By Wilson Alexander | Contributor
It seems as though many Americans only notice the Philippines when they are thinking about going on a mission trip, but recent developments on the Southeast Asian archipelago are bringing the country into the international spotlight.
President Rodrigo Duterte has only been in office for five months, but he has already made headlines for his crackdown on drugs and his insistence that the Philippines break away from the U.S. and align more closely with China, according to Reuters. Loved by Filipinos but criticized by world leaders, Duterte appears determined to write his own chapter in the history of the country he leads.
The Philippines were colonized by Spain but annexed by the United States in 1898 after the Spanish-American War. Despite hints that the United States would support Filipino independence, Washington spent its first two years directly controlling the archipelago, snuffing out an insurgency. The Philippines continued to be under American control until 1946 and has been a staunch U.S. ally since.
Around the time the Philippines was granted independence, Rodrigo Duterte was born in the southern part of the country. Trefor Moss of The Wall Street Journal notes that as a young man, he was known for his short temper and willingness to get into fights; he developed a fierce dislike for the United States as well as traditional Filipino elites, qualities that would come to define his politics.
He was elected mayor of Davao City, his hometown, in 1988 and held the position intermittently until 2016. Several years before he took office, "Asiaweek" magazine labeled Davao City "Murder City," and Duterte began an aggressive campaign-notable for the extrajudicial violence perpetrated by "death squads"-to clean up the city. Despite the alleged human rights violations, Duterte's policies were successful, and today, Davao City is one of the safest in the Philippines according to the website Numbeo.
Riding waves of popular support for his tough talk about cleaning up the country, Duterte was elected president in May. Since taking office in June, roughly 2,300 suspected drug dealers and addicts have been killed by police and vigilante groups. Rather than risk death, thousands have turned themselves in, straining the country's limited drug rehabilitation resources.
President Obama and other international leaders have spoken out against this extrajudicial violence, but their protests have been met with stubborn resolve and virulent tirades from Duterte. Much of the campaign has targeted impoverished peoples and areas, and recently Duterte's administration signaled a change in its approach: focusing on arresting rather than killing suspected drug users and locking up more government officials and upper class Filipinos who have often been seen as immune to punishment.
The Filipino president's unorthodox political style is also seen in his foreign policy. In a recent state visit to China, Duterte declared his intention to end the close relationship his country has had with the United States in favor of one with China and Russia. He also announced that joint military exercises between the United States and the Philippines, a long-standing tradition, will be stopped and that the American troops stationed in his country will need to leave within two years.
This move could have a number of far-reaching effects regarding stability in Southeast Asia. Since 2012, China has increasingly asserted sovereignty over much of the South China Sea, waters that are also claimed by the Philippines and several other nations, even creating artificial islands in the contested areas. Most of the world's shipping flows through these waters, and beneath the seabed is an abundance of natural resources; control of this area could prove incredibly advantageous in an international conflict according to the Council of Foreign Relations.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration recently deemed this expansion illegal after the Philippines filed a suit contesting it. But, as Foreign Policy reports, if Duterte decides to align himself with China, the United States will lose a vital ally in the fight against this expansion.
Rodrigo Duterte has wasted little time shaking up Filipino politics, and his actions could significantly impact the international community. His violent war on drugs could be seen as a model by other authoritarian leaders seeking to rid their countries of various problems, and his foreign policy changes have the potential to alter the balance of power in the region and beyond, giving China a stepping-stone on which to continue their global ascendency.
It is too early to tell if these policies will prove to be effective or if they will be undone by his successors, but for now, Rodrigo Duterte is quickly emerging as one of the most controversial leaders in the world, and the international community is anxiously awaiting his next move.