On Monday, 10 February, the Philippine Solicitor-General, Jose Calida filed a “quo warranto” petition against ABS-CBN, the republic’s most-popular television station (with over 72.3 million weekly viewers and a 47% viewership share) as well as a perceived critic Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte—in effect, attempting to force it off-air.
Then, the next day, Foreign Affairs Secretary, Teodoro Locsin Jr signed a notice terminating the republic’s Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US.
Many see the Philippine strongman as an erratic, Trump-like figure.
He is not.
He is deliberate, determined and deadly.
But time is running out for Duterte. The republic will soon be gearing up for the 2022 Presidential polls for which the former Davao Mayor cannot stand (since the fall of Marcos in 1986, Presidents can only hold office for one six-year term).
The question must be asked, has President Duterte squandered the chance to transform his nation? Whilst the economy is chugging along very well (5.9% GDP growth in 2019 according to the World Bank) his all-important ‘Build Build Build’ infrastructure program is moving far too slowly.
Has Duterte wasted his immense 2016 electoral mandate and personal popularity (87% as of December 2019 according to the pollsters Pulse Asia)? Has the pursuit of personal enemies such as ABSCBN, kicking out the Americans and pivoting to China distracted Malacanang?
Investment from China has been pitifully small - and nothing like the USD9 billion he promised back in 2016. Indeed, the proliferation of shady online Chinese gaming businesses in the republic has led to popular backlash amongst ordinary Filipinos.
Certainly, Duterte has never hidden his obsessions. His dislike of ABSCBN and the much-storied Lopez family who control the publicly listed TV station was well known. Similarly, with the US. In both cases his animus runs deep.
Full disclosure: my “Ceritalah” column is syndicated with ABSCBN and I have appeared many times on Headstart, the station’s early morning news show whose lead news anchor Karen Davila (a good friend) terrorizes all her guests with equal vigour.
Still, the former Davao Mayor’s relentless pursuit of ABSCBN combined with his administration’s attacks on the online news portal rappler.com (run by former CNN anchor Maria Ressa) and the newspaper, the Philippine Daily Inquirer underlines his disregard for media freedoms and the critical importance of checks and balances to executive power.
The Solicitor-General claims that ABSCBN has engaged in “highly abusive practices”, including allegedly violating foreign ownership caps. For the record, media companies in the Philippines must be 100% locally owned.
The move against the US is even more dramatic, signalling the end to a checkered 120 year-long shared history.
The VFA allowed American troops to be rotated into the Philippines for humanitarian assistance and military exercises. The two countries have other treaties, including the 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty and the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement - but both are moot without the VFA.
To be sure, Duterte has always been anti-American. As Davao Mayor, he was reported to have been angered over a 2002 incident where US agents controversially extricated an American who allegedly detonated an explosive device in a local hotel, before authorities had a chance to interrogate the man.
As President, Duterte famously said that he was “separating” from the US—the Philippines’ former colonial master—seeking closer ties with China and Russia instead.
But defence cooperation with the Americans - facilitated by the VFA - continued.
However, the US visa of a former policeman-turned Senator ally of Duterte’s, Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa, was cancelled, supposedly because of the latter’s involvement in the President’s bloody ‘War on Drugs’.
Duterte - already seething at US criticism over the drug ‘war’ and other issues - vowed and then went ahead with the cancellation of the VFA, which will lapse in 180 days.
The VFA matters not only because it acts as a deterrent to Chinese aggression. The US also helps provide training and technical assistance to the Philippine military, including during the 2017 Marawi siege.
Duterte also claims that cancelling the VFA strengthens Philippine sovereignty and independence.
But he has been deafeningly silent on China’s many violations of his country’s territory in the South China/West Philippine Sea.
Indeed, his insistence on doubling down with China is inexplicable given that most other ASEAN nations are trying to lessen their economic and political dependence on the Middle Kingdom - especially since the onset of the Corona Virus panic.
And as Secretary Locsin conceded in his testimony to the Senate, “Terminating the VFA will negatively impact the Philippines' defence and security arrangements”. He also noted that the US is the Philippines third-largest trading partner (valued at USD8.7 billion), its biggest export market, the fifth-largest source of investment (PHP12.9 billion) and third-largest source of tourism (1 million arrivals in 2018).
Moreover, Duterte’s actions jeopardize the interests of the 3.3 million-strong Philippine diaspora in America, who contribute to 36.8% of its remittances—the highest source country. What about the 1.2 million Filipinos who work in Business Process Outsourcing (BPO)—many of whom are employed by American firms?
Philippine Presidents only have one chance. Duterte may well have missed his.