duterte
© REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte attends the ASEAN Summit in Vientiane, Laos September 7, 2016.
Serial misreporting on Asian affairs is the price the media pays for loyally supporting the US pivot to Asia. It's also a sign that, after a brief US government dalliance with feisty Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, the skids are probably getting greased for his removal.

As an appetizer, consider "Stairgate" i.e. the kerfuffle over the non-appearance of the fancy stairs that would have allowed President Obama to deplane in suitable imperial fashion from the front of Air Force One in Hangzhou for the G20 meeting.

As the Guardian chose to present it, President Obama was "forced to 'go out of the ass' of Air Force One" presenting the unfortunate image of the leader of the free world — and a black man — energetically expelled from the rear of the American flying machine and rolling across the tarmac like a lonely brown turd. Not your best work, Guardian.

The idea that the PRC would find it desirable to humiliate President Obama in this fashion is pretty dubious, and sure enough the Chinese put out the story through the South China Morning Post that there had been an unresolved tussle between the US and PRC security teams over the English-language capabilities of the Chinese driver charged with delivering the magic staircase to Air Force One.

Looks like they might have been telling the truth!

AP actually confirmed the Chinese account, but buried it in another story, perhaps to avoid embarrassing the journos who had conducted the original pile-on:
But U.S. officials said the incident actually stemmed more from a mix-up over finding a driver for the staircase-on-wheels who could communicate in English with the U.S. Secret Service. The officials requested anonymity to describe private diplomatic arrangements.
As a public service, I would also like to point out the "killer fact" arguing against the intentional snub, which is that PRESIDENT OBAMA COULD HAVE STAYED ON AIR FORCE ONE UNTIL THE RIGHT STAIRCASE SHOWED UP.

Contrary to the Guardian's formulation, President Obama was not "forced" to exit via the nasty little rear door by frog marching Red Chinese goons. He could have stayed on the plane, ordering up drone strikes or whatever, until the problem got worked out. But he didn't. He chose instead to get off the plane.

Good for him. President Obama simply shrugged off the incident, which the Western press laboriously spun into its "snub" narrative.

The Financial Times' Jamil Anderlini provided the sullen capstone to the story, while inadvertently providing an epitaph for the outmoded idea of "reporting" in the "infowar" era:
The details of why the staircase was withheld are beside the point.
The point being, that there is an intense interest in the Western media in promoting a narrative of China as aggressive and obnoxious and preserve a sense of victimhood for the United States when America gets aggressive and obnoxious. Even a discredited story is a worthy foundation for a series of think-pieces grumbling about the nasty Chinese humiliating innocent Westerners.

Duterte's salty remarks

The process repeated itself with the media firestorm roasting another guy guilty of insufficient fealty to the notion of American awesomeness, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Duterte directed some salty remarks at the United States while holding a press conference at the airport in Manila to mark his embarkation to Vientiane for an ASEAN get-together, occasioning the cancelation of his meet there with President Obama.

Originally, President Obama was apparently prepared to shrug off the Duterte remarks, for reasons that will become clearer below. But...
Obama initially responded by calling Mr. Duterte a "colorful guy," but then called off the meeting after the international media reported heavily on the issue.
In order to keep the suitable happy American frame around the event, the significance of Duterte's remarks was confined to his allegedly calling President Obama the son of a ...

An actual listen to the full press conference is enlightening in terms of Duterte's issues with the United States.

At the 6:40 mark, Duterte goes off on a Reuters reporter who, in Duterte's view, accepts the premise that he needs to answer questions President Obama and others might raise on extrajudicial killings and human rights issues in the drug war.

Duterte is infuriated because in his view the United States is devoid of the moral stature to question him on human rights, given its bloody history of "Moro pacification" in Duterte's homeland of Mindanao.

CNN helpfully (or hopelessly) glossed the human cost of the US intervention for its readers as a matter of about 600 dead:
Duterte was referring to the US's history as a colonial power in the Philippines, and specifically to one infamous massacre in the southern Philippines — the 1906 Battle of Bud Dajo — in which hundreds of Filipinos, including women and children, were killed.
Actually, he wasn't, which CNN would have discovered if they had listened past Duterte's first agitated reference to his fuller statement about "600" at the ten-minute mark. Duterte is referring to 600,000 dead, not 600. Even more shockingly, Duterte's number is actually one of the more conservative estimates (the upper end is 1.4 million) of Moro deaths at the hand of the US military.

Yes, American friends, Duterte is referring to one of the most brutal and shameful chapters in the history of American imperialism, the brutal subjugation of the Muslim population of Philippines' Mindanao over 30 years of formal war and informal counterinsurgency from 1898 into the 1920s.

life waterboarding

The caption reads: "Chorus in background} 'Those pious Yankees can't throw stones at us anymore.'" This cartoon on the May 22, 1902 cover of Life magazine depicts American soldiers waterboarding a Filipino in the Philippine-American War. Lieutenant Grover Flint described one such torture session.
Mindanao is where the United States first applied the savage lessons of its Indian war to counterinsurgency in Asia—including massacre of civilians, collective punishment, and torture. Waterboarding entered the US military toolkit in Mindanao, as immortalized on the May 22, 1902 front cover of Life magazine.

And the war never ended. After the Philippines shed its colonial status, the Manila Roman Catholic establishment continued the war with US help. Today, the Philippines is locked in a cycle of negotiation and counterinsurgency between the central government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) — a cycle that Duterte as president hopes to bring to its conclusion with a negotiated peace settlement.

This is not ancient history to Duterte, who emphatically stated in his press conference that the reason Mindanao is "on the boil" today is because of the historical crimes of the United States.

Duterte has additional reasons for his choler.

As I wrote previously at Asia Times, Duterte suspects US spooks of orchestrating a deadly series of bombings in his home city of Davao in 2002, with the probable motive of creating a pretext for the central government to declare martial law on Mindanao to fight the MILF. The 2002 Davao bombings form the foundation of Duterte's alienation from the United States and his resistance to US-Philippine joint exercises on Mindanao, as he declared upon the assumption of his presidency.

And, though it hasn't received a lot of coverage in the United States, last week, on September 2, another bomb ripped through a marketplace in Davao, killing fourteen people. It was suspected of being part of an assassination plot against Duterte, who was in town at the time, and the Communist Party of the Philippines (which is also engaged in peace talks with Duterte) accused the United States of being behind it.

The CPP characterized the group that claimed the bombing, Abu Sayyaf, as CIA assets. Not too far off the mark, apparently. Abu Sayyaf is a group of Islamic fighters/bandits formed out of the dregs of US recruitment of Philippine Muslims to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. When these fighters came home, they apparently were enrolled and armed as central government/CIA deniable assets in the war against the MILF. Duterte has vowed to destroy, indeed, consume them.

So, mindful of the human rights crimes the US has committed historically, recently, and perhaps currently in Mindanao, including a possible assassination attempt against himself, Duterte declared himself unwilling to submit to any questioning or censure by President Obama. And his "son of a ..." remark at the airport appears to have been along the lines of, "If President Obama confronts me, son of a ..., I'll tell him..."

At the ASEAN gathering in Laos, Duterte apparently tried to explain the roots of his indignation but is getting the psycho crank who "veered off speech and launched a tirade" treatment via AFP:
"The Philippine president showed a picture of the killings of American soldiers in the past and the president said: 'This is my ancestor they killed. Why now we are talking about human rights,'" an Indonesian delegate said. The Philippines was an American colony from 1898 to 1946.

The delegate described the atmosphere in the room as "quiet and shocked."
It should be noted that in his press conference at the airport in Manila, Duterte referenced the pictures he wanted to show, so it was more of a planned event rather than a spontaneous piece of hysterics by an unstable leader, which seems to be the frame being applied here.

The messy reality of a century of no-holds-barred counterinsurgency under US coordination, drugs, corruption, and murder in the Philippines distracts from the pretty picture of sailor suits, battleships, and yo-ho-ho in the South China Sea with American and the Philippine democracies shoulder-to-shoulder against China that the US wants to present to the world.

Judging by the spate of attacks on Duterte in the Western press and veiled criticism from some of the Manila papers, it looks like Duterte's insufficient loyalty to the pivot vision may result in his downfall. Indeed, with the Duterte-US split deepening, his removal may become a strategic imperative for America.

According to a report I read, the cynical tack of packaging the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) to evade legislative review also means that its implementation is at the discretion of the executive branch — the president of the Philippines in other words— and his willingness to allocate funds for it. If Duterte threatens to fiddle with EDCA — fiddle with the pivot! — it may be time to unleash the pro-US elements in Manila to engineer a change.

When it comes time to portray Duterte as an out-of-control thug incapable of managing the relationship with the United States and unworthy to lead the Philippines in a struggle against Chinese aggression, I'm sure the press will step up to do its part. After all, it's already happening.
About the Author

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.

Comment: What follows is an excerpt from the follow-up written by Lee on his blog, China Matters:


Duterte has appalled the United States not only by criticizing the US presence, but by engaging bilaterally with China on the issues brought to a head by the UNCLOS arbitral award instead of doing that shoulder-to-shoulder Pivot Thunder thing to confront the PRC as part of a US-orchestrated united front.

I've written some pretty nifty pieces on the issues surrounding Duterte and the US: Here's another one! focusing on the under-reported consequences of Duterte's drug war.

Duterte's first priority is the drug war which is reported in the Western press primarily through the lens of the vigilante killings.
To keep the frame on Duterte's excesses in a way that makes it easier for Human Rights Watch to flay his policies as "death squads run amok for no justifiable reason", there have been interesting attempts to dismiss the Philippine drug problem as no big deal.

But apparently it really is a big deal in terms of its social costs (the Philippines has the highest rate of meth use in East Asia), multinational implications (Philippine mules are getting executed in China and in Indonesia, the Sinaloa cartel has even started exploring the Philippine as a market and source of material), and as a driver for corruption of Philippine government and security forces that reaches up to the highest level.

The actual story is that Duterte is not only using the threat of summary executions to round up addicts and pushers; he's naming names, both of cartel leaders and the national and local politicians and officers who shelter them. It's a rather thrilling high stakes game—allegations emerged this week that the bombing in Davao that killed 14 people and was apparently an assassination attempt on Duterte was actually conducted by threatened narcopoliticians, not the Abu Sayyaf Islamist banditti—but the US press has apparently shown little interest in covering these ramifications.

Also I haven't seen a lot of reporting on the fact that Duterte's drug war necessitates deeper PRC-Philippine engagement in several important aspects.

First of all, the Philippine drug trade—primarily meth, locally known as shabu—is dominated by Chinese Triads by virtue of the fact that the large and poorly regulated PRC drug industry is a ready source of the intermediates needed to make the drug and also by the fact that Triads are deeply embedded in the major Chinese-diaspora presence in Filipino society. The PRC has a lot to offer in terms of tighter enforcement on the mainland and perhaps in using its good offices to encourage crackdowns in a key Triad operational base, Hong Kong.

On the other hand, the PRC can make life difficult for Duterte if it wants to, by turning a blind eye to the export-oriented meth trade. So there you have it.

Duterte made his expectations concerning PRC assistance quite clear by summoning the PRC ambassador back in August:
The Philippines government said on Wednesday it had summoned the Chinese ambassador earlier this week to explain reports that traffickers were bringing in narcotics from China, opening a new front in President Rodrigo Duterte's controversial war on drugs.

On Tuesday, the country's police chief told a Senate hearing that China, Taiwan and Hong Kong were major sources of illegal drugs, and Chinese triads were involved in trafficking.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay told a Senate hearing on Wednesday that the Chinese ambassador had been summoned for an explanation, and the government would also send a diplomatic communication to Beijing to "pursue this in a more aggressive note."
Another area of potential Philippine-PRC cooperation is PRC assistance in a crash program to rehabilitate the Philippine drug users who have turned themselves in to the police to avoid getting targeted by the death squads.

Though virtually unreported in the Western media, over 700,000 users have turned themselves in.

Let me repeat that. 700,000 drug users have turned themselves in.

And they presumably need to get a clean "rehab" chit to live safely in their communities, presenting a major challenge for the Philippines drug rehabilitation infrastructure. Duterte has called on the Philippine military to make base acreage available for additional rehab camps and the first one will apparently be at Camp Ramon Magsaysay.

Duterte has turned to the PRC to demand they fund construction of drug treatment facilities, and the PRC has obliged. According to Duterte and his spokesman, preparatory work for the Magsaysay facility has already begun.

There's an amusing wrinkle here.

Magsaysay is the largest military reservation in the Philippines. It is also the jewel in the diadem, I might say, of the five Philippine bases envisioned for US use under EDCA, the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement that officially returned US troops to Philippine bases. It looks like the US military might be sharing Magsaysay with thousands of drug users...and PRC construction workers.

I expect the Pentagon is quietly fuming at Duterte's presumption.

Duterte is understandably leaning on China to assist him with his drug war. The Philippine establishment may or may not be thoroughly corrupted by drug money, but it's probably happy to restrain him by slowwalking legislation related to the war.

And although the United States quickly "committed" $32 million for "law enforcement and training", who knows when and if it'll show up and where it will end up. I also get a feeling the US wouldn't mind seeing Duterte and his drug war fall on their *sses, so the civilian and military Philippine establishment could get back to its main mission of pleasing the United States and returning to a pivot-centric foreign policy.

So Duterte is going executive decree, and twisting China's arm to get quick, effective "facts on the ground" i.e. rehab camps. I suspect the camps are absolutely essential to Duterte's plan; if he can't process the users, he'll have to leave them in their communities and the drug war will be revealed as a damp squib and a farce—unless the death squads are up to massacring another 700,000 people, which I think is beyond even their murderous capabilities.

It looks like Duterte thinks that the UNCLOS ruling could be put to better use extorting Chinese cooperation to house an army of drug addicts, instead of gratifying the United States by a futile attempt to evict the PRC from Scarborough Shoal (the PRC, by the way, appears to be allowing Filipino fishing boats to work the shoal, at least for now).

Interesting, no?

But an immense social and political upheaval concerning drugs and highlighting the interdependency of China and the Philippines is apparently not really worth reporting, since the designated US theme is that the existential issue for Asia is meeting the military threat of rising China by a big reboot of the US presence in the Philippines.

The US government and US-friendly Western press may be unhappy with Duterte and his tilt away from the US, but finding a news hook to demonize him is a little difficult.

For one thing, the way the US and Aquino administration structured EDCA oh-so-cleverly to avoid legislative review apparently put control of implementation completely in the hands of the President of the Philippines--who turned out not to be a pliable member of the Manila set but Rodrigo Duterte. If the US gets too pointed in its criticism, US access to bases in the Philippines, a cherished US objective since the eviction of US forces in 1993 and an important chess piece in the South China Sea, might get restricted.


Comment: That's poetic justice right there.


Secondly, Duterte is a non-socialist business-is-business guy whose election was, as we say, free and fair. So the "Philippines' Putin/Chavez/Assad" frame doesn't fit very well.

Third, Duterte is popular thanks to his whole-hearted prosecution of the drug war. His approvals are up in the 80s I believe.

Fourth, the US record in the Philippines is genuinely god-awful. The mission that the United States wants to focus on—what I call the sailor suit/battleship/yo ho ho democracy and freedom confronting China in the SCS—is a small fraction of the reality of the US presence in the Philippines and its corrupting penetration of the Philippines' military and security forces and the Manila elite. Doing a deep dive into America's Duterte problem means acknowledging that the US presence in the Philippines recapitulates the Indian Wars, Vietnam, and Iraq: a gigantic and bloody imperial botch.

No need, I think, to trouble the beautiful minds of American readers with the realization that Duterte's tilt away from the US is completely understandable and probably justified.

So I expect the roots of Duterte's problems with the United States will not get a particularly extensive and honest airing in the Western press.

However, I expect alternative reporting frames have to be developed to guide a bewildered readership if Duterte persists in twisting America's bayag.

There has been some road-testing of "Duterte is a paid-for Chinese stooge" to explain his otherwise inexplicable lack of America love and willingness to go bilateral engagement with the PRC, but that doesn't seem to have acquired sufficient legs.

The US government and press seems to be settling into the "Philippines' Donald Trump" mode i.e. Duterte is an unstable reactionary goon unfit for the high mission of sustaining the rules-based international order that's all the vogue these days, and blind to the fact that in the age of rising China the Philippines has no space to run a non-aligned foreign policy.

The best way to understand Duterte is to listen to him in his own words sans filter.

Here's the video of his infamous press conference before he embarked to Laos (in my AT article I incorrectly placed the presser at Manila; he was actually leaving from Davao International Airport; sorry!).


Only 19 minutes and well worth your time. At the end, you'll understand Duterte and his priorities pretty well.

And at the end, you also get a harbinger of things to come—Duterte's impending clash with the Manila elites who he believes are being egged on by Washington to impede his policies. In his final words, Duterte provided this characterization of the local critics who felt it was more important for Duterte to respond to questions from Obama concerning human rights abuses in the drug war than to assert Filipino sovereignty and dignity:
There are others with mental capacity of dogs who lap at the ass of the Americans.
As it transpired, Duterte discarded his prepared remarks in Vientiane to deliver a denunciation of US historical crimes in Mindanao, complete with atrocity photos.

Duterte says a lot of interesting and important things. But I doubt you'll read a lot about them in the Western papers.