Is Duterte an anti-imperialist?

Alessandro Tinonga examines the motives of the new president of the Philippines for demanding that the U.S. end its military presence in a geopolitically important country.

President Rodrigo DutertePresident Rodrigo Duterte

EVEN BEFORE Rodrigo Duterte was inaugurated as president of the Philippines back in June, his attitude toward the U.S. government was a little shaky.

During his campaign for the presidency, Duterte expressed distrust of the U.S.--perhaps most intriguingly because of accusations that the U.S. aided in the escape of a U.S. citizen suspected in bombing a hotel in Davao City in 2002, when Duterte was mayor.

Nonetheless, Barack Obama was the first to congratulate Duterte following his election victory. But relations became further frayed when the U.S. began to criticize Duterte's "war on drugs." The right-wing populist Duterte has built his political career around being tough on crime. As president, his crackdown on drug sellers and users has already been responsible for 3,600 deaths, through direct police attacks or state-sanctioned vigilante violence.

Responding to these criticisms, Duterte called the U.S. ambassador a "son of a whore" and later repeated the slur about President Obama.

Relations between the U.S. and Philippines governments reached a new low in mid-October when Duterte, attending a meeting of Filipino and Chinese business leaders in Beijing, declared that he would break his country's close alliance with the U.S. and build ties with China, America's rising rival in Asia.

"I announce my separation from the United States, both in military but economics also," Duterte announced, adding "[M]aybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines and Russia."

Duterte also signaled his willingness to negotiate an ongoing dispute between the Philippines and China over territorial claims in the South China Sea, despite having won a favorable ruling over China from an international tribunal months before.

This is an unprecedented shift for a country that was subjugated by the U.S. after an invasion at the beginning of the 20th century--and a further sign of the declining power of the U.S. against its superpower rival China.

The conflict has left some on the left, both in the U.S. and in the Philippines, with questions about how to regard Duterte. The Communist Party of the Philippines has gone so far as to say that Duterte may "fall to the left."

Duterte's actions are unprecedented, and they throw the future imperial policy of the U.S. into question--but do they mean that Duterte has become an anti-imperialist?

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IN THE days after his declaration that the Philippines would separate from the U.S., Duterte tempered his comments. by insisting that he was not making a complete break.

"It is not severance of ties," he said at a press conference after his return from China. "You say severance of ties, you cut the diplomatic relations. I cannot do that. Why? It is in the best interest of my country that we maintain that relationship. Why? Because there are many Filipinos in the United States...[W]hat I was really saying was separation of a foreign policy."

Duterte's office stated that the government had no intention of reneging on any treaties, economic or military, with any country, including the U.S.

But this week, speaking during a visit to Japan, Duterte stated that he wanted all foreign troops out of the Philippines within "maybe two years." That would mean revoking an agreement negotiated by the government of former President Benigno Aquino that would have established a permanent U.S. presence at five major Philippines bases.

One month before, Duterte called for the withdrawal of U.S. Special Forces from a group of islands in the southern Philippines, saying their presence could complicate operations against Islamic insurgents.

One question about cutting off ties with the U.S. would be the reaction from the Philippine ruling class. The oligarchs who run the country, known as the "big families," made their fortunes aligning themselves with U.S. business and the government.

While Duterte is a member of the elite, he's seen as an upstart among the traditional circles that have dominated the state. Unlike the other family dynasties that have developed bases of support in the working class, through prestige, terror and bribery, Duterte does not have a solid base of support of his own. Cutting the connections between American capital and the family dynasties could undermine Duterte.

In any event, Duterte and his representatives have made it clear that they don't intend to sever economic relations with the U.S. Trade Minister Ramon Lopez told CNN that the Philippines "would not stop trade and investment with the US. [Duterte] has decided to strengthen further and rekindle the ties with China and the ASEAN region."

The most likely motivation for Duterte's anti-American rhetoric is to signal to the main imperialist powers that the Philippines are open for business, and all offers are welcome.

China, for one, is taking advantage of the opportunity. During meetings last week, the Beijing government reportedly offered Duterte more than $9 billion in low-interest loans, including $15 million in loans set aside for drug-rehabilitation programs. The Wall Street Journal reported that the two countries are also completing economic agreements valued at an estimated $13.5 billion.

These new arrangements could be lucrative for Duterte in his plans to increase development. Reporting for Deutsche Welle, journalist Frank Sieren wrote that Duterte "wants Chinese support to build a rail network in his home province of Mindanao, as well as a rail line from there to the capital Manila.

"Duterte was hoping to receive money from China's 'One Belt, One Road' investment pot. China intends to invest $1.2 billion into infrastructure projects via its Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank, which despite US opposition already had 57 member states by the end of last year."

Clearly, Duterte hopes to improve his bargaining power with the two main imperial powers of the region. But his move is risky. As history has shown, the U.S. is more than capable of pushing aside government leaders if Washington and Corporate America don't get their way--and the U.S. has power to exert through its connections to the Philippines eleite.

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IT'S NOT clear how the recent developments involving Duterte will shape the future balance of power between the two imperialist rivals in the Pacific. What is apparent, however, is that Duterte's spat with the U.S. isn't motivated by a genuine and principled stand against imperialism.

Filipinos may look favorably on his attempts to resolve disputes over islands in the Pacific favorably, but Duterte's overtures to China show that for him, the alternative to U.S. bases is working with a government that is trying to accumulate territory and political influence for its own imperial interest.

Duterte's aim of courting both superpowers is to accumulate capital to speed up an ongoing neoliberal agenda in the Philippines. Beyond obtaining aid for development, he and the rest of the ruling class hope to increase productivity on the backs of the working class.

On top of loyally paying the Philippines' international debt--much of it accumulated by by Duterte's personal hero, the ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos--there are plans to increase economic free zones and increase regressive taxation, while cutting taxes for corporations to attract investment.

Then, of course, there is the brutality of Duterte's murderous "war on drugs," with its continuing death toll. The new president has shown he is more than willing to brutalize working-class people to move his agenda forward, and the crackdown of state and paramilitary forces has been directed at workers, the left and oppressed groups.
As Herbert Docena and Gabriel Hetland wrote in an article published at the Europe Solidaire Sans Frontières website, "The new Philippine President may indeed wage a 'revolution' – but a 'revolution' to stabilize rather than challenge an oppressive social order."

The left, both in the U.S. and the Philippines, can oppose U.S. imperialism and also condemn Duterte's oppressive authority. Those in the Philippines fighting to force out U.S. imperialism out of the country will need to remain independent of and opposed to the government.