The Resentment at the Heart of Today’s Philippine-U.S. Tensions

Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, at left, shaking hands in Beijing last week with Chinese president Xi Jinping after striking an agreement to resolve trade and territorial disputes. (Pool photo via Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Through many decades the consciousness, the cultural and immigration-pattern links, the economic relations, and most other international connections from people of the Philippines have been dominated by ties to the United States. This has good and bad ramifications, as we’ll see, but it’s been a central part of the modern Philippine experience.

Through the past few years, the Philippines’ ties with China have become increasingly strained, largely because of China’s expanded ambitions in the neighboring seas. When an international tribunal ruled against some of China’s maritime claims this summer, the lawsuit had been brought by the Philippines.

That is why it qualified as big news, though barely noted in the campaign-season chaos of America, that last week the firebrand Trump-counterpart Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte struck a trade-and-diplomatic deal with China. In doing so, while shaking hands with Chinese president Xi Jinping in Beijing, Duterte said, “In this venue, your honors, in this venue, I announce my separation from the United States.”

As Malcolm Cook has argued at the invaluable Australian site The Interpreter, Duterte’s thumb-nosed stance toward the United States is causing some concern back home. (Of course there are much graver reasons for concern, domestic and worldwide, about his policies.) But as Trefor Moss pointed out in the WSJ this weekend, Duterte’s attitude may be an extreme version of the long-standing Philippine stance of attachment-and-resentment towards its onetime colonial master, the United States.

This is all by way of re-introducing an Atlantic piece I did nearly 30 years ago, after traveling in the Philippines at the time when Ferdinand Marcos was deposed and Corazon Aquino become the new vessel of the country’s hopes. It was called “A Damaged Culture”; it caused a lot of reaction, both positive and very, very negative, in the Philippines in succeeding years; and I think it still has some bearing on the next stage in Filipino-American-Chinese interactions. You can see the 1987 piece here. (And here is a brief update from 2009, about a return visit in Manila with one of the heroes of my article, the eminent Filipino writer F. Sionil Jose.)


While I’m at it, here are two other reading-list items about the Chinese part of this relationship.

The first is by Minxin Pei of Claremont McKenna College, who for years has been making a bearish case about the rising contradictions of China’s authoritarian capitalist model. His 2008 book China’s Trapped Transition, which came out during the era of China’s apparently limitless ascent, stands up well.

Now he has a new book out, whose title well summarizes its argument: China’s Crony Capitalism: The Dynamics of Regime Decay. You can read The Economist’s assessment of it here.

The other item to point out is a Foreign Affairs essay (paywalled) by the young China scholar Julian Baird Gewirtz. It is called “The Cruise That Changed China,” and it takes us back 30 years to a time when China was much poorer than it is today, but more promising in certain ways. China’s modern rise coincided with a decision to make itself radically more open to outside ideas and influence. For the past few years it has been turning in the opposite direction. Gewirtz explains why the other path would still be preferable.

Update: Please also see this powerful new feature by Josh Haner, Edward Wong, Derek Watkins, and Jeremy White of the NYT, on the latest manifestation of China’s ongoing environmental crisis: the spread of deserts. Obviously the forces changing China’s climate are global. But China’s own contribution is increasingly significant (it is now by far the largest greenhouse-gas emitter), and the overlap of so many forms of pollution and contamination at once—air, water, topsoil, food supply, etc—over so much of the country makes China’s case particularly severe.