President Rodrigo Duterte may have avoided accounting of extra-judicial killings in the International Criminal Court, but he hasn’t quite escaped the consequences of his increasingly authoritarian rule.

He may have yanked the Philippines out of the International Criminal Court, but President Rodrigo Duterte might yet have to account for runaway levels of extra-judicial killings (EJK) if the Hague-based tribunal finds cause. 

The ICC began its probe into Duterte’s bloodbath before Manila hurriedly signalled it wanted out when the writing was on the wall. If ever there was a politically inspired version of Pavlov’s famous experiment, this was surely it. Yet, the inconvenient truth for Duterte is that the ICC offers the last glimmer of hope for families of the estimated 20,000 victims killed by summary execution, by a mob masquerading as law enforcers.

But the future for victims is grim as Duterte slips deeper into the shadows, increasingly insulated from the accountability of international law. Access to due process, just like the victims before, has been snuffed out. It is all part of the creep towards Duterte’s brand of totalitarianism. 

Arguing with every part of the establishment that rails against his despotic tendencies may make for short-term political theatre, but it threatens to stoke instability down the road. At a time of an acute water shortage in Manila, many Filipinos also thirst for a return to stability.

Even press freedom, the last bastion of democratic accountability, is under siege. Already one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, Duterte has institutionalised intimidation and coercion to silence critics, just ask news website Rappler’s CEO Maria Ressa. 

And so it continues. This week, Duterte’s functionaries ordered a reporter from Rappler be thrown out of a campaign rally hours before Duterte was due to speak. Left unchecked, the ever-so-thin veneer of democracy is nearing a point of no return.

Still, Duterte’s wrangle with the ICC could get worse before it gets better. Two former senior Philippine officials have filed a complaint with the tribunal against China’s President Xi Jinping and other Chinese officials. The complaint accuses Xi of environmental damage in the South China Sea. It is a smack in the face for Duterte’s cosy but unfathomable relationship with China. 

In the game of regional geopolitical chess, China has vacuumed up Duterte’s fawning admiration while driving militarisation of the South China Sea, in a vicinity which encroaches on Philippine territory.

Political embarrassment is one thing, but there is growing popular discontent gnawing away at Duterte’s hugely accommodating policy towards Beijing, which he ignores at his peril. China’s relentless expansionism recently saw two Chinese companies, one with links to the government, express an interest in acquiring a failed shipyard in the strategically important port of Subic Bay. 

A political backlash prompted five local banks to step in amid worries the acquisition could provide Beijing with vital intelligence and lead to the nightmarish prospect of a de facto Chinese naval base. Come back America, all is forgiven? Unlikely on Duterte’s watch.

But the recent ICC filing blows the cover on a more predatory side to China’s relationship with the Philippines. A loan agreement signed last year, ostensibly as part of the Philippines bid to improve infrastructure, gives China the right to seize assets of the Philippine government in the event of default. These might include lucrative oil and gas assets in the West Philippine Sea. 

China’s sensitivity to the agreement includes a condition that the terms of the contract are kept confidential. Yet, Beijing’s desire to keep it quiet and use the contract as a template for all loans puts it on a collision course with the Philippine constitution.

The revelation by a supreme court justice has provoked an outcry among Filipinos already pushing back against growing Chinese influence in their daily lives. Last month, the senate blocked a proposal from Huawei and China International Telecommunication and Construction Corporation to install a 12,000 camera surveillance system amid fears over the network’s vulnerability to third-party hacking. 

The system, initially intended to be rolled out in Manila and Davao, included facial recognition software and was touted as a way to monitor and reduce criminal activity. However, a recent report by news site The Intercept claims an earlier video surveillance system developed by IBM for use in Duterte’s stronghold of Davao, was also deployed to monitor political opponents and may be linked to extra-judicial killings. Duterte was mayor of Davao for nearly two decades.

Duterte can take credit for something though. His tacit admission, earlier this week that he is effectively losing the war on drugs, suggests he grasps the futility of waging an onslaught which has been dubbed a war on the poor. 

The trouble is the drug business is interwoven with the Philippines’ endemic levels of corruption. With claims that Mexico’s infamous Sinaloa cartel is operating in the country, there is going to be plenty of money to keep drug lords out of harm’s way. Awash in a sea of bribery, Duterte looks a lonely swimmer.

He made a campaign promise to rid the country of the scourge of drugs within six months, but narcotics continue to seep into the country. His promise denied, Duterte now vows to continue the drug war until the end of his six-year term. That suggests the so-called war on the poor still has a lot longer to run. 

With it, Duterte and the ICC look set to remain locked in an unlikely embrace for some time to come.

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