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15 February 2019, Gateway House

Democracy and other challenges in the Philippines

Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines, is a popular, yet controversial figure in a complex country, battling a mix of challenges. In external relations, he has followed a careful balancing policy, giving primacy to China, U.S. and the ASEAN

Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme

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This is the fifth in a series about the ASEAN nations.

Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines, is one of the ASEAN region’s popular, yet controversial leaders, one who has invited criticism both for his relentless war on illegal drugs and his penchant for power naps.[1] [2]

Duterte’s government has taken on the drug menace head on, the police going zealously after the drug mafia, drug pushers and users too. Human Rights Watch estimates that 12,000 people have been killed, although official figures are much lower. The president conceded, “My only sin is extrajudicial killings,”[3] but made clear that his bold campaign against drugs was there to stay because even though drug operations were “nasty and bloody”, advocates of human rights knew only to pillory the administration. “Your concern is human rights, mine is human lives,”[4] he told them.

The Philippines is likely to be a scene of “continuing struggle” between those desiring a strongman and those advocating the desirability of democracy, “even the flawed version practiced in the Philippines,”[5] as David G. Timberman, a noted scholar on South East Asia, wrote in January 2019.

The war on drugs even brought the country close to a confrontation with the International Criminal Court (ICC). In 2018, the latter announced it was initiating a preliminary examination of the alleged crimes by government authorities. Duterte promptly announced the Philippines’ withdrawal from the ICC. This will come into effect only in March 2019 – and may not give immunity to the government for its actions during the preceding period.

So far, the Duterte presidency has been a mix of change and continuity in national politics. The Philippines is the second most populous member of ASEAN, but is poor by the grouping’s standards. Its nominal per capita income – $3,099 – is well below the ASEAN average of $4,444, according to the IMF’s October 2018 estimates. The economy’s annual growth rate – over 6% in recent years – masks relative poverty, inequality, imbalance in income distribution among various regions and corruption.[6] For decades, violence and terrorism in Mindanao, southern Philippines, has been a significant challenge before the government.

Relating to the world  

Outside its borders, the Philippines has been pursuing an independent foreign policy, trying to balance relations with China, U.S. and the ASEAN. A month after Duterte took over as president, the Permanent Court of Arbitration panel handed to the Philippines government a favourable verdict on its dispute with China, concerning the South China Sea. The Chinese claim about the nine-dash line that includes a part of the Philippine assets in the area was found invalid under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Instead of insisting that Beijing respect the verdict, the Duterte government changed course, choosing to be conciliatory towards China. Since his visit to Beijing and discussions with President Xi Jinping in October 2016, Manila has consistently worked on improving ties.

The government is supportive of China’s BRI programme. The Philippines needs all the Chinese capital it can get for infrastructure upgradation, but the region’s vexed geopolitics and negative sentiments towards China at home ensure that China-Philippines relations are on edge too.

As a former American colony-turned-liberal democracy, the nation has enjoyed the closest relations with the U.S. The two are bound together as military allies, even though the Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT) has been an area of discord because of ambiguity in the U.S.’ commitment to defend all of the Philippines in case of an external attack.[7] However, important segments of the Manila elite and military leadership continue to favour a strong relationship with Washington with whom an extensive network of ties exists through universities, think tanks, civic groups and business.

ASEAN, as the third pillar, provides a regional platform to the Philippines to promote the national interest. Like its fellow member-states, seeking expeditious conclusion to negotiations for a Code of Conduct (COC) with China on the South China Sea, the Philippines favours community-building within ASEAN and the principle of ASEAN centrality in the region’s affairs. Its success in chairing ASEAN and hosting a series of summits during 2017 won the government much kudos.

Strengthening relations with three other countries also form a part of its balancing policy: neighbours, Japan and Russia, provide it space and strength in dealing with the U.S. and China. Japan is a reliable friend, “closer than a brother.”[8] The third country is India.

Relations with India

India appeared on Duterte’s radar in November 2017 when PM Modi visited the Philippines to participate in ASEAN-related conferences, including the India-ASEAN summit. A strong bilateral component was built into the visit by an Indian PM, considering that it was the first visit at this level after a gap of 36 years.

Although the farthest ASEAN nation from India, the Philippines, with its excellent educational facilities, currently has 10,000 Indian students, many of them studying medicine. About 50% of students at the well-known Asian Institute of Management are from India. The University of Philippines and others now have ‘India Chapters’ in their libraries while the Indian diaspora numbers about 1,20,000.

The economic facet of the bilateral relationship has been gaining strength too though bilateral trade at $2.4 billion (in 2016-17) can improve. Investment and joint ventures are on an upward trajectory. The value of investment by Indian companies is about $650 million, with conglomerates, such as the Birlas and Mahindras, and companies, such as TCS, Infosys and Zydus Cadila, present in the Philippine market. The GMR Group, which won appreciation for upgrading the Cebu-Mactan airport project, is now responsible for running the airport for the next 25 years.[9]

In his meeting with PM Modi in Manila, President Duterte underlined the “immense potential in our economic, trade and investment relations,”[10] especially in the pharmaceutical and education sectors. The Philippine side expects the Indian pharmaceutical industry to set up production operations locally rather than being content with export only. It has also been active in promoting the inflow of Indian tourists. The Modi visit resulted in the conclusion of four MoUs relating to cooperation in defence, MSMEs, agriculture and collaboration between the Indian Council of World Affairs and the Philippines Foreign Service Institute. Moreover, a common bond is the shared commitment to combat terrorism, as the Philippines confronts a serious issue in conflict-ridden Marawi in the Mindanao region, with India figuring among the countries providing assistance to it.[11]

In sum, the Philippines is a complex polity facing pressing development challenges and standing at the frontline of the U.S.-China contestation in the region. India’s academic and strategic community, business leaders and Delhi’s policymakers need to take a closer look at it. A state visit to India by President Duterte later in the year may be the best way to consolidate relations further.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House. A former ambassador to Myanmar and former DCM at the Indian Embassy, Jakarta, he comments regularly on Southeast Asian affairs.

This is the fifth in a series about the ASEAN nations.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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[1] The Manila Times, Duterte defends need to ‘power nap’ after summit no-shows, 15 November 2018, <>

[2]To defend himself against his critics, Duterte – no fan of the U.S. – quoted Abraham Lincoln in his last state of the nation address: “…if I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop, the presidency, might as well be closed for any other business.

[3] Reyes, Rachel A. G.,  The Manila Times, Mortality and power: Duterte reflects, 9 October 2018, <>

[4] Presidential Communications Operations Office, Presidential News Desk, State of the Nation Address, 23 July 2018, <>

[5] Timberman, David G., Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Philippine Politics Under Duterte: A Midterm Assessment, 10 January 2019, <>

[6] International Monetary Fund, The Philippines’ Economic Outlook in Six Charts, 27 September 2018, <>

[7] Cook, Malcolm, Real Clear Defense, Scrapping the U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty?, 15 January 2019, <>

[8] Rocamore, Joyce Ann L., Philippine News Agency, PH-Japan ties ‘closer than brothers’, 6 August 2018, <>

[9] Embassy of India, Manila, Philippines, Bilateral Trade and Economic Relations, April 2018, <>

[10] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, Transcript of Media Briefing by Foreign Secretary and Secretary (East) in Manila (November 13, 2017), 14 November 2017, <>

[11] Embassy of India, Manila, Philippines, Press Release, 12 July 2017, <>