President Duterte’s policies are popular at home but a source of criticism and disappointment overseas. Duterte has tried to negotiate settlement deals with China, which claims large areas of Filipino EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) waters in the South China Sea. Duterte points out that the Philippines lacks the military power to effectively oppose Chinese territorial claims. One reason for the Filipino military vulnerability is Duterte’s reaction to American and Western criticism of his most popular domestic programs that have dramatically reduced the crime rate and illegal drug use. He has also eliminated most of the Islamic terrorist, Moslem separatist and leftist rebel violence.
Suppression of drug gangs and communist rebels has led to criticism from Western countries that the security forces were too violent. That criticism sometimes expressed itself in sanctions against Filipino politicians that support these security programs. That led to Duterte retaliating against foreign critics when there was an opportunity. One recent example was demanding large, but unspecified, compensation from the United States to renew the
existing VFA (Visiting Forces Agreement). Without the VFA any American troops entering the Philippines will have to apply for a visa. This is a time-consuming process but that is not all. Without VFA American military personnel are subject to Filipino courts and legal proceedings. As a general rule the United States requires something like the VFA, usually called a Status Of Forces (SOF) agreement, before it will allow U.S. troops to enter the territory of a friendly nation. The Philippines still has a Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States and that could still be invoked by the Philippines if needed. The more immediate damage from no VFA is American military assistance during an emergency, usually of the natural disaster variety. The closest American aid us usually the U.S. Navy which can quickly provide helicopters, medical care, electrical power (from docked warships) as well as radio and other communications gear brought ashore for a disaster zone. Without a VFA/SOF such emergency aid is limited depending on the risk from corrupt local justice systems and politicians. There are fewer problems with American troops visiting the Philippines to provide training assistance or, as has often happened in the last few decades the U.S. forces provide additional intelligence and aerial surveillance support. Without the VFA these troops have restrictions on their activities. They are usually restricted to the bases they are working from as well as travel restrictions. The Filipino military opposes the VFA cancellation threats. The U.S. is trying to accommodate Duterte with more military aid.
Efforts to appease China have been an embarrassing failure. As is their custom, the Chinese promise much and deliver little. China’s offer of negotiations over South China Sea disputes produced nothing for the Philippines. Chinese offers to provide the SinoVac covid19 vaccine backfired when it was discovered that China was charging the Philippines three or more times per dose as other customers in east Asia and Africa were paying. Moreover, the SinoVac vaccine appears to much less effective than Western vaccines also available to the Philippines. Worse, all these negotiations and delays in Chinese deliveries have meant that the Philippines will be the last nation in the region to receive enough vaccine to suppress the covid19 threat.
Despite all the foreign criticism Filipinos feel very safe, according to a 2020 Gallup Global Law and Order survey. The safest country was nearby Singapore with a rating of 97. The Philippines had a rating of 84, as did Australia and New Zealand. The U.S. rating was 85. Afghanistan was the least safe, at 43. The annual in-person surveys were conducted in late 2019. A representative same of the population was asked how safe they felt, how much confidence they had in local police and if they had a been a victim of crime in the last 12 months. The covid19 quarantines that went into effect during early 2020 reduced the crime rates in the Philippines 47 percent, and other nations had similar reductions so the 2020 rankings should be the same.
President Duterte is considered responsible for the increased feeling of safety. In 2015 the Philippines rating was 76 while the highest rating was 89, for Singapore. The lowest was 40 for Liberia. Duterte
was elected in 2016 because his previous experience as a big city major showed that he might actually be able to carry out his campaign promises to reduce corruption and drug related crime. According to recent polls Duterte still has the highest approval and trust ratings of any Filipino president, especially this late in his term of office. Many other Filipino presidents got elected on the basis of promises they could not or would not keep. After two or three years such failure to perform was reflected in approval polls.
Duterte used vigilante tactics to reduce the ability of drug gangs to terrorize the areas where they operated and openly bribed police and other officials. This is what most Filipinos disliked most about the illegal drugs, in addition to children or kin turning themselves into anti-social addicts. After five years most Filipinos still rate Duterte as effective and able to deliver on campaign promises. This was less true with the other campaign promise; to reduce corruption. The high levels of corruption make it easier for drug gangs to operate and Duterte went after anyone found to be corrupt for whatever reason. This included longtime friends and political allies as well as senior police commanders. The success of these tactics showed up in the latest international corruption surveys. In Southeast Asia the Philippines has the most problems with corruption and Duterte demonstrated that the Filipino situation was not hopeless. Despite the progress against corruption, there proved to be a lot more of it than generally thought. Making a major dent in corruption is more difficult that reducing violent crime and making people feel safer.
March 7, 2021: In the north (outside Manila) soldiers and police conducted half a dozen dawn raids to arrest suspected NPA members or supporters. Nine suspects were shot dead and six arrested. Foreign critics of operations against the leftist NPA accuse the government of murdering leftist critics the government under the pretense that they are actually NPA members. There are more arrests of NPA suspects since December 2020 when the CPP (Communist Party of the Philippines) and NPA (New People’s Army) were designated as terrorists under the New Anti-Terrorism Act.
The NPA has been suffering a massive decline in popular and communist party support. Increasingly most NPA units must depend on extortion, theft and other criminal activity to survive. This is causing much anger and protest in areas where the NPA still operates “for the good of the people.” Yet the NPA can no longer do much political work when their very survival is at risk.
The government is trying, without much success, to negotiate a peace deal with the NPA. The leadership, as well as the commanders of various armed factions, are split on which peace terms are acceptable and most are continuing to operate (fighting and stealing). The NPA, to most Filipinos, have become bandits with a veneer of communist ideology to justify their crimes. The banditry option is not working well enough to assure long-term survival. This can also be seen when factions run short of money. Less cash and popular support led to more desertions. The army will grant amnesty to NPA members who surrender, especially if they bring their weapons and some useful information with them. Information on the location of NPA camps, weapons storage sites or covert supporters is considered useful and the fact that more NPA camps are being attacked, weapons storage sites seized and key supporters arrested indicates that the NPA is losing secrets as well as people and popular support. Some NPA leaders feel this is all a temporary setback and that a peace deal would enable a revitalized Philippines Communist Party to become a major political power. These delusions make negotiating a peace deal more difficult. Meanwhile the NPA has maintained its status as a major source of criminal, as opposed to Islamic terrorist activity in the country. Most of the NPA senior leadership live in Europe and are considered somewhat out of touch with the reality of what the NPA has become in the Philippines. The exiled NPA leadership still have some support in Western nations, which contributes to criticism of the Filipino tactics used to suppress NPA criminal activity.
March 4, 2021: The U.S. has approached Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines about their willingness to host island based American surveillance and anti-ship missile bases to contain Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. The United States would spend nearly $5 billion on establishing these bases and provide personnel and financial support to keep them operational. It may be a while before these three nations respond. China will promptly denounce the idea and pressure the three proposed host nations to reject the American offer, or else. Freely available commercial satellite photos show China continuing to build and expand its military bases in the South China Sea, most of them located on artificial islands created by dredging nearby sandbars for sand to build reefs into islands.
March 3, 2021: In the south (Sulu province) Jaber Binuri, an Abu Sayyaf leader, and six of his associates surrendered. Binuri, an eight-year veteran of Abu Sayyaf, was persuaded to seek amnesty because of the unrelenting pressure by the security forces. That included an operation in February that arrested nine women in Sulu suspected of volunteering to be suicide bombers. One of the women was Binuri’s wife, who lied to interrogators by claiming her husband was dead.