This interview was conducted by long-distance phone call to Manila, and the connection was spotty. We apologize for the quality of the audio.
EMMA LO: Hi. I'm Emma Lo here at Carnegie Council in New York City. Today I'm joined by Richard Heydarian, who is here with us speaking from Manila.
RICHARD HEYDARIAN: My pleasure, Emma.
EMMA LO: Richard is an assistant professor in international affairs and political science at De La Salle University and a specialist on Asian geopolitics and economic affairs.
Thanks so much for joining us today, Richard.
RICHARD HEYDARIAN: Likewise for your joining me, Emma.
EMMA LO: Could you start off by telling us a little bit about your research interests and specifically give us a brief intro to recent developments in the South China Sea contest?
RICHARD HEYDARIAN: Much of my research has focused on both the West and East Asian regional landscape. In fact, my first book was on the Arab uprising. My latest book has been on the South and East China Sea disputes. Personally, I have lived in both regions, in both West Asia and East Asia, and correspondingly also much of my academic focus has been on these two key regions of the Asian land mass.
As far as the South China Sea disputes are concerned, I have had the opportunity to more closely follow it having worked in government in the policymaking world, in the media, and also in the academe, and having written extensively for different syndicates in the region and also in the United States and Europe. Of course, my latest book, Asia's New Battlefield, focuses on the South and East China Sea disputes, on security in light of growing competition not only between China and other claimant states like Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia, but also between China and the United States.
In my opinion, the South China Sea could very well be the next global flashpoint if we are to have any great-power conflicts in the 21st century. I do not think that a great-power conflict will happen in other regions, like let's say in the Middle East or Eastern Europe, but I think it is very likely that if ever it will happen it will be here in the South China Sea.
Now, the South China Sea is important for multiple reasons. First of all, of course, it is arguably the most important sea line of communication in the world. More than $5 trillion of merchant trade passes through the region; more than 60–70 percent of oil and gas resources of key Asian economies, like Japan and South Korea, also passes through the area; and the bulk of China's trade with the rest of the world also passes through the South China Sea. So it's an extremely crucial chokepoint for the global trade regime and for the economy and energy security of key Asian countries.
Now, in addition to that, I think what makes the South China Sea even more important than, let's say, the Persian Gulf is the tremendous amount of fishery resources in the area. I think up to 10 percent of global fishery resources in the area is concentrated in the South China Sea. It is also a huge source of tuna, sea turtles, and other exotic and precious marine resources. And tens of millions of people across Southeast Asia and Southern China also rely on the fishing industry in the South China Sea.
Now, it is similar to the Persian Gulf because there is also a lot of study on the potential reserves of hydrocarbon resources in the area. Now, there is a gap between Chinese studies and studies by energy and information agencies or American organizations. But I think by most accounts it is very possible that the South China Sea also holds a significant amount of hydrocarbon resources. But as I said, the estimates vary.
More than that, I think in the past 20 years or so the South China Sea has also been growing strategically in military importance, particularly from the point of view of China. Over the past 30 years, China has gradually transformed from a continental power which focused on continental sources of strength, particularly in borders with Russia or borders with India, towards a much more maritime-oriented power. So we see that in the last two decades, for instance, China has been making more and more investment in its naval forces, particularly the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) South Sea Fleet, which is particularly focused on the South China Sea.
Now, since early 2000, beginning with the Hu Jintao administration in China, Beijing has put specific strategic focus on the South China Sea by emphasizing how the South China Sea is relevant to China's trading, commercial, and energy security interests, and also emphasizing that China by virtue of being a major power in the region is entitled to have a significant naval and military presence in the area. We see this trend actually accelerating since the later years of the Hu Jintao administration, but most especially now under the Xi Jinping administration, which has been engaged in a massive overhaul of the Chinese military with more focus on the air force and naval forces and strategic missile forces.
The other factor that you have to keep in mind is also the growing role of other interest groups, particularly local government units, of course not only in the Philippines and Vietnam but also in places like China. So we see that the government in Hainan for instance, and to a lesser degree in Fujian, which are close to the South China Sea and have a significant number of their citizens actually relying on fisheries and other resource extraction in the area—we see that these local government units have also stepped up their efforts to make sure that China has a robust military, paramilitary, and civilian presence across the South China Sea.
So we have seen in the last two decades or so that China has stepped up its presence in the area, and we see that China has created a very robust presence in the Paracels chain of islands in the northeastern portion of the South China Sea and now increasingly in the Spratly chain of islands in the southern regions of the South China Sea, and they have also occupied the Scarborough Shoal, which is only 110 nautical miles away from the shoreline of the Philippines.
So for many observers of China it is Beijing that carries this disproportionate responsibility for the uptick in tensions in the South China Sea. And yes, it's true that China is not the first country to have tried to build military presence over disputed land features. In fact, it was the Philippines and Vietnam who were the first countries to build airstrips and military facilities in the Spratly chain of islands. But if you look at China's reclamation activities, China's artificial island construction in the area, if you look at the Chinese military facilities in the Spratly chain of islands, it is incomparable in terms of size, in terms of the technology employed, in terms of the speed by which artificial islands have been created in the area. So China is clearly gaining the upper hand in the South China Sea.
EMMA LO: Just to state very explicitly, in July an international tribunal ruled that China has no legal basis to claim historic rights to resources in the South China Sea.
RICHARD HEYDARIAN: Right.
EMMA LO: You've given us a wonderful overview of the regional and global significance of this issue. But could you speak a little to the Philippines specifically and how the recent ruling and the upcoming high-level negotiations will impact development and the economy in the Philippines?
RICHARD HEYDARIAN: Well, first of all, I think we have to clarify the circumstances under which the Philippines decided to file this arbitration case against China. It has always been considered a very risky move. Strategically, the Philippines has been consistently cautioned not only by China but also by many people within the Philippine government. I have been in conversations with very senior officials in different branches of the Philippine government and I have heard a lot of them expressing doubts as to the utility of this legal warfare or "lawfare" strategy against China. But I think what most observers tend to forget is that the Philippines pushed ahead with this legal warfare against China out of sheer desperation.
As your audience may know, in the middle of 2012 there was a dangerous standoff between the Philippines and China. In my opinion, the Philippines have to be partly blamed for that precisely because the incident involved Chinese fishermen being apprehended by Philippine naval forces.
The Philippines deployed the Gregorio del Pilar frigate, which was actually given by the United States. It used to be under, I think, the United States Coast Guard, and then it was upgraded and then sold to the Philippines for a cost, and then the Philippines retrofitted that and made it part of its navy. Now, it is no longer considered a coast guard vessel. It is now considered a gray-hull military vessel.
The biggest mistake of the Philippines was that it deployed a military frigate to conduct what is considered as a civilian law enforcement function. So ideally, and in fact as a matter of standard operating procedure, if the Philippines felt that foreign fishermen were illegally conducting fishing activities within Philippine waters, they should have deployed coast guard forces to apprehend it. But the problem was that the Philippines never really invested in its law enforcement capabilities, particularly when it comes to its coast guard. So the Philippines did not have a multi-role vessel or a rapid response team to go to the Scarborough Shoal and apprehend and arrest these Chinese fishermen who were allegedly illegally exploiting Filipino resources.
So what happened here is that the moment the Philippines deployed a warship to apprehend the Chinese fishermen, it provided the perfect pretext for China to up the ante. So China immediately deployed an armada of very well-armed coast guard vessels, which were perhaps even better armed than the Filipino frigate, and immediately had a standoff there.
Now, what happened there was the Philippines was expecting the United States of America to come to its rescue because it realized that if the situation escalated there was no way that the Philippines could stand up to China, because at some point the PLA South Sea Fleet would be involved, and there was no way that the Philippines could stand its ground if there would be a full-scale confrontation.
But during this time the Obama administration—and I think the person in charge during that time was Kurt Campbell, who was in charge of East Asian affairs at the State Department—Kurt Campbell essentially pushed for negotiation and mutual disengagement. The reason was because the Obama Administration does not believe that the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951 between the Philippines and the United States covered these disputed land features, including the Scarborough Shoal, and the Obama administration has always made it clear they are neutral as to the status of disputed features. So they have no position on who has sovereignty over disputed features. So the United States tried to be hands-off and encouraged the Philippines to engage in diplomacy.
But the problem was that the Philippines and China could not find the right circumstances to negotiate their way out, and eventually the Philippines allowed a senator, a neophyte senator, Senator Trillanes, to conduct backdoor channel negotiations with China. Now, to make it very quick, the circumstance was this: The Philippine foreign secretary, Albert del Rosario, used to be the ambassador to the United States and in the eyes of the Chinese leadership they saw him as an anti-China/pro-America diplomat. So at some point they didn't even want to negotiate with or deal with him. So the Philippines could not even deploy its foreign secretary to engage in high-stakes negotiations with China. President Aquino of the Philippines had to essentially sanction a parallel diplomatic channel to resolve the dispute.
So Senator Trillanes was sent to Beijing and then there was a negotiation for mutual disengagement. The Philippines withdrew its frigate from the Scarborough Shoal and they released the Chinese fishermen. China also took off some of its coast guard vessels but immediately sent a new armada to cordon off the area. This is the information we have.
Up until today, there is conflicting information on what really happened. But, based on my conversations with the Philippine government, with the U.S. government, and other governments, it seems that what happened there was that there was an agreement for mutual disengagement. The Philippines honored its side but China did not honor its side.
During this standoff, in fact, China began to impose non-tariff barriers on the Philippines. For instance, it imposed restrictions on the entry of Filipino banana and agricultural exports. China was also issuing travel warnings to dissuade Chinese citizens from visiting the Philippines. So it seemed at some point China was resorting to economic sanctions to strengthen its hand and coerce the Philippines into submission. But those were very dangerous times for the two countries, and I think that was the time when the Philippines completely lost trust in China.
When China essentially occupied the Scarborough Shoal and cordoned off the area and prevented the Filipino fishermen and media and other personnel to enter the area, President Aquino of the Philippines faced a huge dilemma. On the one hand, if he tried to employ military means, of course there was just no way that the Philippines could wrest back control of the area of the Scarborough Shoal, because China had the military upper hand. So the Philippines did not have the military capability to do that.
It also could not rely on the United States because the United States had made it very clear that they won't have any stance on the sovereignty claim of the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal, even if the Philippines had documents, a lot of documents, that said that the Philippines had exercised some elements of sovereignty over the Scarborough Shoal over the past half-century or so. Now, when the United States did not also signal a commitment to help the Philippines in the Scarborough Shoal, then Aquino was left with very limited options. The only option he saw to project toughness and resistance and to tell the Filipino people, "Don't worry, we're going to get this back" and "Don't worry, we're going to resist China's encroachment into our waters," was legal warfare.
It was this context that pushed the Philippines into engaging in a very risky legal warfare strategy against China. But to the surprise of many people, including myself, it seems the Philippines was able to pull off an unprecedented, landmark legal victory against China.
As you mentioned a while ago, the arbitral tribunal at The Hague, which was formed under Article 287 Annex VII of the UNCLOS, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, essentially handed down to the Philippines a clean-sweep victory. The Philippines won on almost all of its arguments against China. There were only a few cases, like the Second Thomas Shoal, where the arbitral tribunal refused to make a ruling because it felt that the issue was fundamentally military so it was beyond its mandate.
Now, how did the Philippines secure its victory when, to begin with, everyone questioned whether the UNCLOS and arbitration bodies under its aegis had any jurisdiction on essentially a maritime dispute?
What the Philippines did, led by Paul Reichler, who is known around the world as a dragon slayer, someone who has been helping the David versus Goliath in international legal cases—what the Philippines did was it repackaged very astutely its dispute with China as not a territorial dispute or a sovereignty dispute, because that's beyond the mandate of UNCLOS, but it repackaged its case as one of a maritime entitlement case and one of sovereignty rights not sovereignty claims. It pulled this off quite successfully. So the Philippines was not only able to win jurisdiction on most of the items it filed against China but it also got a favorable award.
Now of course, as you mentioned a while ago, the most favorable award was the arbitral tribunal nullifying a significant portion of China's implied claim over the entirety of the South China Sea.
So the bulk of China's historic claim to the South China Sea has been nullified. But the court did not nullify, for instance, China's claim to rocks such as Scarborough Shoal. But currently China occupies the Scarborough Shoal and the status of who owns the sovereignty over that feature has not been resolved by The Hague verdict.
But nonetheless, my contention is that The Hague verdict gives the Philippines and other claimant countries a significant amount of bargaining chips if they want to negotiate a modus vivendi in the South China Sea.
Now, the Philippines and other claimant countries, like Vietnam and Malaysia, clearly have an upper hand. They can clearly claim that China has no right to exploit fisheries and other natural resources within much of their exclusive economic zone.
The other thing it did, as I mentioned a while ago, The Hague verdict also gives the Philippines an opportunity to call upon the international community, particularly naval powers, like the United States, Japan, and Australia, to conduct more and more freedom of navigation in the Spratly chain of islands to essentially nullify or push back against China's excessive claims in the area. Of course, China has built artificial islands. But if those islands are all very low-tide elevations, then they cannot generate any territoriality sea or sovereignty claims. So the United States can deploy military assets close to those artificial islands and yet remain completely in consonance with modern international law and The Hague verdict that came out the other month.
The other thing that the Philippines can do—and this is a suggestion that is coming out from Associate Justice Carpio, who is in the Philippine Supreme Court and one of the influential public thinkers as far as the South China Sea issues are concerned—one of the proposals he is putting forward is if China, for instance, pushes ahead with unilaterally drilling within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone, the Philippines can file additional cases against China. For instance, if the CNPC (China National Petroleum Corporation) or Cnoc, which are the major Chinese energy companies, deploy oil rigs and suddenly try to extract oil and gas resources from within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone, then that is illegal because The Hague verdict made it clear that the Philippines and China have no overlapping exclusive economic zones.
The only claim that China can make within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone are resources that fall within the 12-nautical-mile territorial sea of the Scarborough Shoal—that's what they can do—but not in the other areas of the Philippines' exclusive economic zone. So the Philippines can file other additional arbitration cases against China, not to mention a proposal that the Philippines can ask the International Seabed Authority, for instance, to suspend some of the permits that it has given China to exploit natural resources in international seabeds, because the argument that the Philippines could make is that China is not even complying with UNCLOS and the verdict that came out by one of its arbitration bodies. So therefore China should not be given more rights under UNCLOS to exploit resources in the high seas.
So there are many options the Philippines has been given as a result of this Hague verdict.
But in my opinion the biggest issue here is China's image and China's credibility, because I don't think you can claim leadership, you can claim to be a peacefully rising superpower, if you are seen as an outlaw, if you are seen as not complying with the verdict of an international legal body. And we have seen historically, actually, great powers tend to comply with arbitration outcomes that they rejected from the very onset.
So the hope is that the Philippines can convince China to also informally comply with at least certain aspects of the arbitration verdict that came out the other month. That is why just recently President Rodrigo Duterte deployed a special envoy, former President Ramos, to quick-start negotiations with China. And it is very likely that the Philippine government would want China to quietly give it compensation. For instance, I think the Philippines wants China to at least allow Filipino fishermen to gain more access to the lagoon in the Scarborough Shoal. The Philippines may ask China not to restrict its supply lines and reconnaissance activities in the Spratly chain of islands, especially in light of the possibility that China may impose an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the area as it transforms its artificial islands into essentially military facilities and full-fledged airstrips in the area.
So I think this is the hope of the Philippines, to gain informal compliance and some concessions from behind the scenes.
EMMA LO: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about the current president, Duterte. You've written about your concern for the "end of Philippine democracy because of an autocratic nostalgia that settled over the Philippines," which I think is fascinating. You've written about how that was manifested in the election of Duterte in May 2016.
So could you give us a bit of context for Duterte's success, and then talk a little bit about what his agenda is looking like right now and how he's going to work on development?
RICHARD HEYDARIAN: Over the past two or three months, I have written extensively on the rise of Duterte and what it could mean there, not only for the Philippines but for democracy in Asia. In fact, in one of my recent articles, particularly my cover story for The Diplomat magazine in Tokyo, entitled "Duterte and the Global Rise of Strongmen," my argument is that there is no way to understand the rise of Duterte and his success in the latest Philippine elections without understanding the broader retrenchment, or the broader defeat perhaps, of liberal democracy across Asia and emerging markets. I mean if you look at major emerging market democracies, like Turkey, like India, and to a certain degree even in Indonesia, what we see is the rise of strongmen populists or progressive populists.
In the case of Turkey, for instance, we have seen the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was also a very successful local government official as the mayor of Istanbul, and then later on he became prime minister, and now he is the president. Many fear that he is not necessarily a democrat in what he wants to establish. He has established essentially a Putin-like kind of a regime whereby essentially one man rules who is nonetheless popular and can win competitive elections.
And then, of course, we have other major emerging market democracies, like India, where we saw another local government star, Narendra Modi, quite a controversial man from the state of Gujarat, who also made it to the helm of the Indian power during the 2014 elections. Even Narendra Modi, quite similar to Erdoğan, elaborates his success as a local government official, but he also tried to present himself as the anti-establishment candidate.
In fact, if you look at both India and Turkey in the last two years, we see a significant retreat in basic civil liberties and perhaps in its political rights, and we also see a greater crackdown on opposition. There is greater erosion in freedom of expression and assembly, among other things.
I think this is the context within which we have to understand the rise of Duterte.
Now, as I have always argued, I think the best framework to understand the rise of Duterte is the theoretical framework that was laid down by the late Samuel Huntington in his book Political Order in Changing Societies. His argument, which has proven to be prescient, is that it is precisely rapidly developing economies that are most vulnerable to autocratic takeover, because when the economy is growing fast the tendency is that in the short run, inequality rises. It is also very likely that in the short-to-medium run, public expectations will exponentially increase. But not only is the wealth not trickling down to the majority of the population, the government also falls short in terms of honoring its promises, in terms of satisfying growing popular expectations in terms of basic services, among other things.
So we saw this theme around the world, especially in emerging markets. This was the same thing in the case of the Philippines. In fact, as I have argued, it is true that under President Benigno Aquino from 2010 to 2016 the Philippines emerged as one of the brightest stars among emerging markets. The Philippines recorded one of the highest growth rates in Asia. But the problem was that the growth was not trickling down.
The other problem was that the Aquino administration raised expectations very highly, said it was going to end corruption among other things, and yet he was not able to do that. So it was that perceived inefficacy on the part of the establishment that convinced a growing number of Filipinos to consider an outside-the-box candidate. And we also saw the rise of grievance politics.
We see that, of course, in the case of the United States. I think grievance politics explains the rise of insurgent candidates like Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party, or now of course the Republican nominee Donald Trump, who could very well become the next American president.
But also in the case of the Philippines, in many ways Duterte was an insurgent candidate. He presented himself as the anti-establishment candidate and he dispensed with any form of political correctness. In fact, his political incorrectness, his foul mouth, his inappropriate jokes, was astonishingly seen not as something that should disqualify him. For a lot of Filipinos it made him look as an independent, fierce, and strongman candidate that could bring about radical change in the country.
I do think this is the context in which you have to understand the success of Duterte in the last election. But I think it is also a reflection of the strength of Duterte's campaign and the weaknesses of the opponents. I think his opponents also made a lot of mistakes.
First of all, they underestimated him, the same way that a lot of Republican candidates initially underestimated Donald Trump. So they were caught off guard by his rise. A lot of candidates actually did not begin criticizing him until it was too late, towards the end of the campaign, when Duterte was already gaining a significant momentum.
And then, of course, the candidates in the Philippine election, some of them were embroiled in corruption scandals; the other ones were seen as incompetent; the other ones were seen as completely inexperienced and close to the oligarchs.
In the case of Duterte, he right away said, "I have a lot of skeletons in the closet. I am a womanizer. I may have even adopted draconian measures to fight crime. So I'm not ashamed of what I am. I brought safety and progress to Davao City. While look at these other establishment candidates; they're nothing but hypocrites and crooks and inexperienced people." That rhetoric was effective enough for him to win the plurality of votes.
Remember that in the Philippines it is only a first-past-the-post single-round presidential election. So all you need to do is just win more votes than the rest. Duterte managed to get 39 percent of the votes, and that was just enough to make him the next Filipino president.
So in many ways Duterte's success in the last election was a reflection of a convergence of many fortuitous factors for his campaign.
And of course, in the last month or so we see that Duterte is trying to signal to the Filipino people that he means what he says. He promised an uncompromising war on crime and the proliferation of drugs, and we have seen in the last few weeks a huge uptick in the crackdown against drug dealers and drug users, and some would say even drug lords, major organized crime groups, who have been behind the proliferation of drugs in the Philippines. In fact, Duterte has also released the names of judges, mayors, generals, and senior police officials that he accuses of engaging in drug trafficking and the drug disputes and other kinds of organized crime. So we see that he means what he says.
And of course, it seems, strangely, that there is a huge gap between the international perception of Duterte and the domestic perception of Duterte.
Yes, for sure, liberal circles in the Philippines, human rights groups, have raised a lot of concerns with the methods that Duterte may have employed in fighting against the proliferation of drugs, and there are concerns that there may have been the employment of extrajudicial mechanisms in terms of cracking down on crime. The United States has also begun to criticize, although quite stealthily, the Duterte administration on the human rights issues. Much of the international media, in fact, has zeroed in on Duterte's draconian measures against organized crime and drug pushers.
But the interesting thing is that it seems the vast majority of the Filipinos are very supportive of Duterte. Credible independent polls suggest that. For instance, one poll by Pulse Asia, which is probably the most credible independent polling station in the Philippines, suggested that more than 91 percent of the Filipinos have expressed trust and confidence in the new president.
Many ordinary people, if you meet them, from all classes, they will tell you that, yes, there may be some extrajudicial draconian measures employed, but if that is the way to bring about safety for the whole community, then let it be. In fact, Duterte has made a similar argument during his recent speeches, particularly during his State of the Nation Address. In one of his memorable quotes, he said something like "human rights should not be used as a shield to destroy the country," which I think is very similar to the arguments that other Asian strongmen, like Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir bin Mohamad of Singapore and Malaysia, respectively, were forewarning a few decades ago.
If you look at those two autocratic yet very popular and effective leaders in Singapore and Malaysia, they forwarded against a thesis called the "Asian values" thesis. According to that thesis, which for me is very similar to Confucian arguments coming out of China, in the society always communitarian values and collective interest supersede individual rights. Essentially, the argument there is that: yes the Philippines is a democracy, yes Asian countries could become democratic, but human rights and civil liberties are not absolute. In the choice between public safety and law and order on one hand and basic civil liberties and human rights and due process, it's the latter that should give way to the former. Duterte has been making this argument very effectively.
Based on my own conversations with a lot of people across the social pyramid, the lower-class people, a lot of them are saying, "Well, if this is going to make our communities safer and is going to take away the domains of drugs and organized crime, then let it be."
Now, if you talk to the more affluent Filipinos, they say: "You know what? We have been to Singapore, we have been to Malaysia, we see how safe these countries are, and we believe they are safe because they have draconian and strict measures against organized crime, against drug trafficking, against human trafficking, and other kinds of crimes, and that's why they are safe and progressive places, and maybe it is time for the Philippines to also be that way."
This is what I call "autocratic nostalgia." This is why we have to pay very close attention to the state of the Marcoses. The Marcoses, as your audience may know, became very influential when Ferdinand Marcos, the former dictator, became the ruler of the Philippines from the late 1960s to the middle of 1980s So for more than 20 years the Marcoses were in power, and then eventually they were booted out of power during a peaceful People Power Revolution in 1986.
But over the last two decades the wife of Marcos, Imelda Marcos, and his offspring—Bongbong Marcos, his only son, and Imee Marcos, his daughter—have slowly built their profile in Philippine national politics. In fact, as your audience may know, Bongbong Marcos, or Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., almost won the vice presidency, and in fact is contesting his defeat in the last election, asserting that he really won the vice presidency.
Now, we know that Duterte is also very close to the Marcoses, and Duterte is pushing for, quite astonishingly and quite controversially, for the burial of the former dictator in the Cemetery of National Heroes in September.
If you look at the Philippines, it seems the opposition to that is not as much as many expected. In fact, in my own conversations with a lot of people, in my own debates with a lot of Filipinos through social media on Twitter and Facebook, among other platforms, I see a lot of people saying that maybe Marcos was not that bad. And then there is this kind of an historical revisionism where people are saying, "Well, the Philippines was actually very disciplined during the Marcos period." And, in contravention of all common sense and all evidence and academic study, many are claiming, including Bongbong Marcos, the son of Marcos, that the Philippines would have become Singapore if the Marcoses were allowed to stay in power.
Essentially, there is a growing sense among a significant number of Filipinos, I would say probably at least 30–40 percent of the population, that democracy is equal to inefficacy, is equal to corruption, is equal to traditional politicians essentially exploiting the masses, and they would rather put their trust in one strongman who basically has their interests in mind and is willing to bring about national glory, safety, discipline, and law and order. For a lot of Filipinos that person is Rodrigo Duterte.
EMMA LO: We're just about at our time, but to wrap up could you speak a little bit as to whether or not Duterte is taking this kind of draconian attitude you've described him treating drug issues—is he taking this kind of attitude to economic development strategies? And how do people see putting the economy into Duterte's hands, especially in light of the recent South China Sea ruling?
RICHARD HEYDARIAN: This is where I kind of diverge from the usual Western portrayal of Duterte. I think there is a legitimate basis to be concerned about Duterte's autocratic tendencies.
If you look at Duterte, he has multiple dimensions. In fact, Duterte himself—for me there are three Duterte's. There is Duterte the entertainer, who has won the hearts and minds of ordinary people. He doesn't engage in platitudes. He cracks jokes, sometimes very inappropriate jokes, but nonetheless it sells to the masses and the poor, who are the majority in the Philippines.
And then there is Duterte the punisher, who makes these threatening statements against his opponents, against organized crime, against oligarchs, among others.
But there is also this other Machiavellian visionary Duterte who wants to get things done. In fact, if you look at Duterte, he has proven progressive on other fronts.
In terms of his war on crime, he has been criticized by human rights groups, by liberals, and democrats in the country and beyond. When it comes to his economic policies, he is beginning to gain actually more and more support.
For instance, when it comes to mining and environmental issues, he seems to be for stricter measures on open pit mining, for instance. A few weeks ago Duterte said something like, "The Philippines is fine without mining at all." And then he appointed Gina Lopez, a person who is known as a very staunch environmentalist, to head the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Under the stewardship of Gina Lopez, the environment minister, many contracts of big mining companies who have been allegedly engaged in massive pollution of the environment and have been accused of undermining the Philippines' ecological security—they lost their licenses.
And then, of course, Duterte has also upped the ante against the so-called oligarchs. A few days ago, he went on the offensive against one alleged oligarch, Mr. Ongpin, who is one of the richest men in the Philippines, and accused him of interfering in government concerns and using his influence in government to build up his business empire. As a result of that, one major company led by Mr. Ongpin, the Philippine Web (Philweb), has actually lost a significant portion of its value in the Philippine stock exchange, and he had to actually resign and sell his shares from that major company.
And of course, Duterte has also pushed against other oligarchs who he feels are engaging in exploitation of the working class through what he calls "contractualization."
In the Philippines a lot of big businessmen and conglomerates control much of the economy. Just to give you numbers, the top 40 families in the Philippines in 2012 and 2013 took home 76 percent of the newly created growth. So only 40 families have been enjoying three-fourths of the newly created growth in this country. It's one of the most unequal societies on earth and the level of growth concentration is the highest in Asia when it comes to the Philippines.
Duterte has also been pushing back against oligarchs. It is only beginning now, but many people hope that this will expand.
So yes, he has shown actually a progressive streak when it comes to fighting for the rights of labor unions, when it comes to fighting for the rights of indigenous communities who have been victimized by exploitative mining companies, a lot of them foreign companies. So there are some positive elements seen.
When it comes to what has been called "Dutertenomics," I think Dutertenomics will fundamentally focus on making sure the Philippines' growth will be more inclusive, and that is why he is pushing back against oligarchy, he is trying to end contractualization, he is trying to make sure that the Philippines' growth will be more inclusive.
Now, one thing that in my opinion the Philippines needs—and a lot of development experts will attest to that—what the Philippines needs to create a more inclusive growth is to revive its agricultural sector and bring in more manufacturing investment. If you look at Duterte, he is putting very progressive advocates of land reform in charge of the Department of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform to make sure the Philippines has an effective land reform because land reform studies suggest is very central to ensuring agricultural dynamism and food security. And of course, food security and agricultural dynamism are also key to addressing rural poverty in the Philippines and addressing poverty in general in developing countries like the Philippines.
The other issue is manufacturing. Now, studies suggest, and also my conversations with major countries like Japan suggest, that one of the big concerns they have with the Philippines is that the Philippines lacks basic infrastructure and utility costs like electricity and water are also very high. That is why a lot of foreign manufacturing companies have been reticent to come into the Philippines even if the macroeconomic conditions have improved.
So what Duterte is really now focused on, what I would say Dutertenomics is most focused on right now, is to deal with the Philippines' infrastructure bottlenecks. In fact, Duterte is asking for emergency power from the Philippine senate—and I believe he will get that emergency power before the end of this year—to expedite infrastructure projects. A lot of infrastructure projects under the Aquino administration, etc., were hobbled by delays, massive delays. As a result, metro Manila, for instance, has one of the worst traffic congestions on earth, which is costing the country billions of dollars daily. I think that is also a huge reason why in metro Manila and national capital regions many people voted for the outside-the-box candidates, Duterte and Marcos, because they were just sick and tired of the incompetence of the current government. So Duterte is promising not only to bring law and order but to end the infrastructure bottlenecks of the Philippines.
But the question is, where will he get the money? This is where China and Japan are very important. I think Duterte is the president who wants to make sure the Philippines is not only reliant on the West, particularly the United States, but is a country that expands its economic ties with major Asian powers, including China with which the Philippines has territorial disputes. In fact, Duterte, after his election victory, made it very clear that he had conversations with China and the Chinese promised him billions of dollars of investment both in Mindanao, where he comes from, and also in Luzon, which is very much in need of infrastructure upgrades as growth picks up.
At the same time, he has also welcomed more investment from Japan. In fact, the sense I have of Duterte is that he is playing Japan and China against each other, trying to get benefits from both of those countries. We know that China and Japan are also geopolitical rivals. Duterte has been very skilfully playing these two countries against each other.
China promised billions of dollars of investment in Mindanao. The other day the Japanese foreign minister was also here in the Philippines and he also promised $2 billion in investment in Philippine infrastructure. Based on my conversations with both these governments, it seems that they very much want to make sure that the other side does not gain the upper hand in the Philippines. So they are now competing over Duterte.
In many ways, something very strange is happening. As I wrote in one of my recent articles, it seems the superpowers are courting Duterte like none of his predecessors.
In fact, the United States, for instance, within the first month of office of Duterte, deployed two of its most senior diplomats, first Kristie Kenney, the State Department consular and former ambassador to Manila, and then John Kerry. And then, of course, the United States is also set to send a new ambassador, a Korean-American ambassador, who was also in charge of negotiations with North Korea, who is also considered to be a very robust negotiator. So the United States is really trying to show the Duterte administration that they are willing to make sure that the relationship will be on a strong footing. We already see a lot of senior American officials visiting the Philippines.
But I think Duterte has also been trying to be courted by Japan and China. So we see three major countries—Japan, China, and the United States—trying to court him diplomatically and also economically. I won't be surprised if Duterte would ask for an increase in foreign financing and development aid from the United States, lest perhaps he will say, "I will tilt more towards Asian powers, including China. "
I think in the opinion of Duterte, what's most important for the Philippines is to make sure the disputes within the South China Sea, which are inherently intractable and may take generations to resolve, will not undermine the texture of overall bilateral relationships. He wants to make sure that, just like Malaysia, just like other Asian countries that also have territorial disputes with China, like South Korea, that the territorial disputes will not undermine economic relations.
Ironically, when it comes to foreign policy, he seems to be a much more sophisticated, much more charismatic, leader than many of his predecessors. I think this is one of the greatest ironies and contradictions of the Duterte administration.
EMMA LO: Great. Well, that's a wonderful conclusion right there.
Thank you so much for your time and your insightful commentary. You've given us a great framework with which we can follow news out of the Philippines.
Thanks for your time, Richard.
RICHARD HEYDARIAN: My pleasure, Emma.