As Western nations back away from Duterte and his drug war, China steps up as key ally for Philippines



“Hounds follow those who feed them,” remarked the great Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck, underscoring the centrality of patronage to political influence. Something very similar has been taking place in the realm of geopolitics amid mutual estrangement between the West and the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte.

The United States has even threatened withdrawal of security aid as well as dialled down cooperation with the Philippine National Police (PNP), which has been accused of widespread extrajudicial killings.

Sensing a strategic opening, China has assiduously made inroads into building rapport with the Philippines’ domestic security forces. Widely condemned in the West, Duterte’s drug war, which has been conducted by the PNP, has seemingly found an unlikely ally in Beijing.

Duterte’s scorched-earth campaign against illegal drugs, which has reportedly claimed the lives of tens of thousands of suspected drug dealers, has severely undermined institutionalised ties between the Philippine domestic security forces and traditional Western partners.

Since the fall of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship in 1986, Western governments as well as civil society groups have sought to reform the Philippine police and military, which was responsible for widespread human rights violations during the period of martial law.

Under the auspices of the Security Sector Reform (SSR) agenda, the Philippine National Police and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) underwent long-term institutional reform, including the internalisation of human rights values, due process and respect for the country’s democratic constitution.

These multisectoral efforts, often with systematic assistance from American and European partners, helped depoliticise the security forces, democratise their doctrinal outlook, embed human rights into their institutional culture and significantly enhanced their public image.

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During the Marcos dictatorship, the security forces largely followed the presidential prerogative. They acted as Marcos’ de facto praetorian guard, bludgeoning the opposition in exchange for the patronage of the authoritarian president.

As the late political scientist Samuel Huntington explained in The Soldier and the State (1957), a defining feature of any authoritarian system is “subjective control” over the armed forces.

In contrast, Huntington explained, democracies cultivate “objective control”, namely the professionalisation of the security sector into the protectors of the people and guardians of a constitutional order rather than a specific person or regime.

Thus, throughout the Philippines’ decades-long democratisation, the police and military expanded their engagement with the civil society and international democratic partners.

However, Duterte, a charismatic populist with authoritarian tendencies, rapidly transformed the PNP into an extension of his imperial presidency. In brazen defiance of law and the Philippine constitution, he ordered them to neutralise suspected drug dealers and criminals. In exchange, Duterte promised not only an increase in their salary and benefits, but also immunity from prosecution.

“Do your duty, and if in the process you kill one thousand persons because you were doing your duty, I will protect you,” he exclaimed at the height of the brutal drug war.

By late 2018, the PNP admitted that there were as many as 23,327 homicide cases under investigation, a large number of which could be attributed to the drug war.

The US Senate threated to block the sale of assault rifles to the Philippine police, while the US State Department reallocated funds intended for the PNP to the military, which has maintained closed ties with Washington.

Other Western countries have followed suit. After Dutetre’s historic visit to Israel last year, the Israeli Justice Ministry reportedly blocked any assistance or support to the Philippine police because of human rights considerations.

At the same time, Western countries have stepped up their criticism of Duterte’s drug war in international forums, most prominently in the United Nations Human Rights Council. The Europe-based International Criminal Court is currently investigating allegations of crimes against humanity vis-à-vis the Duterte administration.

Incensed by Western criticism and de facto sanctions, Duterte has progressively relied on his new strategic patrons, especially China. Not only has Beijing become a vocal defender of his drug war in multilateral platforms, but it has also offered weapons and training to the Philippine police.

In recent years, the two countries have signed multiple agreements aimed at enhancing counter-narcotics cooperation, including interception of Philippine-bound drugs from the mainland.

According to the UN, the Philippines remains a top destination for crystal methamphetamine, also known as “shabu”, produced by Chinese organised criminal groups. As a result, Manila has desperately sought greater assistance from Chinese authorities to crackdown on the cross-border drug trade.

Bilateral law enforcement cooperation has gained greater urgency amid rapid expansion of online Chinese casinos, which has gone hand in hand with entry of Chinese organised criminal groups into the Philippines.

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In past two years alone, as many as 56 Chinese nationals were kidnapped by criminal groups in the Philippines. Beijing has offered training to the PNP’s Anti-Kidnapping Group (AKG), including a month-long trip to China to learn Mandarin.

Though China has had less success in reaching out to the American-trained Philippine military, which views the Asian powerhouse as a primary external security threat, the Philippine police have warmly welcomed Beijing’s support.

The upshot is growing bifurcation within the Philippines’ security forces, as the police and the military adopt rival external patrons. China, however, can now boast of an unprecedented influence within the Philippine security sector thanks to Duterte’s drug war, which has alienated Western allies.