China and the United States are locked in a sort of cold war for influence in the Philippines, whose authoritarian, unfiltered strongman of a leader, Rodrigo Duterte, has overseen a gruesomely bloody war on drugs (and has favorably compared himself to Adolf Hitler) since taking office less than a year ago.
Thousands of people have killed since Duterte took power last June—mostly poor people, pedicab operators and drug addicts. They’ve died either willingly, in suicidal shootouts with police, if you believe Duterte and his supporters, or at the hands of government-sanctioned death squads, if you believe international human-rights groups and the families of victims.
These are mere petty details when playing realpolitik. China’s strategy for winning Duterte’s heart is simple: tell the 71-year-old that he’s doing a great job, and that his War on Drugs—deaths and all—deserves your support.
This would explain China’s steadfast support for Duterte and the ongoing Filipino war on drugs, which were the subject of a recent United Nations Human Rights Council hearing. Horrified by the deaths and Duterte’s cavalier attitude—he sometimes talks about the deaths as if he’s involved, and they’re a point of pride—45 of the council’s 47 members called on the Philippines to end the violence and to outlaw the death penalty.
But not China, which had kind words for support for Duterte (who just happened to be heading to China on a state visit this week). China—itself no friend to human rights—defended Duterte’s conduct and urged other UN member-states to fall in.
“Drugs are the common enemy for all human beings, bringing pain to many developing countries, including China,” Geng Shuang, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said at a press conference last week, according to Philstar.com. “China supports President Duterte and the Philippine government in combating drug-related crimes in accordance with the law.”
Filipino officials deny any state-sponsored killings, while simultaneously allowing that thousands of drug dealers have died in conflicts with police—all of which is perfectly legal and permissible under Filipino law. This is the president’s own line as well.
“It is true that there are deaths—is there a drug war where no one is killed?” Duterte said on Tuesday.
Others, including a retired police officer who testified he served on a “death squad” authorized by the president when Duterte was mayor of Davao City, have directly linked him to the slaughter. “It was Superman’s command” for the “Davao Death Squad” to kill as many as 200 drug users and petty dealers, former cop Arturo Lascanas said.
Human-rights groups say as many as 9,000 drug users and alleged drug dealers have been killed since Duterte took office last June. The Filipino government disputes that fact, but only in scope, pegging the “true” body count at closer to 4,600.
These kind remarks are only the latest instance in which a world power—to wit, either China or the United States—have praised Duterte while blood runs in the streets.
In April, President Donald Trump shocked and outraged human-rights groups when he invited Duterte to visit the White House. According to Duterte, Trump told him that his method of fighting the War on Drugs via state-sanctioned extra-judicial killings—a fancy, grad-school way of describing cold-blooded murder—was “doing it right.”
Both the U.S. and China have aims on the South China Sea, a major international shipping lane that’s also rich in oil and gas deposits. In October, Duterte made a state visit to Beijing, in which he was welcomed with all the pomp and ceremony due a top world leader.
There, the former mayor announced his country’s “separation” from the United States—which had “lost” the geopolitical struggle for power in the region. That may have had something to do with Barack Obama, who had strongly criticized Duterte’s conduct.
By contrast, Duterte sees Trump as a kindred spirit.
“Look at his inaugural speech. He will stop drugs,” Duterte said of Trump in April. “We’re not different. He will really kill you.”
This should be deeply troubling.
On Monday, an impeachment complaint leveled against the strongman, alleging he commitment crimes against humanity for his role in encouraging and, at times, orchestrating the killings, was rejected by Filipino lawmakers thanks to a bloc vote by Duterte’s allies.
Frustrated opponents in the House of Representatives say they may appeal to the International Criminal Court.
There, Duterte will find no shortage of powerful friends: Neither China, nor Russia, nor the United States are signatories to the ICC. And as it happens, there are plenty of strongmen to choose from. As Bloomberg reported, Duterte is also hoping to receive weapons and equipment from Vladimir Putin’s Russia.