Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has pursued two main policies during his six months in office: Embracing China and brutally cracking down on his country’s drug trade.
Achieving the latter goal, however, may have to come at the expense of the former, as Chinese suppliers appear to be fueling the production and trafficking of methamphetamine and related drugs to and within the Philippines.
In Asia, China is the largest source of methamphetamine precursors.
Most of the world’s seizures of raw ephedrine in 2014 took place in China, amounting to 31.6 tons, according to data cited by Reuters. The Philippines was next with 510 kilograms, much of which likely came from China.
“Although the majority of [China’s] precursor chemical production and export is intended for legitimate use, precursors are being diverted by transnational criminal organizations to produce illicit drugs,” the US State Department said in a report issued this year.
China’s location near drug-production areas in Southeast and Southwest Asia, its modern transportation infrastructure and coastal hubs, lax oversight of its sprawling industrial and pharmaceutical industries, and official corruption all help “make it an ideal source for precursor chemicals intended for illicit drug production.”
The Philippines appears to more than just a destination for illicit Chinese narcotics however.
A Reuters investigation published on December 16 queried officials from the Philippine National Police, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Department of Justice, finding what appeared to be an “entrenched and sophisticated system of trafficking” organized by small, close-knit Chinese groups that control the process “from the procurement of precursors in China to the production of the drug in the Philippines to its distribution by local gangs.”
This involvement has been borne out by arrests Philippines authorities have made in recent months.
A bust in August recovered $82.7 million worth of “shabu,” a local name for methamphetamine, from a Manila warehouse reportedly belonging to a Chinese syndicate. A September raid on a pig farm-cum-drug lab led to the arrests of seven Chinese citizens.
Nearly two-thirds of 77 foreign nationals arrested in the Philippines on meth-related charges from January 2015 to mid-August 2016 were Chinese, according to Reuters. Nearly one-quarter were residents of Taiwan or Hong Kong.
And during Duterte’s landmark trip to Beijing in October, he and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to set up joint investigations of drug cases as well as to increase exchanges of intelligence and other resources to combat drug crime.
But Philippine officials are doubtful that any Chinese assistance will be forthcoming.
“I almost fell off my chair when I heard that China would be helping the Philippines with its drug problem,” a Philippine Department of Justice official who has dealt with drug offenses for some time but with little cooperation from China told Reuters.
“We are not aware of any high-profile drug cooperation between China and the Philippines since the president’s visit to Beijing,” Philippine National Police spokesman Dionardo Carlos said to Reuters.
‘I will kill you if I see you outside’
Duterte has framed use of shabu as a danger to his country (though usage rates he cites don’t stand up to scrutiny), but so far his criticism of Beijing for its response, or lack thereof, to its drug industry has paled in comparison to the Philippine president’s eviscerations of his own countrymen involved in the drug trade.
Broader geopolitical concerns may be behind his seeming reluctance to target China with the same vitriol he has flung at drug users and pushers in the Philippines, as well as at the US and human-rights organizations that have criticized his bloody crackdown, which has claimed more than 6,000 lives and led to the arrests of many thousands more since he took office six months ago.
While Duterte’s administration has not been hesitant to paint with a broad brush when staking out domestic lawbreakers, it was much more nuanced with defending Chinese officials from Reuters detailing of Chinese involvement in drug production and trafficking.
“Many of those running the drug trade are Chinese triads, which are criminal syndicates. These are not government officials,” a statement from Duterte’s office, issued in mid-December, read.
“It is not fair to blame all of China and her people for the drug problem perpetuated by some of its nationals,” the statement said. “Not all Chinese are related to drugs.”
Duterte’s stance is likely of a piece with the rhetorical and political pivot he’s tried to make to world powers other than the US since he took office, a major part of which has been his efforts to reconcile with China. These efforts have had a material element.
A US senator, dismayed by the mounting body count in Duterte’s drug war, put a hold on the sale of 26,000 rifles from the US to Philippine police, prompting an outburst from Duterte, and the US recently decided to shift $5 million in funding for Philippine law enforcement away from drug-control programs.
China has reportedly offered $14 million in small arms and fast boats to support the Philippines’ drug war and fight against terrorism. Beijing has also made a $5oo million long-term soft loan for other equipment.
The $14 million is minuscule compared to the more than $120 million in military aid supplied to Manila by Washington in 2016. But that amount and the $50 million soft loan illustrate the marked reversal in Chinese-Philippine relations, which less than a year ago were colored by a bitter dispute over Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Duterte’s excoriations of his country’s drug users has vastly outstripped his criticism of China, which appears to be a driving force behind the scourge he claims to want to wipe out.
“I will make it a must, a mandate that all of you affected by drugs, do not leave your homes,” Duterte said at the end of November. “If you go out, you sons of bitches, I will kill you if I see you outside.”