World View: Tensions Grow in Philippines as Duterte Turns Against China in South China Sea


Philippines President Rodrigo R. Duterte was taking office in 2016 at just about the time that the Philippines won a historic case in the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague thoroughly humiliating China by ruling that all of China’s activities in the South China Sea are illegal and in violation of international law.

Duterte’s first acts in office were to cut off relations with the United States and to take a trip to Beijing, where he was given the red carpet treatment by China’s Communist Party leader Xi Jinping. Duterte indicated that he would not enforce the Tribunal ruling and in fact appeared to be giving Scarborough Shoal away to the Chinese.

The international headlines at the time were things like “Duterte’s flip-flop into bed with China is a disaster for the United States.” ( “23-Oct-16 World View — Philippines leader Rodrigo Duterte in comic dance with China”)

The “flip-flop” could not possibly last for several reasons: Among the Philippine people, 54 percent have a favorable view of China, while 92 percent have a favorable view of the United States. Also, the Philippine people historically hate the Chinese, while the Chinese people historically hate the Philippine people. In 2012, a Chinese television anchor “accidentally” claimed that the Philippines “is China’s inherent territory and the Philippines belongs to Chinese sovereignty, this is an indisputable fact.”

So the leaders of China and the Philippines can make deals if they like, but we know from generational theory that major decisions like that are made by the people, entire generations, not by the politicians. So there was never any chance that the “flip-flop” would last.

Duterte’s decision on China was never really popular and generated immediate backlash at home, but it was reluctantly accepted by the Philippine people because the alternative appeared to be war with China if the Philippines tried to enforce the Tribunal’s ruling in the South China Sea.