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 Cold War.
After the election triumph of President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines has initiated a series of economic reforms to accelerate development, decentralise 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 systematic torture and even 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, which have been subject to Washington’s regional designs since the end of the 19th century.
But perhaps even Duterte did not expect 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. The pro-US opposition would be reinforced through aids and grants.
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 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 organisations (NGOs) have only too often been used as geopolitical weapons. 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.
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 characterised 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 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 her activities.
Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) also play a role in US-Philippines geopolitics, along with a handful wealthy US Filipinos linked with the Aquino circles, such as Loida Nicolas-Lewis, the widow of billionaire businessman Reginald Lewis and the sister of Imelda Nicolas, the head of the overseas Filipinos’ commission during the Aquino administration. 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 demonisation of 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 imposed 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, these 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.
Taking Advantage of Political Opposition
The regime plan ensued after election last May, when President Aquino’s designated successor – former interior minister Manuel “Mar” Roxas, an ex-investment banker and Liberal Party leader – failed to deliver a democratic victory. Known as “Mr. Palengke” (Mr. Market) in the Philippines, Roxasappealed to elites but Duterte got almost 40% of the national vote, almost twice as much as Roxas.
After elections, there have also been questions about the rise of narco state and its cooperation with military leaders during the watch of Roxas as interior minister. Duterte ordered the investigation of five former and incumbent police generals led by retired PNP 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 who has vehemently denied any connections with “drugs generals” but whose name has now become associated with them.
In order to set public 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