By: Kanishka Lad
On 30 January 2016, the Philippine National Police (PNP) Chief Ronald dela Rosa announced a temporary suspension of the ‘drug war’ initiated by the incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte. The war has allegedly killed more than 7,000 individuals since it was initiated by the President following his inauguration in May 2016 and his landslide victory in the general elections. Notably, the President’s hardline stance has led to multiple foreign policy issues with its ally – the U.S. – and inadvertently resulted in the formation of new alliances with countries such as China.The Philippine Drug War and subsequent geopolitical developments have granted China a new ally in President Duterte as well as a political foothold in the South China Sea.
Drug War and human rights violations
Drug use and trafficking are endemic to the Philippines. Approximately 3 million people are dependent on a variety of drugs. While the drug war began as a means of stifling drug trade in the country by the utilization of the law enforcement agencies, it devolved into a spectacle where unaccounted vigilante killings were witnessed on a daily basis. Opposition lawmakers continued to blame Duterte for his call on every citizen to arm themselves against the rampant drug trade during the initial stages of his presidency. Several innocent civilians have reportedly fallen prey to police raids and vigilantism as security personnel allegedly used the drug war to settle personal rivalries with criminals and even civilians.
Duterte has earned himself a mass following even as the country witnessed thousands of targeted extrajudicial killings. Additionally, the terror attack witnessed at a night market in Davao on 2 September 2016 incited Duterte to declare a state of emergency, that still exists throughout the country. Concerned political observers have questioned the credentials of this emergency imposed, citing it as the first step for a declaration of martial law as seen during the 1970s regime of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Public disquiet over the implications of the emergency persists, with reservations regarding the potential use of the emergency to quell dissent and political opposition. What started out as a war against eradicating a social evil (in the eyes of Duterte), has devolved into a campaign in which the government is unable to exert any control on the rampaging anti-drug vigilantes. In mid-January, a South Korean businessman who was allegedly kidnapped three months earlier, was found dead on the premises of the headquarters of the PNP. This killing, which received considerable coverage from the international media, is said to have instigated President Duterte to call back his anti-narcotics units. The suspension of the drug war, however, remains temporary and might be reignited in the coming months given the temperamental nature of the President.
Drugs and Terrorism
Narcotics trafficking has been cited as a primary source of funding for terrorism and militancy operations in several regions across the globe. In the Philippines, militant group Abu Sayyaf has gained notoriety for utilizing drug trafficking as a source of funding for its operations. The complicity of transnational criminal networks with terrorist organizations, though not extensively documented in the Philippines, has been mentioned by several government functionaries. Linkages between narcotics trafficking and terror financing have grown over the years in the Philippines due to unchecked corruption and institutional weakness. In the recent past, alleged Islamist terrorists have perpetrated attacks across the country, including the Davao bombing as well as the attack on a church on Christmas eve in Midsayap, Mindanao.
From foes to friends: Philippines, China, and the US
The Philippines has been a major non-NATO ally of the U.S. However, the Obama administration had been a vocal critic of Duterte’s drug war. This criticism continued to sour diplomatic relations between the Philippines and the U.S. with President Duterte announcing a dissolution of ties between the allies. The future of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which allows the U.S. to station and rotate troops in the Southeast Asian country to protect it from external forces remains uncertain. Duterte has continued to publically project his intention of garnering new allies to reduce his dependency on the United States, which is one of the primary providers of financial aid to the country – although, he has since promised to work with the U.S. post the election of Donald Trump as President
On 12 July 2016, the tribunal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruled in favor of the Philippines and against China with regards to certain issues pertaining to the South China Sea, specifically China’s historical claims to the water body with respect to its nine-dash line theory. Further, the tribunal went on to confirm that the Law of the Sea convention applied to the case and that China had no claims on several islands scattered across the sea. While the landmark judgment was hailed by the international community, China refused to acknowledge it and reiterated its stance on the disputed sea. Surprisingly, the new Philippine government has refused to pursue enforcing the judgment and has rather demanded concessions from China with regards to fishing activities in the disputed waters. This can be attributed to a major foreign policy change implemented by the Duterte government with regards to China. This change by the Philippine government might be ascribed to the criticism of Duterte’s policies under Obama. Further, following the President’s diplomatic visit to China, the Asian giant agreed to cooperate with the Philippines on projects aimed at poverty reduction amounting to 3.7 billion USD, further indicating that the Philippines might be altering its diplomatic relations with regards to financial aid.
Prospects for 2017
While the drug war has been temporarily suspended, the flip-flops by President Duterte following his inauguration indicate that his rule is likely to be guided by populist sentiment. The backing provided to corrupt law enforcement agencies by the administration and the President himself is said to have emboldened them in carrying out extrajudicial killings. Keeping this in mind, further instances of disregard for human rights can be expected in the near term.
Additionally, the dependence of the President on personal vendettas to formulate foreign policies might be detrimental for the Philippines in the coming days. However, Donald Trump’s presidency and commitment to minimal interference in the domestic affairs of allied nations signals the possibility of improving relations between the strategic partners. However, the revival of cordial diplomatic relations between China and the Philippines could point to the formation of a newborn alliance in Asia.
Kanishka Lad (@kanishkalad) is an analyst at GRID91 (a security firm located in Mumbai) covering issues including militancy, civil unrest, and politics in South and Southeast Asia, specifically India, Bangladesh, the Philippines, South Korea and Vietnam.
Image source: https://www.cmc.edu/keck-center/asia-experts-forum/phelim-kine-on-president-rodrigo-dutertes-controversial-war-on-drugs-in-the-philippines