The Philippines' ultra-hardline President Rodrigo Duterte arrived in China Oct. 18 for a high-profile visit that western media accounts are portraying as a tilt away from the United States. Washington has historically been the Philippines' imperial patron, providing investment and military aid—but relations are now strained over Duterte's murderous anti-drug crackdown, which is believed to have claimed 3,000 lives. Arriving in Beijing, Duterte blasted Washington and the European Union for their criticisms of his lawless crackdown, and praised his hosts for giving him free rein. "China is the only country to come out freely and [make] a firm statement that they are supporting the fight against drugs in my country," Duterte told Chinese state news agency Xinhua in a comment picked up by the Philippine Star. "The other countries, United States, EU, instead of helping us, they know that we are short of money… all they had to do was to criticize. China never criticized."
He also assured his hosts that he would not press the issue of the Philippines' ongoing territorial dispute with Beijing over resource-rich waters in the South China Sea. "There is no sense in going to war. There is no sense fighting over a body of water," Duterte told Xinhua. "We want to talk about cooperation…"
Two weeks before his China trip, Duterte again escalated his war of words with President Obama, saying the US president could "go to hell"—and threatening to ditch Washington for Moscow or Beijing as a source of military and security aid. "I will break up with America," he told reporters. "Although it may sound shit to you, it is my sacred duty to keep the integrity of this republic and the people healthy. If you don't want to sell arms, I'll go to Russia. I sent the generals to Russia and Russia said 'do not worry, we have everything you need, we'll give it to you.'"
For the moment, the Philippines' 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the US remains in force—and, in his calmer moments, Duterte has pledged to uphold it. But Duterte, who only took office in June, has already turned to Beijing for drug war assisstance.
The heat is rising on Duterte—and not only from Washington and the EU. The International Criminal Court (ICC) last week expressed concern over the relentless extrajudicial killings in the Philippines. ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said she is considering ordering a preliminary investigation into possible violations of international law.
The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism brings to light the uncertain future faced by many thousands of "surrenderees"—drug users or low-level dealers who have turned themselves in rather than die at the hands of lawless paramilitaries. Philippine National Police figures indicate that a total of 20,860 women "surrendered" in the first month of Duterte's government, along with 20,584 minors. Public Radio International cites estimates of a total 600,000 surrendered as of mid-October—with at least 15,000 winding up in the Philippines' dangerously overcrowded prisons rather than promised treatment programs.
We recently noted that Bolivia, which has pursued an enlightened and tolerant drug policy since breaking from the US orbit under President Evo Morales, is now turning to Russia for drug war aid—just as it is tilting back toward a prohibitionist stance, broaching instatement for criminal penalties for illegal coca growing. If the Philippines now follow in this direction—under the draconian policies of Duterte—it could be a proverbial case of "meet the new boss."