Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivered his second State of the Nation Address (SONA) with characteristic fire, lashing out at his critics and vowing to continue his brutal crackdown on illegal drugs despite widespread international condemnation.
What began as a relatively mellow and well-scripted speech quickly escalated into an impromptu tirade against the United Nations as well as Western partners, including the European Union (EU) and United States, as soon as the president shifted to the topic of human rights.
The invective-laced address was far from statesmanlike in delivery, but was comprehensive and presidential in its coverage. Duterte stepped outside his comfort zone (namely, drug-related issues) and delved into issues such as taxation, bureaucratic reform, infrastructure development and mining.
Yet, the Filipino leader barely mentioned the South China Sea disputes, briefly praised China as a generous international partner, and reiterated the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (Asean) doctrine of non-interference and mutual respect among nations.
Though defiant and self-assured, Duterte seemed deeply troubled by the brewing insurgency in the south, as Islamic State-affiliated groups as well as communist rebels step up their attacks and threaten his home island of Mindanao. Bogged down with domestic challenges, he has taken a soft position on regional security issues, particularly the South China Sea disputes.
He directed much of his ire, however, for the Philippines’ traditional partners.
“You find an event where you can talk about human rights and due process, but do not talk about it in the same time when there is a carnage,” exclaimed Duterte, lashing out at Western nations for criticizing his vicious war on drugs. “What have you done in the name of human rights? I challenge you; you want a debate in public? Okay, we’ll have it,” he continued.
The off-the-script tirade came in response to the European Union’s intensified criticism of Duterte’s human rights record. Earlier this month, Germany, the host of the G-20 Summit, refused to invite the Filipino leader, who is currently the rotating chairman of Asean.
In recent years, leaders of Laos and Malaysia, who were rotational chairmen of the regional body, were invited to the mega-event of the world’s leading powers.
Brussels is considering a potential package of sanctions against Manila, including withdrawal of grants, targeted measures against officials involved in human rights violations and cancellation of preferential trading agreements, namely the Generalized Scheme of Preferences-Plus, which allows Filipino exports to enjoy zero-tariff access to European markets.
In a clear rebuke of Duterte, a delegation of European parliamentarians visited Senator Leila De Lima, the president’s most outspoken critic, who has been detained on charges of involvement in the illegal drug trade. Brussels has condemned her incarceration as a politically motivated measure to silence leading opposition members.
The EU parliament has called “for the immediate release” of De Lima, and encouraged the Duterte administration “to drop all politically motivated charges against her, and to end any further acts of harassment against her.”
The Filipino president also lashed out at Washington, chiding the previous Barack Obama administration for its rebukes of his human rights record, while claiming that current American President Donald Trump is sympathetic to his illiberal views.
Duterte went so far as reciting century-old grievances against the US, particularly its massacre of Filipino revolutionaries in the early 20th century. The anti-Western diatribe was likely part of Duterte’s attempt to burnish his patriotic credentials and reiterate his commitment to an ‘independent’ foreign policy.
Recent months have seen the Philippines increasingly relying on American military assistance in the ongoing battle against Islamic State (IS)-affiliated groups fighting for the town of Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao. Cognizant of the limitations of the Philippine military, Duterte has had to swallow his pride and welcome much-needed assistance from Western countries.
Central to his speech was the humongous domestic security challenge, especially with both Islamic extremists as well as communist rebels declaring all out war against the Duterte administration. Two months into the ‘Battle of Marawi’, the Philippine military is yet to wrest back control of the country’s largest Muslim-majority city from IS-affiliated groups.
The Filipino president has pushed for the passage of the revised Bangsamoro Basic Law, the legal framework of an autonomous Muslim sub-state. In Duterte’s view, giving Muslim-majority provinces greater political and socio-economic autonomy is crucial to ending the cycle of violence and extremism.
He also reserved harsh words for communist leaders — including communist ideologue and Duterte’s former mentor Jose Maria Sison — whom he has accused of failing to live up to his side of their earlier peace bargain.
In his first months in office, Duterte released key communist leaders from prison, appointed several left-leaning figures to his cabinet, and agreed to discuss multiple areas of disagreement simultaneously to fast-track peace negotiations.
In recent months, however, peace negotiations between the government and communist groups have virtually collapsed. The communist rebels have virulently opposed Duterte’s martial law declaration in Mindanao, which was recently extended until the end of the year, as a dictatorial maneuver aimed at wiping out all opponents of the state. In response, they have stepped up attacks against government troops.
After delivering his SONA, a visibly distraught Duterte made an impromptu speech before pro-communist elements staging a rally outside the Philippine Congress.
During his brief talk, the Filipino president blamed their side for the collapse in negotiations and dared them to confront him physically. The nerve-wracking incident exposed the president’s growing frustration with the renewed cycle of violence in Mindanao, his home island.
During a post-SONA press conference, Duterte made it clear that he was in no mood for picking a fight with China in the South China Sea. He perfunctorily suggested that joint-development agreements with China were the only viable option for the Philippines.
“If we can get something there with no hassle at all, why not?” explained Duterte when asked about the strategic wisdom and legality of sharing oil and fisheries resources with Beijing in Philippine waters.
The Filipino president was also quick to emphasize the prospect of large-scale Chinese investments in the Philippines as a reward for improved relations and downgraded territorial tensions.
Beijing seems to be pleased by the direction of Duterte’s foreign policy. The following day, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Duterte, where the Chinese envoy enjoyed a warm welcome and hailed the “strong momentum” in bilateral relations.
During his press conference, Wang underscored the “full capabilities and wisdom to handle differences between us and maintain stability in the South China Sea,” warning “non-regional forces”, namely the US, Australia and Japan, not to “stir up trouble” in the area.
From Beijing’s point of view, the Duterte presidency has been one of their greatest strategic prizes in the past year. And China is clearly interested in consolidating its growing influence over and warming relations with the unconventional leader.
Yet the Philippines’ rising domestic troubles have given China an even freer hand to dominate in its near abroad. The outcome of Duterte’s ‘independent’ foreign policy is an undaunted China facing little resistance as it expands its strategic footprint in the region like never before.