photo: Nicolas Raymond
As President Duterte is rebalancing the Philippines’ economic and strategic policies, Washington is preparing plans for regime change. What the country needs is economic development, says Dan Steinbock – not geopolitical friction.
After the election triumph of President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines has initiated a series of economic reforms to accelerate development, decentralize governance and a tough but controversial struggle against corruption and drugs.
The early economic signals are promising. Recently, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III announced that the government is set to sustain growth at close to 7% in 2017, despite “political noise”, by banking on higher infrastructure spending, tax and other reforms, improved peace and order.
With his keen interest in history, particularly colonial history, Duterte knows only too well that, while the US is a powerful regional ally, American security state, including its darker side – systematic torture and waterboarding – originate historically from the Philippines. He never had any illusions that the US would sit idle as he begins to rebalance Philippine domestic and foreign policies. But few expected the US State Department to respond as palpably as it reportedly has done.
Alleged regime change plan
After the controversial US Ambassador Philip Goldberg left the Philippines, he wrote a “blueprint to undermine Duterte within 18 months”. According to the document, which was recently leaked to The Manila Times, Goldberg advocates fostering public discontent with Duterte by isolating the Philippines through military assistance and economic “blackmail” relative to other ASEAN member countries.
While Goldberg thinks that “(deposing Duterte) would be a challenge for the opposition”, his goal is imperial “rule and divide” among Philippine congressmen and senators, the ASEAN states, and international multilateral organisations. Moreover, the pro-US opposition should be strengthened through aids and grants. The plan calls on Washington to deploy economic, political and military strategies against Duterte “to bring him to his knees and eventually remove him from office”.
According to Daniel Russel, State Department’s assistance secretary for East Asian affairs, the allegations of a blueprint are false. Nevertheless, Russel himself is a key figure in the US pivot towards Asia.
US-based sources have also tried to discredit the blueprint as coming from China’s Philippine Ambassador Zhao, which the executive editor of The Manila Times Dr. Dante Ang calls a “fantasy”.
It is not the first time Goldberg is associated with regime change efforts. In 2008 President Evo Morales and the Bolivian government gave him 3 days to leave the country after declaring him persona non grata – following efforts to fund the opposition leaders, separatists and think-tanks with millions of dollars.
Yet, President Obama rewarded Goldberg by appointing him assistant secretary of state for Intelligence and Research; one of the 16 elements of the US Intelligence Community (IC). That made Goldberg the middleman between US intelligence and US diplomacy. Thereafter he was sent to the Philippines, which he left in less than three years after efforts to intervene with the election outcome.
Human rights and NGOs amid geopolitics
In geopolitics, human rights and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have only too often been used as geopolitical instruments. The Philippines is no exception.
In the Benigno Aquino III era until mid-2016, complacency with drug lords and narco politicians went hand in hand with the rise of some 3.7 million addicts; most of them in poor regions. Yet, international media was relatively quiet about both. But when Duterte started his war against drugs and corruption, which has cost over 6,000 lives, international concern has escalated rapidly.
In the public debate, the point person has been Senator Leila de Lima, Aquino’s former Secretary of Justice, who chaired a senate inquiry into the extrajudicial killings of drug suspects. She has been glorified by the BBC as “the woman who dares to defy Philippine president Duterte” and she is characterized as an outspoken advocate of “justice without fear or favor”. It is for the same reason that de Lima was invited to and awarded in the US last month as one of the “leading 100 global thinkers” by the influential Democratic Foreign Policy.
In the Philippines, many see de Lima’s awards as perversions of justice, however. In August, she was found to have a 7-year affair – that is, through the Aquino era – with her lucratively-rewarded driver Ronnie Dayan who served as her money collector for drug protection and campaign financing. When de Lima was still Justice Secretary, the Discovery Channel presented an unsettling documentary Inside the Gangster’s code, on ruthless prison gangs exerting control over the notorious New Bilibid Prisons, while being reportedly coddled by incumbent political leaders.
Last September, de Lima was removed from the Senate committee. Oddly enough, her international accolades have ensued after the disclosure of the true nature of her activities. For some reason, international coverage has virtually ignored the growing pile of evidence of her abuse of public office and public funds.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) also play a role in US-Philippines geopolitics, along with a handful wealthy US Filipinos linked with the Aquino circles, such as billionaire philanthropist Loida Nicolas-Lewis, the widow of businessman Reginald Lewis, who served as an attorney for the US Immigration and Naturalization Services in 1979-90. Her sister is former Commission on Filipinos Overseas chairwoman Imelda Nicolas. Reportedly, both are Robredo supporters.
These activities intensified as the Goldberg-Duterte friction deepened in early fall. That’s when Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr., alerted the Malacañang Palace.
From Duterte’s standpoint, a more influential source of funds is billionaire George Soros, who he says has bankrolled local NGOs against him as he has been portrayed as a “mass murderer” in the West. In turn, international media has relied on these NGOs and think-tanks in their demonization of Duterte.
More recently, international coverage has become more explicit. Yet, it has almost entirely ignored the alleged Goldberg plan and the effort to use Robredo to oust Duterte
A few weeks ago, the US-based Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) did not renew its $430 million aid grant to the Philippines. While the Duterte administration’s criticism about “aid conditions” was reported as “tirades against America” in the West, the MCC is hardly independent. It is chaired by State Secretary John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew. Critics say it deploys indicators that precondition aid on neoliberal policies.
Furthermore, the MCC debacle is overshadowed by the economic implications of US-Philippine military ties. Until 2010, the country’s military expenditures decreased two decades from 1.6% to 0.8% of GDP. During the Aquino era, which coincides with the US pivot to Asia, the expenditures soared to almost 1.4%, according to SIPRI research – which in dollar terms is over five times the proposed aid package in just one year.
Exploiting political opposition
The regime plan ensued after election last May, when President Aquino’s designated successor – former interior minister Manuel Roxas, an ex-investment banker and Liberal Party leader – failed to deliver a democratic victory. Known as “Mr. Palengke” (Mr. Market) in the Philippines, Roxas appealed to elites but Duterte got almost 40% of the national vote, nearly twice as much as Roxas.
After elections, there have been nagging questions about the rise of narco state and its cooperation with military leaders during Roxas ‘ watch as interior minister. Duterte ordered the investigation of five former and incumbent police generals led by retired national police deputy director general Marcelo Garbo Jr. for their involvement in illegal drugs. Garbo, who was tagged as a “protector of drug syndicates,” was also a vocal supporter of Roxas. While the latter has vehemently denied any connections with “drugs generals,” his name has been tarnished in public perceptions.
To set those perceptions aside, Goldberg’s plan argues that the political opposition “would need all the political weapons in their arsenal to replace Duterte… Opposition actors across the political spectrum look at us (the US) for cues and signals.” Indeed, the role of political opposition is vital to Goldberg because regime change must seem to be “democratic”. Consequently, the plan advises “restraint in expressing public support for former President Fidel Valdez Ramos and Vice President Leni Robredo, and other opposition leaders “so as not to alarm the Duterte administration of an impending destabilization or a coup”.
These plans rely on the center-right Philippine Liberal party, which is known for its market-friendly neoliberal policies and firm support of the US pivot to Asia. Fidel Ramos’s ties with the US go back to his training at West Point in 1960. In the 1980s, he was in President Marcos’s inner circle of national police and military. Following the fall of Marcos, he served as President Corazon Aquino’s key military chief. After assisting as Duterte’s early emissary to China, he has criticized the administration’s efforts to reduce US military ties.
Leni Robredo is a lawyer and social activist, who the Duterte administration sees more loyal to Aquino’s Liberal coalition. Her relationship with the Cabinet fell apart on December 4, 2016, when she was informed by Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr. “to desist from attending all Cabinet meetings.” Officially, the reasons involved “major differences” with Duterte. Robredo also suggested that there were clandestine plans to replace her, whereas the Duterte administration was uneasy about her intimate ties with the Liberal Party.
Robredo won vice-presidency with a narrow margin against former senator Ferdinand “Bong Bong” Marcos, former President Marcos’s son. In his electoral protest, Marcos alleged that the Liberal Party rigged the 2016 elections in favour of Robredo. A key player in the case is Supreme Court Associate Justice Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa, who succeeded de Lima as Aquino’s Secretary of Justice and is Aquino’s long-time friend.
“I don’t believe that there is a blueprint for ‘Oust Duterte’ plot,” says Robredo. Nonetheless, some of Robredo’s Filipino-American supporters are allegedly behind efforts to undermine President Duterte. Recently leaked emails include exchanges between members of the “Global Filipino Diaspora Council” (GFDC), including Loida Nicolas-Lewis and her sister. As Robredo announced her resignation from the Duterte Cabinet, Nicolas-Lewis supposedly urged GFDC members “to ask Duterte to resign.” The email provided a link to a petition calling on President to quit.
Toward scenario X
Currently, Malacañang is looking into the alleged plan of Vice President Robredo’s supporters to create dissent against Duterte. “It has really become a national issue,” Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said on a radio interview on Sunday. National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. is also said to be ready to have the alleged emails investigated.
If a Ramos-Robredo scenario were to fail, Golberg advises exploiting possible rifts “among Duterte supporters”, or assisting “Robredo led opposition groups” coupled with the Catholic Church, business sector and NGOs. Yet, despite the media war against Duterte’s drugs war, his support remains very high across the board and relatively highest among the lower- to middle-income classes and the poor. Meanwhile, the ratings of opposition figures have been declining.
Indeed, Duterte approval and trust ratings in the Philippines remains 83%, according to the latest Pulse Asia survey. His ratings are relatively highest among ordinary Filipinos. Only 5% of the nation disapproves of Duterte.
Today stability in the Philippines is also supported by Beijing. Amid the news about the “ouster plot”, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China was confident on Duterte’s leadership and would continue to support his policies.
After January, President Trump’s administration must reassess Goldberg’s regime-change scenarios in light of his own pledge to redefine “America First” policies in Asia and China. In the Philippines, that means more uncertainty in the short-term.
What is certain is that, in the coming months, any US-led regime change effort in the Philippines would face firm domestic, regional and international opposition. It could also undermine Asia’s growth promise for years to come.
Only the Philippines can determine its own future. Unipolar regime change plans should have no role in the multipolar 21stcentury – especially in Asia which is critical to global growth prospects.