By John Chalmers
(Reuters) - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's office, responding to a Reuters report, came to China's defense on Monday, saying it was unfair to hold Beijing responsible for the drug problem in the Philippines.
"Many of those running the drug trade are Chinese triads, which are criminal syndicates. These are not government officials," the statement said, in response to a Reuters article published on Dec. 16 that focused on China's role as the main source of the drug methamphetamine and the precursor chemicals used to produce "meth" that are smuggled into the Philippines.
"China has strict anti-drug laws, which carries even the penalty of execution when caught," the statement from the Presidential Communications Office said.
Even as he wages a brutal drug crackdown at home, Duterte is warming to China, the main source of the methamphetamine consumed in his country. At the same time, he is distancing himself from the United States, the main source of foreign aid to the Philippines in fighting drugs.
In October, during a trip to Beijing, Duterte announced his "separation" from the United States and his country's realignment with China.
Philippine drug control officials say that Chinese nationals play a pivotal role in the drug trade in their country.
According to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, almost two-thirds of the 77 foreign nationals arrested for meth-related drug offences between January 2015 and mid-August 2016 were Chinese. And almost all the clandestine meth laboratories uncovered by police in the Philippines over the past 20 years have been run by, or at least involved, Chinese nationals, drug enforcement officials and prosecutors say.
But the Duterte administration deflected blame from China, saying in the statement that it was a mistake to connect the drug traffickers with "their countries of origin".
"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."
Philippine drug enforcement officials say that China has done little over the years to staunch the flow of meth and its precursors. In the Dec. 16 report, the national police spokesman told Reuters he was not aware of "any high-profile drug cooperation between China and the Philippines" since the visit by Duterte to Beijing in October.
The statement from the communications office noted that an agreement to collaborate on drug control was signed by Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping in October and some 50 Philippine police officers had attended a drug control and law enforcement training program in Yunnan province in October.
More than 2,000 people have been killed in police raids since Duterte took office on June 30, and a further 3,000 deaths are currently under investigation by the police.
The killings have drawn international criticism, with some countries, including the United States, expressing concern about reports of extrajudicial executions. The United States recently acted on those concerns, saying it was shifting $5 million in funding for Philippines law enforcement away from police drug-control programs.
Duterte seems unperturbed. "Efforts to eliminate drugs in the country will not stop even if the United States shifts its funding," the statement said. "Several countries have backed the President's war on drugs. These include China, Japan and Indonesia. They have offered us assistance, support and cooperation without any political strings attached."
The statement also rejected criticism of Duterte's crackdown for focusing almost exclusively on drug users and small-time pushers, rather than the drug barons who supply them. It said that dozens of government officials linked to the drug trade had been arrested, and that local politicians and drug lords had surrendered to the authorities.
The president, it said, "has a list of drug personalities with narcopoliticians and Chinese businessmen, and the authorities are doing their best to investigate and validate this list to catch the big fish."
(Editing by Peter Hirschberg and Alex Richardson)