But if they continue, it is possible that when Congress returns from its recess in early September, some leaders will raise questions about Washington’s sizeable military and economic assistance to the Philippines.

By Conor Cronin. He is a research associate on the Southeast Asia program at the CSIS.

This article was originally published by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies on 4 August. It is republished with permission.