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The Philippines in dispute

In the deepest crisis of its 75-year existence, the Republic of the Philippines under President Duterte is pursuing a foreign policy course that triggers a manifest dispute within the regime and further polarizes society in times of pandemic.

Rodrigo R. Duterte had certainly imagined the beginning of the happy month of May differently. Five years ago, “Digong”, as the ardent supporters and trolls like to call the President, won a brilliant election victory and officially took office as the 16th President of the Republic of the Philippines on June 30, 2016. And how!

He consciously maintained the image that he had purposefully cultivated during his more than 20 years as mayor of Davao City, the largest city in the south of the country. Namely as a tight “clean man”, who preferred to be photographed with a sweeping broom or a machine gun in the attack. The message conveyed in his election campaign was clear: he would “accuse the Trapos of eating the fish in Manila Bay” and end their imperial rule as well as rampant corruption and rampant drug addiction. “Trapos “is the term used in the country for"traditional politicians”. Translated from Spanish, the word means “dirt” or “smear rag”. Which at the same time and unequivocally makes it clear what the “common people” thinks of its high and most senior representatives in the executive and legislative branches. Yes, Duterte said shortly before taking office, he also intends to enter the annals of his country’s history as the first “socialist” and “anti-imperialist”.

“Stupid Critics”

“Where is our President?Many Filipinos were puzzled when Duterte did not appear in public for over two weeks in April. At the beginning of the month “Digong” came back again. In a format that the man suffering from illness has preferred to use since the turn of the year to address his compatriots – qua recorded television programs, which are usually broadcast every Monday evening.

What the 76 – year-old president announced on TV on 3 and 10 May caused even his closest friends a great deal of excitement-and left them partly speechless. “Ugok “(literally:” stupid”), Duterte scolded all his critics who had dared to call the increasing presence of Chinese ships in Philippine territorial waters” treason”. Yes, one of those critics, the now retired Supreme Court Justice of the Philippines, Antonio Carpio, even accused Duterte of idly watching the country run the risk of being demoted to a “Chinese province.”

In the special broadcast on May 5, Duterte was so excited that he challenged Carpio to a public debate on the problem in the South China/West Philippine Sea, a geostrategically highly sensitive region in which the equivalent of about five trillion US dollars in global trade is transacted annually. Such a dispute should also be about the on 12. The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled in favour of the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on 17 July 2016, which reaffirmed Manila’s position vis-à-vis the People’s Republic of China on matters relating to the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). But Duterte has never seen this arbitration award as a success, but as a burdensome burden to forge closer ties with Beijing, unlike his predecessor governments. 5. On May 15, Duterte also called Carpio by name “ugok” because he welcomed the arbitration award, while he (Duterte) – waving a note in front of the camera – described it as “just a piece of paper” that he would “throw in the trash”!

To Duterte’s amazement, Carpio immediately accepted the challenge. Which, in return, enticed the president to send his press secretary, Harry Roque, into the ring. To the media, it was said from the presidential palace Malacañang that a tête-à-tête between the supreme representative of the state and a “subordinate” was inappropriate and rather detrimental to the prestige of the country.

Open cabinet clinch

Then, of all places, Manila’s chief diplomat, Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin, Jr., poured oil into the blazing fire. On 13 May, he again ordered a diplomatic protest against the presence of 287 Chinese ships in the West Philippine Sea. Two days earlier, presidential spokesman Roque had categorically stated that the Julian Felipe Reef was " never owned by the Philippines “and that the"matter should not be unnecessarily exaggerated”. This in turn brought Locsin to the Weißglut, which on 13. May tweeted: “Maybe next time these idiots learned the protocol. I discussed this with the president in Davao. We have a disease: everyone and their uncle wants to be a hero who fights China from the anonymity of an Einsatzgruppe.”

Meanwhile, the two senators Francis Pangilinan and Risa Hontiveros mocked whose interests the presidential spokesman actually represents on this so sensitive foreign and security policy issue. “Does Roque get his salary from China?Pangilinan was quoted in the Philippine media in mid-May. Hontiveros, however, criticized the contradictory statements made by the executive as an expression of the fact that apparently no one bears or wants to take responsibility.

For Cabinet member Locsin, there is no question who has the last word on this explosive foreign policy issue, namely himself. The Philippine Daily Inquirer quotes the foreign minister in its May 12 issue as follows: “There is only one voice about what belongs to us: mine. Point. Not even the military has a say. (…) Drop the subject and leave it entirely to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (DFA) under me, the only expert in the field, without exception.”

“Stupid voters”

This was not the first public snub of the president by his foreign minister. Locsin, whom the ardent Duterte admirer and columnist of the Manila Times, Rigoberto D. Tiglao, had repeatedly scolded a “vain Twitter king even before Trump” and called a “moron”, was already infected on May 3 with the following tweet addressed to Beijing:

“China, my friend, how polite can I express it? Let’s see… Oh … FUCK OFF. What are you doing to our friendship? You. Not us. We’re trying. You. You’re like an ugly boor forcing his attention on a handsome guy who wants to be a friend; but not to start a Chinese province.”

True, a little later Locsin apologized for this faux pas. But an immense damage to the image of the entire government has remained. The president himself is the most affected. As one of his central concerns in the 2016 election campaign, he had promised to go down in the annals of his country’s history as the “first anti-imperialist”. With regard to the presence of Chinese ships in Philippine territorial waters, Duterte boasted at the time that he would, if necessary, show up with a jet ski in the conflict region and hoist the Philippine flag there. Duterte made this boast during a televised campaign debate in response to a fisherman’s question about what the presidential candidates would do to protect Filipino fishermen from being harassed and prevented from fishing by China’s coast guard.

In his televised address on 10 May, the President now succinctly pointed out: “If you really believe that (…) I would say that they are really stupid.“Which infuriated the chairman of the Senate Defense Committee, Panfilo Lacson, as well as numerous commentators in the print and radio media. They accused Duterte of deliberately deceiving and openly deceiving a large part of his voters, and now also deeply mocking them. Which obviously did not prevent Duterte’s nailed fan and troll community from continuing to cheer their idol unabashedly. After all, they call themselves DDS – which stands for “diehard Duterte sympathizers”.

Bizarre U-turns

Duterte’s first bizarre U-turn came immediately after his inauguration on June 30, 2016. Instead of the traditionally close ties to the USA, he propagated the new “Manila-Beijing-Moscow axis”. Although there is almost no more talk of this today and the relationship with Moscow did not come about in the originally desired form anyway, Duterte represented as president an emphatically China-friendly course, which was rewarded by Beijing, among other things, with loan commitments of the equivalent of almost 24 billion US dollars.

Which did not stop the devious Duterte from never seriously putting relations with Washington to the test. When Duterte realized that his last public appearances did not go according to his taste, he suddenly turned around and declared in the middle of the month that he was not willing to let the ships of the Philippine Navy, which have now been sent to the conflict region, “retreat even centimeters” or even “pull off”. More clumsily, Duterte could not have disavowed Manila’s foreign policy himself and reduced it to absurdity.

The president’s pathetic performance apparently provided the backdrop for retired military and police officers to call on Duterte and his cabinet in mid - May to finally put aside differences over China’s “continued aggression in the West Philippine Sea.” In a statement, the Advocates for National Interest (ANI), chaired by retired general and former Chief of Staff Edilberto Adan, said it was time to “finally consider the protection and defense of our sovereignty and territory as a national obligation across party political lines.“Since Duterte has mostly behaved kindly vis-à-vis Beijing despite repeated diplomatic protests,” we should finally stand on the side of the Filipino people. Our citizens must not unwittingly side with China, " the ANI statement added.

The group added that Filipinos should know that an “information war” is underway that uses psychological, propagandistic and media means to justify China’s unlawful actions in the West Philippine Sea and thus promote Beijing’s narrative. Finally, the ANI turned against the version that Duterte always vehemently advocated, that an active engagement in the West Philippine Sea to preserve its own sovereignty would inevitably “lead to war”. At the time of writing, Duterte again turned around and told China that the “intimate friendship” could end, while addressing Washington with the message to " leave us (the Philippines – RW) alone.”

Veritable problems

Meanwhile, the economic and social malaise resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic continues unabated, and the Philippines remains far behind in the entire East Asia/Pacific region. “Increased inflation, a large output gap, a recurrence of COVID-19 infections, and limited availability of vaccines are all reasons for concern,” wrote Katrina Ell, economist in the Sydney office of rating agency Moody’s Analytics. Last year alone, gross domestic product (GDP) fell by almost ten percent – the most dramatic economic slump in the almost 75-year history of the Republic of the Philippines, which was granted independence by the United States on July 4, 1946.

In the first quarter of this year, GDP fell by 4.2 percent, while the inflation rate increased to 4.5 percent. In addition to millions of destroyed jobs, thousands of shut down companies and extremely slow vaccinations, hunger is rampant in many places for the first time in the history of the republic. A “catastrophic” situation that analysts at the Manila-based Asian Development Bank (ADB) and Aaditya Mattoo, the World Bank’s chief economist for East Asia and the Pacific, say will continue until at least spring 2023.