Where is Duterte Leading the Philippines?

Photo: AP

“You destroy my country, I’ll kill you,” Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte warned in a recent exclusive interview with Al Jazeera. His warning was directed at the drug dealers and users that he believes are tearing the Philippines apart. This is the sort of outspoken, uncompromising language we have come to expect from the new president who has just completed his first one hundred days in office. Yet despite the stern rhetoric, many questions remain as to where he is leading the country.

Duterte at Home

Domestically, Duterte has capitalized on his strong man persona to pursue several initiatives to improve law and order. Most visible to international eyes is his controversial anti-drug campaign that has resulted in 3,500 deaths, either at the hands of police or vigilantes. This has drawn the ire of international organizations and governments. The U.S. and EU in particular have voiced their concerns. With strong domestic support for his law and order campaign, he has been confident to wave away international concerns, often with expletive laden remarks.

Another cornerstone of his law and order push is the campaign against the militant Islamic group Abu Sayyaf (ASG). He has ordered 10,000 troops to mobilize against the group that is believed to number around 400. Early successes have been marred by retaliation, as ASG hit back with brutal killings of soldiers and detonated a bomb in Davao City, the city where Duterte was once mayor.

Despite his overtly aggressive approach, Duterte has not removed diplomatic engagement as an option for ending conflict with the country’s fractious political and militant movements. While negotiations with ASG failed, he has had more luck with some of the country’s Maoist groups. He has carried on the negotiations of his predecessor with the National Democratic Front and declared a ceasefire with the New People’s Army.

While Duterte’s law and order policies have earned near-term results, if at a high cost, observers warn that long term progress will take more than his strength of personality. Dindo Manhit, the Managing Director of the Philippines for Bower Group Asia, told The Cipher Brief that “…the administration should take care to ensure that its move-fast attitude does not overlook the need for institutional reforms in favor of personality-centered politics.”

Duterte Abroad

The reversal in Manila’s foreign policy direction has left many wondering what has motivated Duterte to pull away from the U.S. and seek stronger relations with China and Russia. Richard Heydarian, a political scientist from LaSalle University, described the influence of Duterte’s formative years on his current world view: “[he is] very much steeped in Cold War-era ideology of ‘Third Worldism,’ which was espoused by the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)… .He is a self-described ‘socialist,’ who came of age during the Vietnam War era and has over the past few decades, cultivated strong ties with leaders of various leftist-progressive groups, including insurgency movements in Mindanao.” In this context, it becomes easier to understand Duterte’s vocal aversion to the influence of the U.S. and other Western-aligned governments. It would appear that Duterte’s aim is, not to completely break ties with the U.S., but to weaken alignment with the U.S. as a means for taking advantage of China’s growing influence in the region and worldwide.

This week, Duterte will make a visit to China at the head of a business delegation in order to discuss opportunities for economic partnership. In addition, Duterte will meet Chinese President Xi Jinping, and the two will discuss additional matters of state, including the hotly contested Scarborough Shoal. Ownership of the island is a sticking point for bilateral relations and a hot button issue for the Filipino people. In order to move forward with China, Duterte and Xi will have to reach an agreement that fulfills China’s strategic objectives while meeting the needs of the Filipino people. Heydarian believes that Duterte will seek fishery access and confirmation from the Chinese that they will not impose an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the area.

In finding a compromise with China, Duterte risks diluting international opinion over the Philippines v. China international arbitration case. The ruling overwhelmingly supported Manila’s claims, so to see its new leader subsequently seek compromise sends a confusing message, making it harder to rally international opinion behind the ruling.


For better or worse, Duterte is poised to leave an indelible mark on the Philippines’ domestic and foreign policy. Beyond that, he has forever shaped the lives of those affected by his anti-drug campaign. The ramifications of his foreign policy realignment could also affect the prosperity of millions of citizens. The outcome will depend on how well he can match his outspoken personality and force of will to the task of forging long-lasting reforms.

Will Edwards is an international producer at The Cipher Brief.