20 April 2019
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte shakes hands with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Duterte has dramatically improved his country's ties with China by shifting the focus from territorial disputes to economic cooperation. Photo: Bloomberg
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte shakes hands with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Duterte has dramatically improved his country's ties with China by shifting the focus from territorial disputes to economic cooperation. Photo: Bloomberg

Despite drug war failure, Duterte winning Filipinos’ support

Earlier this month the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte paid a flying visit to Hong Kong.

During his short stay, Duterte not only wowed the hundreds of Filipino domestic workers who had flocked to meet him in person, but also took an unexpected step to please Beijing by publicly and formally apologizing for the 2010 Manila hostage incident in his official capacity as his nation’s president.

Duterte’s current approval rating in his country stands at a record 80 percent.

And though his bloody war on drugs has turned out far less effective and fruitful than he had boasted, it hasn’t stopped him from becoming one of the most popular presidents in his country’s history.

According to foreign media reports, a lot of Filipino civilians have been either wrongly convicted of drug dealing or simply executed by the local police because law enforcers are desperate to meet official targets.

Worse still, drug prices in the Philippines have actually fallen after Duterte has assumed office as president, suggesting that his deadly and ruthless anti-drug war has actually failed to achieve the desired effect.

In October last year, Duterte ordered the 1,800-strong anti-narcotics command to take over the entire drug war effort from the military and police, a move that has been seen as a de facto halt to his war on drugs.

Rumors have it that Duterte is letting up on drug dealers because his own son has been found harboring drug syndicates with Chinese background, but so far no one can confirm such rumors.

Nevertheless, as the saying goes, politics is all about perceptions. Although Duterte’s war on drugs has largely failed, it hasn’t dented his high popularity among the masses.

Instead, Duterte’s popular image as an iron-fisted leader has enabled him to consolidate his power and minimize opposition to his economic reform initiatives.

During his first year in office, the Philippines maintained a remarkable 6.7 percent GDP growth, which was substantially higher than the average level in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Many observers have attributed the Philippines’ rapid economic growth, at least partly, to the so-called Duternomics: Manila is investing in infrastructure projects across the country under the slogan “Build, Build, Build” in order to boost the country’s economy.

In the past, the Philippines was notorious for its poor and run-down public facilities and infrastructure.

Since taking office, Duterte has substantially raised the percentage of infrastructure investment in his country’s GDP from between 2 and 3 percent to 7 percent.

At the heart of his ambitious and nationwide infrastructure program is the redevelopment of the city of Clark, which, under his plan, is going to become a major metropolitan area with a population of over 1 million.

Apart from the main island of Luzon, remote and poor areas such as Mindanao and other regions in the south will also benefit from Duterte’s massive infrastructure projects.

Duterte has also introduced a sweeping tax reform program, slashing income tax and corporate tax to 25 percent.

In the meantime, he has increased taxes on motor vehicles, gasoline and sugar-sweetened beverages such as soft-drinks to generate more government revenues.

Externally, in order to help implement his infrastructure projects, Duterte took a U-turn on his country’s policy towards China by shifting the focus away from its territorial disputes with the Asian giant and working aggressively to seek closer economic ties with Beijing.

His efforts are paying off. President Xi Jinping has promised to help fund his infrastructure projects under China’s One Belt, One Road program.

Meanwhile, Duterte has also succeeded in drawing huge funding from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) spearheaded by Japan.

And following his open hostility towards former US president Barack Obama, Duterte and the incumbent American leader, Donald Trump, appear in good terms.

Recent joint efforts by the United States, Russia and China to help Duterte to put down the Islamic State-inspired rebellion in the city of Marawi in Southern Philippines indicate that his “hedging diplomacy” has worked.

As a country with a population of over 100 million and a rapidly growing economy, the Philippines is quickly becoming a key player in the region.

And thanks to Duterte’s pragmatism and his complete lack of ideological baggage, the Philippines is now undoubtedly a force to reckon with.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 20

Translation by Alan Lee 

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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