Now what? President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines is outraged. He wants an end to the U.S. military presence in his country. He wants to curb all cooperation with the U.S. armed forces. He hits hard, talks big. And his people seem to be behind him, no matter what – his popularity rating is high and rising, now around 87%, which is something unimaginable anywhere else in Southeast Asia, or in the world.
Under a colorful headline on February 7, 2020, ‘End that son of a b*tch’: Duterte confirms US-Philippines military collaboration agreement is toast’, RT reported:
“Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is “terminating” the Visiting Forces Agreement, which provides legal immunity to US military drills, in retaliation for the US canceling the visa of a political ally and fellow drug-warrior.
“The president said he is terminating the VFA,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told ABS-CBN News on Friday. “I asked for clarification and he said he is not changing his decision.” The agreement provides legal immunity for US soldiers conducting military exercises in the Philippines.
Enraged by the US decision to cancel the visa of former police chief and Senator Roland dela Rosa last month, Duterte had given Washington a month to fix its ‘mistake,’ refusing to back down even as other members of his government urged him to reconsider.
“I’m warning you… if you won’t do the correction on this, I will terminate the… Visiting Forces Agreement,” Duterte said last month, daring the US to call his bluff.”
Then few days later, on February 13, 2020, a letter was sent to his country’s tormentor and former colonialist master: ‘The Philippines has notified the United States that a major security pact is over.’“
Some say, all this is nothing new. The United States, the European Union, and even the United Nations keep attacking President Duterte. He hits back, insults his counter-parts, regularly threatening to kick out the U.S. and its military forces. He personally insults the leaders of Western countries, international organizations and even the Catholic Church which, in the Philippines, used to be untouchable.
Making Western leaders desperate, he calls China “the kindest nation on earth”, and he admires Russia and its President Vladimir Putin. In Manila, the Russian leader is now a masculine idol.
President Duterte is a self-proclaimed socialist. Critics say that many of his economic policies are still capitalist, even if his social policies are left-wing. But he has done precisely what most of his fellow citizens wanted him to do: he introduced free medical care and free education all the way to university level; something unthinkable in most of the Southeast Asian countries.
“Not enough has been done to improve the state of the nation,” says the academia, as well as the NGOs. But the poor love him, and so does the middle class. For them, what he has done is enough; much more than enough. Nobody did more for them in the past. 87% is an unprecedented level of support! The majority of Filipinos do not just support him – they love him, unconditionally.
Western mainstream media trashes Duterte left and right. Pro-Western NGOs are calling him a mass murderer, because of the war on drugs, which allegedly has taken thousands of lives.
His supporters reply:
“But before Duterte was sworn in, millions were rotting alive in desperate slums and enormous crime-infested cemeteries. Drug lords were murdering innocent people, and no Western NGOs were protesting.”
I listen to both sides of the story. For three years, I have been all ears.
The criticism and attacks from the West, all this seems to matter nothing to Duterte – he is moving forward like a tank. And his long-suffering country is improving, year after year. It is moving up, even according to the Human Development Index (HDI, compiled by the UNDP).
“I will kill you, you son of a bitch!”
Western media loves such statements, blasting them all over, as if they were some sort of proof that the President of the Philippines is a mafia-style murderous maniac.
But I am told by many in his restive home base in the south; in Davao City:
“No way; this is how we speak on Mindanao Island. President is Visaya – he says what comes to his mind. Tagalog people are polite, but their actions are often brutal. Talking dirty means nothing bad where Duterte comes from”.
But for the Southeast Asian region, the most important topic is how President Duterte is handling foreign policy.
All over Asia Pacific, the United States, desperate to keep its global hegemony, is antagonizing Beijing on all fronts. It is pushing China from all directions. The South China Sea is constantly in the spotlight, through the international courts (often controlled by the Western countries and interests) as well as through the Western mass media. The dispute over the Spratly Islands has been poisoning the relationship between Beijing and Manila for decades.
However, after Duterte became president, things changed, dramatically. The rhetoric significantly softened, and both China and the Philippines clearly stated that they are willing to talk, negotiate and compromise. To the great dismay of the West, any military conflict between two countries is now out of question.
This approach is having an enormous (although grossly under-reported) influence on the entire region’s policy towards China. The country that is watching particularly closely is China’s historic rival, and a fellow Communist state – Vietnam.
For quite some time, President Duterte expressed a desire to diversify his foreign policy, extending a hand towards both Moscow and Beijing.
In January 2020, in an exclusive interview for the RT, he stated, rebelliously:
“I want to open new fronts with Russia and China as US lived off the fat of our land… America is not the Philippines and the Philippines is not America. It ain’t that way anymore, and I refuse to dovetail under American foreign policy…”
But then again, his statements and actions do not seem to be adequate for everybody. Like in the West, many Marxist Filipino intellectuals are “purists”; they demand utopian Western-style Marxist, or even Anarcho-syndicalist methods of ‘governance’.
President Duterte is neither of the above. He is a spontaneous, emotional leader. He is pragmatic. He often acts on the spur of the moment; he makes good moves and he also makes blunders. Sometimes, after he makes mistakes, he corrects them; he steps back, and tries again.
He is not a simple man; he is tormented individual. Sexually molested by a priest when he was a child, he holds a grudge against Christianity. He grew up in a complex family. His mother and father came from different political spectrums: a socialist and an official, a civil servant.
To the horror of some, he has a soft spot for the former dictator Marcos. So were several members of his family.
The legendary left-wing academic, Roland Simbulan, a professor at the University of the Philippines (UP) and a good friend of mine, is even increasingly skeptical about the direction of the Duterte’s foreign policy. He wrote for this essay: