South Asia


NOTE: This is not a normal opinion piece, since I’m not actually advocating for one point of view over another. Rather, this is just speculation, and musing like this seems more like providing a perspective than just impartially imparting information.

South Asia, or the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and sometimes Afghanistan), is usually included with East Asia in academic discussion, business strategies, bureaucratic organization, racial categorization, and journalistic parlance. Bowing to common practice, I’ve categorized it as such on this site. But is this fair?

South Asia has as much in common with West Asia as it does East Asia. Geographically, the region is defined by its mountainous borders, but in the west, the mountains are lower and taper off before meeting the sea. Also, there is a famous, much-used pass over the Hindu Kush (the mountains). On the other hand, East Asia is separated by the Himalayas, the world’s tallest mountain range. Contact over these peaks is much harder, and there isn’t much of a gap between the Himalayas and the sea.

This has meant that historically, people came to South Asia from the west more than the east. The Aryans — the main racial group in the area — originally invaded from the west. Alexandros the Great invaded from the west. The Kushans invaded from the west. The Ghaznavids invaded from the west. The Mongols, despite being situated to the north and east of South Asia, invaded from the west too. The Mughals invaded from the west. And so on. The only invasion South Asia suffered from the east was the Ahoms in the 1200s — and they only conquered Assam, a small corner of the region.

West Asia’s great philosophical tradition is Islam, which came to South Asia thanks to all those invasions and is now the second-largest religion there. East Asia’s great philosophical traditions are Buddhism and Confucianism. The former originated in South Asia but is now very minor there, while the latter has negligible influence.

South Asia’s main languages are Hindi and Urdu (which are sometimes lumped together as “Hindustani”). They (especially Urdu) share much of their vocabulary with Persian and Arabic — West Asian languages.

Artistically, there is much in common between West and South Asia. Persian styles of painting and calligraphy influenced South Asian art beginning in the Middle Ages. South Asian sculpture is thought to be influenced by Greek artistic standards practiced in Afghanistan long ago. Much of South Asian architecture — domes, minarets, imposing gateways and courtyards — is imported from Persia as well. The Taj Mahal, India’s most recognizable landmark, has more in common with Persian buildings than many others in India. South Asian musical instruments descend from West Asian cousins.

In the culinary sphere, South Asian food shares features with stuff cooked up in West Asian kitchens. Bread is the staple food, and it’s usually flat, like breads in West Asia. Dairy is ubiquitous (which is why cows are so revered in India) — butter, milk, yoghurt, ghi (clarified butter), panir (a type of cottage cheese) — while traditionally, at least, it’s absent in East Asia. South Asian sweets like halva, kulfi and faluda have roots or counterparts in West Asia.

Racially, South Asia’s people much more closely resemble Persians and Turks than Asians further east. There are broad variations across the region, of course, but Aryans (especially Pashtuns, an ethnic group in Afghanistan and Pakistan) are related to Iranians. The Mongoloid facial features of East Asia are rare in South Asia apart from the Himalayas. South Asians also dress much more like West Asians than East Asians: men sometimes wear turbans, women sometimes wear veils. The salvar kamiz, a commonly worn tunic-and-trouser combo, originates from West Asia. Anecdotally, I have noticed foreigners tend to confuse South Asians and West Asians, but rarely with East Asians.

Given the range of similarities between South and West Asia, why is South Asia even lumped in with East Asia at all? There are similarities in this respect too. As mentioned above, Buddhism was an Indian import, and Hinduism was once widely followed in Southeast Asia too. In ancient times, East Asians would journey west to study religion in South Asian universities — this is the basis of one of China’s most famous stories, Journey to the West. There is a theory that Indian theater influenced China’s. The Chola Empire in south India once conquered Sumatra. The historical experience of colonialism unites South and Southeast Asia more than West Asia (although Northeast Asia had a substantially different experience). Although they vary dramatically from country to country, pagodas, that classic feature of East Asian architecture, evolved from South Asian stupas. Curry, the hallmark of South Asian cuisine, is also eaten in Southeast Asia and Japan. Rice is popular pretty much everywhere (although again, South Asian varieties are quite different from East Asia’s). Myanmar, thanks mostly to Britain uniting it with India in colonial times, has a lot of South Asian influences (food, clothing, Muslim minority communities).

It’s fair to say that South and East Asia have a lot in common, but notice how many qualifications I included, and it’s hard to deny that West Asia had at least as much influence. Another important factor to consider is that basically all of the influences flowed from South Asia east, and not the other way around. Chinese culture has had little impact on India, as I noted in an earlier post.

While I am unsure why South Asia is often lumped in with East Asia instead of West Asia, I have a theory. The term “East Asia” (or often just “Asia”) is really just a replacement for an earlier Western term: “the Far East.” From a West European perspective, South Asia was already pretty far east, so everything from that point onward was labeled the Far East. Combine that with the imperial linkages Britain established between South Asia (then just “India”) and its colonies in Southeast Asia, like the annexation of Burma and the settlement of big Indian communities in Malaya, and you can see why in the British mind, South Asia’s connection with East Asia was emphasized over its connection with West Asia.

In addition, I get the feeling that South Asians and those that study South Asia aren’t too eager to see the region merged with West Asia. Like it or not, West Asia has a bad reputation now, thanks to its unending violence, religious fanaticism, and rigid dictatorships. Politically, it’s hard to draw a connection between West and South Asia (except maybe Pakistan, thanks to the heavy military and Saudi influence on its government and society). India has been one of Asia’s most stable and successful democracies, and political scientists are puzzled trying to draw comparisons between it and anywhere else sometimes.

Most likely, South Asians would say that their region isn’t part of any other and that they are unique. There is some truth to this, and I would argue that anyone who tries to lump it in with another area is being a little lazy or reductionist. South Asia — India especially — is strongly defined by Hinduism, a native philosophical tradition. Linkages with West Asia are less strong in South India and Sri Lanka, which have tended to move to their own rhythms. South Asian economies resemble neither the development models of East Asia nor those of West Asia. South Asians are much more likely to look towards neighbors in the region or the West than to either West or East Asia. But consideration of the evidence suggests that South Asian connections with West Asia should be given some more thought at least.


As an international relations buff, one of my pet peeves is when people can’t tell the difference between China and Japan. They have close links and many cultural similarities. Japan owes much of its civilization to Chinese influence. Chinese and Japanese people superficially look similar. There are other cultures that get confused often, like Spain and Mexico or Ireland and Scotland. But I still find the confusion hard to forgive. Anyone with at least a little knowledge of international affairs should be able to tell the difference between these 2 countries, since there are many, and fundamental ones too. China and Japan were never the same country and developed in isolation for most of their history. Their cultures are very different. It would be like confusing Russia with Britain — but I honestly feel that the difference is even greater.

Someday I may write a blog post on the many factors that distinguish China from Japan, but for now I’ll focus on one aspect that’s often misunderstood: language. Language is probably the easiest and fastest way to tell where something is from (written language in particular). It’s also something that’s rarely well understood by those who don’t try to actually learn the language, since languages are so complicated. In addition, language is considered a core element of culture, indeed one of its fundamentals, and a basic way of dividing them.

Does Japan use Chinese characters? Yes. This is a common source of confusion and probably one of the main reasons China and Japan are so often confused with each other. The details, of course, are a little complicated, so I’ll explain.

Chinese characters are logograms, meaning that each one represents a different concept (like “honor”) or thing (like “wall”). They are famous (or notorious) worldwide for their complexity and distinctiveness. In fact, they’re the only logograms that are still used (aside from some minor languages that use Chinese-derived script). While Chinese characters represent things, they also have pronunciations, since those things have their own pronunciations. Confusingly, the pronunciation often changes depending on the context; you have to learn which one to use based on the context. Many Chinese characters look abstractly like the things they represent (like 川, “river,” or 心, “heart”), but most are too complex for that; instead, a typical formula is to use one element (a “radical”) that represents the concept, and another element that gives a clue about the pronunciation. For instance, 腕 (“arm”) contains the “moon” radical (月), mostly used for body parts, and the radical 宛, which shows you that it’s pronounced wan. And just to make it more confusing, the thing Chinese characters represent also changes depending on context; so 明 can mean “clear,” “bright” or “understand.”

China, as the fount of culture in East Asia, spread its writing system to other countries; this included Japan. But the Japanese language is very different from Chinese. Not all of it can be expressed through Chinese characters. As a result, the Japanese developed their own writing systems, hiragana and katakana, to represent these words. Both hiragana and katakana (together called kana) are syllabaries, meaning that each character represents a syllable (so Japanese is thought of as made up of syllables rather than letters). Hiragana looks like this:


And katakana looks like this:


Both were originally derived from Chinese characters, but katakana is a more direct borrowing, as you might be able to tell from the blocky, straight lines. (Some of them, in fact, are just unusually simple Chinese characters.) Historically, katakana has been used more often, but in a series of post-World War II writing reforms hiragana was installed as the main script for representing basic words.

Does that mean katakana is old-fashioned, or no longer used? Hardly! Katakana is still used all the time in Japanese, but to represent foreign or made-up words, or just to write sounds with no obvious meaning. This means that Japanese, uniquely among languages, uses 3 scripts together. And I don’t mean like Serbo-Croatian or Hindustani, either (those languages can use either of 2 different scripts). In order to read Japanese you have to learn all 3 scripts, since they are used together. Reading any Japanese text will confirm this. Here’s a sample:

レゲエ は、狭義においては1960年代後半ジャマイカで発祥し、1980年代前半まで流行したポピュラー音楽である。

The first word is “reggae,” which is foreign, so it’s written in katakana. Katakana appears again with ジャマイカ (Jamaica) and ポピュラー (popular), both English words (the vast majority of the foreign words incorporated into Japanese are English). The Chinese characters you see express difficult or advanced concepts: 狭義 (narrow sense), 発祥 (originate), 音楽 (music). As for the hiragana, they mostly appear as particles, which are very basic 1 or 2 syllable words like は (is), で (in), まで (until), いつ (when), and so on. The final word, ある (“to be”), is an example of something so basic that it’s not usually written in Chinese characters, as is おいて (as for).

Do you have to use all 3 scripts together? No. The two kana sentence examples above prove that. But to Japanese, they look awkward. The hiragana example would almost always be written with several Chinese characters to express advanced concepts. The katakana example is a strained attempt to use cheesy English adjectives to describe a dress (called “one-piece” in Japanese, hence written in katakana). It is certainly possible to stick to kana only (or even just hiragana, if you can manage the difficult task of avoiding foreign loanwords), but in almost any situation, Japanese just don’t do it. (The main exception I can think of are children’s books, since kids can’t read Chinese characters yet.) Foreigners might pull their hair out and gnash their teeth at the prospect of memorizing thousands of Chinese characters that are much more complicated than the kana they could be written as instead, but Japanese don’t care. It is The Way Things Are Done, and many, many hours of elementary school education are devoted to drawing Chinese characters to drill their use into kids’ brains.

Why does Japanese use Chinese characters still? It’s a difficult subject that’s a little too complicated for this blog post, but suffice it to say that it can be easier to read (provided you know the characters) and immediately understand the concepts. The hiragana example sentence above looks like a blur to Japanese speakers; the Chinese characters separate concepts and words more. Japanese contains lots of words that sound the same, but using Chinese characters makes it obvious which meaning is meant. There are lots of opportunities for wordplay that would die if Chinese characters were phased out. And, probably most fundamentally of all, the Japanese are used to it and are uncomfortable with such a drastic change.

While Japan uses Chinese characters, there is a distinction between the Chinese characters used in China (hanzi) and the ones used in Japan (kanji). Kanji were simplified in the aforementioned postwar writing reforms, mostly using shortcut versions common in China. As a result, kanji aren’t quite the same as hanzi. Here are some examples of differences:

Simplified Chinese Traditional Chinese Japanese

But that’s not all! As you can see in the table above, there is a distinction between Simplified Chinese characters and Traditional Chinese characters as well. China simplified its characters in the 1950s as a compromise between just switching to the alphabet and grappling with tens of thousands of complicated characters. Other Chinese-speaking countries (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore), overseas Chinese communities, and Korea and Vietnam continue to use Traditional characters. The difference between these characters can be quite drastic, as seen here.

Simplified Traditional

So effectively, there are 3 different kinds of Chinese characters: Simplified, Traditional, and Japanese (kanji). Where do the Japanese variants fall? If you’re interested in learning Chinese characters but aren’t sure which type to choose, I recommend Japanese, actually, since they fall roughly midway between Simplified and Traditional in terms of complexity. They lean Traditional, however; kanji readers have an easier time negotiating Taiwan than China. Those who don’t care about Japanese and just want to learn Chinese usually opt for Simplified given how much more important China is than other Chinese countries. (This wasn’t always the case, though: during Communist rule, China was so closed-off from the outside world that foreigners got more use out of learning Traditional.) The downside is that deciphering Traditional characters is much harder for Simplified-readers than vice versa. In any case, Traditional characters are still sometimes used in China, and anything from before the 1950s obviously uses them, so most students of Chinese pretty much have to learn them both at some point or to a certain extent.

Can Chinese-speakers read Japanese (and vice versa)? Sort of. Since they’re all basically the same characters, Chinese and Japanese can read many of each other’s texts. Simplified characters are hardest for Japanese to decipher. Snatches of phrases, or scattered words or concepts, are decipherable or the same. But entire sentences are hard to figure out. Japanese uses kana, which Chinese don’t know or use; meanwhile, Chinese uses a bunch of characters that Japanese doesn’t (because it substitutes kana for them). Some words are also expressed with different characters in the different languages; the classic example here is 手纸/手紙 (“hand paper”), which means “toilet paper” in Chinese and “letter” in Japanese. Basically, Chinese and Japanese can read parts of each other’s writing, but nowhere near enough to make out long passages.

Besides, even if they could read each other’s languages, they wouldn’t be able to speak them… which brings us to the spoken part of Chinese and Japanese.

This is what spoken Chinese sounds like:

As you can tell, it’s a tonal language. That means vocal tones go up and down while speaking. Each word must be expressed with the right combination of tones to convey the meaning properly. Chinese also contains sounds like dung, huang, sher, bien, chiao, fuhng, and shwei. Examples of Chinese names include Xu Jinglei, Hou Xiaochun, Li Ying, Zhou Nong, and Wang Renmei — in other words, they’re short and usually follow a 1-2 syllable combo. Chinese place-names look like Cao Hai, Xiexing, Ningxia, Yangming Shan, and Qingdao. (Note that they aren’t necessarily pronounced that way. Explaining how Chinese is pronounced is a little off-topic, but for example, “c” is like ts, “x” is like ksh, and “q” is like ch.)

On the other hand, spoken Japanese sounds like this:

Completely different, right? It’s not tonal — vocal tones are consistent and smooth. Japanese generally is more flowing than Chinese, which is choppy. The language also sounds very different; it is very vowel-heavy, and the vowels are the 5 basic ones (a, i, u, e, o). Consonants are also pretty simple, and syllables come in basic combinations (ka, tsu, shi, no, me — nothing like shlang or crap). Examples of Japanese names include Tsutomu Okumoto, Hiroko Kitahashi, Nobuo Okunoki, Fumiko Uchida, and Kenji Shimizu — they’re longer than Chinese (and there are also many more of them). Japanese place-names look like Kyouto, Saitama, Fukuoka, Biwa-ko, and Shikoku. They are easy to pronounce; it was not difficult to figure out how to romanize Japanese (that is, render it in the Roman alphabet).

Despite many similarities in Chinese and Japanese cultures, the languages actually have different roots. Japanese is unrelated to Chinese. In fact, it’s unclear what other languages Japanese is related to (well, probably Korean). It’s even unclear where Japanese people originally came from. The most likely explanation is somewhere in Siberia, leading some scholars to claim linguistic similarities with obscure Siberian peoples and even the Finns (who are way, way, way far away on the other side of Russia).

That being said, there are similarities between spoken Chinese and Japanese too. Japanese imported a lot of Chinese vocabulary along with its characters, and like French vocabulary in English, these words now fill up the Japanese dictionary and make up the bulk of Japanese words. Many of them sound fairly different, however. Here are some examples:

(Mandarin) Chinese Japanese English
gānbēi kanpai Cheers!
(pronounced “ssuh”) shi four
dìguó teikoku empire
ānquán anzen safety

Note that this flow wasn’t just 1-way, either: after Japan’s epochal Meiji Revolution, when it opened up to European influences and modernized, China adopted a bunch of words for “modern” concepts like “revolution” (Japanese: kakumei; Chinese: geming) and “telephone” (Japanese: denwa; Chinese: dianhua) from Japanese.

Does all this seem confusing to you? In fact, there are a few factors I still haven’t considered. 1 is other Chinese languages. You see, the language commonly known as “Chinese” is actually Mandarin, the official and dominant Chinese language. But there are others, like Wu, Cantonese and Xiang, and they have their own sounds while sharing the Chinese characters. It’s hard for foreigners to tell from the characters whether the language is Mandarin or something else. And then there’s Korean, which sounds sort of like Japanese but has sounds and a cadence all its own. It stands out clearly from its neighbor languages with its distinctive writing system, hangeul, full of circles and short lines.

But I think those are too much for this blog post. You shouldn’t have to be an expert to tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese. Remember these basic facts:

  • Spoken Chinese is tonal and choppy and uses comparatively short names.
  • Spoken Japanese is not tonal and flows and uses simpler sounds than Chinese and comparatively long names.
  • Written Chinese uses complex characters. If they’re more simple, they’re from China; if they’re more complex, they’re from somewhere else (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, etc.).
  • Written Japanese uses both Chinese characters and simpler kana symbols together.

Yes, there are ways of telling from the specific Chinese characters used, but for ordinary people this is probably asking too much. Thank you for reading, and good luck!



Image source: Get Real Post

Although the exact analysis varies depending on whom you ask, it’s generally acknowledged that something like a cold war has settled upon East Asia. On one side is China, the traditional power of this part of the world, a proud country eagerly leveraging its newfound economic influence to reassert itself as a hegemon and woo its neighbors. On the other side is America, the global superpower, the established power ever since World War II with a fearsome navy and business presence. Even though it’s an outside power, it exerts influence in East Asia through an ally network — Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, Australia — and is wooing China’s neighbors itself. Especially over disputed territories like the South China Sea, the 2 sides face each other down, outwardly smiling but inwardly tense and suspicious, nervously eyeing each other’s moves and trying to anticipate future developments before it’s too late.

Despite China’s impressive advantages, it’s usually conceded that America has the stronger position in this contest. But recent developments have thrown the whole strategic calculus of East Asia into doubt and confusion, and they’ve come from where most would least suspect it: the Philippines.

Unlike most other parts of East Asia, the Philippines does not have a particularly long history. An archipelago on the edge of Asia, its culture has as much in common with the relaxed lifestyle of the Pacific Islands as mainland Asia. It was a collection of mostly inconsequential chiefdoms isolated from Asia until the 1500s, when Spain conquered it. The Philippines (named after Spanish king Felipe II) remained under Spanish rule for over 300 years, and imbibed a lot of Spanish culture in the process, especially Roman Catholicism.

The Philippines was dragged into the Spanish-American War in 1898. Spain kept a sizeable fleet in Manila, the capital, and America sent a squadron to sink it. Spain’s defeat left a power vacuum in the Philippines, which the Filipinos rushed to fill. America, however, decided that they couldn’t be trusted to govern themselves. (President William McKinley’s fervent religiosity was a factor — he wanted to convert the Philippines to “Christianity,” by which he meant Protestant Christianity). It launched a ruthless war of conquest to annihilate the Philippine government and keep its foothold in Asia. Soldiers fanned out around the countryside, stamping out guerrillas, putting villages to the torch, and conducting sweeping massacres in hard-to-conquer areas. One general ordered his soldiers to kill everyone over 10 years old. Prisoners were tortured, often to death.

This brutal conquest left lasting bitterness in the islands, but by most accounts American rule turned out to be benevolent. A policy of mass education brought ordinary Filipinos in touch with the outside world far more than their counterparts elsewhere in the colonized world. Uninterested in long-term colonization, America fostered a native governing class to ensure a smooth transition of power. The Philippines became integrated into the Asian trading network and found new markets for its agricultural products. Protestant evangelism didn’t make much headway, but America did convert Filipinos to the temptations of jazz music and Hollywood movies.

This all came crashing down with World War II, when Japan invaded and conquered the Philippines as part of its general swallowing of Southeast Asia. Americans shared in the hardships of the Filipinos during this period, suffering the infamous Bataan Death March into inhumane prisoner-of-war camps and coping with privation and discrimination under Japanese rule. An American-Filipino insurgency weakened Japanese authority, which then collapsed in an American counter-invasion in 1944, going out in a horrific blaze of destruction as Manila was bombed and shot up beyond recognition.

After the war, America promptly granted the Philippines independence, but it maintained a heavy influence. Most obviously, it kept a military presence there, especially at Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Station north of Manila. America propped up the Philippines’ presidents and even covertly engineered the rise to power of one of them, Ramon Magsaysay. The Philippines got a lot of military aid to defeat 2 different Communist insurgencies, the Hukbalahaps and the New People’s Army, and an ongoing insurgency among Muslims in the southern island of Mindanao. American economic interests remained entrenched in the Philippines long after independence, and the US leaned heavily on the Philippine government to leave them alone.

The Philippines’ post-colonial history has been relatively smooth, and the country avoided the war, bloodbaths and poverty that afflicted other Southeast Asian countries. But it’s had a persistent reputation as the region’s great underachiever. Unequal land distribution concentrated wealth and limited advancement for farmers, leading to the growth of squalid slums around Manila as poor farmers moved there haphazardly. Although its economic position was originally in the forefront of Southeast Asia, tepid growth over the years has led it to stall around the middle. Politics revolved around personalities and dynasties more than ideology or policy. The aforementioned Communist rebels seized big parts of the country, especially in the south. All of these problems came to a head under the dictator Ferdinand Marcos (1965-1986), who stole billions of dollars while ignoring deteriorating social conditions. In the end he was deposed by a popular revolution led by Corazon Aquino, the widow of a political opponent he had murdered — again on personality alone. To the last minute he was propped up by American president Ronald Reagan, who saw him as a good friend and doughty anti-Communist.

A surge in anti-American sentiment in 1991 led to the transfer of Clark and Subic Bay to Philippine control. The end of the Cold War helped.

As might be clear, the Philippines has a complicated relationship with the US, deeper than any other country in East Asia. For the most part, though, it’s warm and close. On a political and strategic level, America has continued to act as the Philippines’ main patron and military advisor, and Philippine presidents have kept close ties with their American counterparts. The Philippines has been at the forefront of the South China Sea dispute with China and has incurred China’s wrath for being most obstinate and assertive of its claims over nearby islands and the fishing areas around them. Since China is much, much stronger, and cooperation with other countries in Southeast Asia is flimsy, that means it has to lean hard on America for support. America has obliged by offering to move back into its old military bases, which, given their location on the South China Sea, are as strategically vital as ever.

On a cultural level, Filipinos are more closely linked to the US than anyone else in Asia. English, thanks to America’s mass education policy, is widely spoken, and often without the thick accents of other Asians. American movies, TV shows, and music remain wildly popular. Most of the cover bands touring Asian hotels are Filipino. Filipinos are the 2nd-largest Asian minority in America (after Chinese), where they perform a disproportionate share of farming and service jobs like housekeeping and babysitting.

Early this year, the Philippine-American connection seemed closer than ever. An international court in the Netherlands on China’s expansive South China Sea claims ruled in the Philippines’ favor, giving it the legal authority, at least, to stand up to China. One of the candidates in the presidential election (albeit a fringe one), Arturo Reyes, even ran on a platform of seeking annexation to the US.

And then Rodrigo Duterte was elected president.

Duterte was originally mayor of Davao, the main city on Mindanao. Mindanao is the Philippine’s 2nd-biggest island, but it’s historically been a neglected area, mostly because of high crime and the aforementioned Muslim insurgency. Duterte tackled the crime problem by killing anyone involved, including drug addicts, earning him the nickname “Duterte Harry.” It didn’t actually push down Davao’s murder rate, but it earned him a reputation as a politician who gets things done, and that was music to the ears of a population tired of stagnation and crooked politicians. Grandstanding against China, including the vow to jet-ski out to the disputed Scarborough Shoal to plant the Philippine flag, played to nationalist fervor.

As president, Duterte has lived up to his reputation, encouraging cops to gun down gangsters, junkies, and anyone involved (or rumored to be involved) in drug trafficking. The result is a grim death toll (over 3,000 so far) and overcrowded prisons. Duterte approves; as he told reporters in September, “Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now, there are 3 million drug addicts. … I’d be happy to slaughter them.” He isn’t a big fan of journalists either, claiming “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a bitch.” The violence has had a chilling reputation on the Philippines’ international reputation, which Duterte brushes off, claiming it as a necessary measure to save his country from “perdition.”


Philippine jails used to be known for staging Michael Jackson dances. Now… Image source: AFP/Getty Images

Duterte may be making even bigger waves internationally. He is deeply, hatefully anti-American, which was first made clear when he thundered at Barack Obama for criticizing his drug war. “Son of a whore, I will curse you in that forum,” he yelled — referring to a September summit of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations). He didn’t get the chance: Obama cancelled the meeting, realizing Duterte was not in a mood for talking. The Filipino has since gone on to tear into America for its atrocities in the Philippine-American War and for its condescension and haughty imperialism toward its allies.

As a logical result of this anti-Americanism, Duterte has rapidly pivoted towards China instead. On his first trip there last week, he boldly announced his “separation” from America. “I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to (President Vladimir) Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world – China, Philippines and Russia,” he told a roomful of Chinese businessmen. “It’s the only way.” The tangible benefits of the visit were a lifting of sanctions China had placed on the Philippines for standing up to it; the Philippines can now sell its delicious fruit in China again, and Chinese tourists will no longer be discouraged from traveling there. The Philippines also signed $13.5 billion in trade deals and was promised a $3 billion development loan and more lucrative trade deals to come. In return, it’s more or less ceded Scarborough Shoal. (Duterte’s brushed off the jet-ski thing as “hyperbole.”)

Just to make things interesting, Duterte has also cozied up to Japan on his trip there this week. He spoke warmly about the Japanese people and invited more Japanese investment and economic exchanges with the Philippines. He avoided committing any outrages that might offend the sensitive Japanese. But he also invited Japan to play a role in mediating the South China Sea dispute (which it really has no interest in) and continued to thunder against the US, fervently wishing for the day when he “no longer see[s] any military troops or soldiers in my country, except for Filipino soldiers.” Since Japan is Washington’s second-most staunch ally in East Asia, this will mean some tricky 4-way balancing in the future.

So how has America reacted to all of this? With bewilderment, for the most part. American officials seem stunned, confused, and patient. Despite Duterte’s personal animosity against their country (which might stem from sexual abuse he got as a boy from an American priest), there was very little indication that this would happen. 92% of Filipinos have favorable opinions of America — more than any other country. America paid dearly to free the Philippines from Japanese occupation (although some Filipinos grumble that Japan wouldn’t even have attacked if it weren’t for the American presence). Previous Philippine presidents have been friendly to America. Duterte’s underlings add to the confusion, since his statements haven’t been followed up with governmental actions yet. His trade minister denied that the Philippines is really “separating” from America, and shortly before the China trip, his foreign secretary reaffirmed the Philippines’ “special relationship.” Even after Duterte said he wanted American troops out of his country on his Japan trip, his foreign secretary explained that “There is no reason at this time to terminate our agreements because our national interests still continue to converge.” American remarks have mostly condemned Duterte’s rhetoric without retaliating in any meaningful way, suggesting that officials are waiting and seeing what happens next.

It is hard to tell what will happen next. Duterte has thrown the whole region into disarray. Will the Philippines become another Chinese vassal? Will Vietnam — another country with a big dispute with China and a complicated relationship with America — become America’s next best friend? Will Filipinos stand for a major break in relations with America (or continued bloodshed, for that matter)? Will Duterte, given his macho tendencies and preference for China, become another tough-guy dictator? How will America patrol East Asia without reliable bases in the Philippines? Will other Southeast Asian countries maintain the will to stand up to China in this context?

The opening of Myanmar and its subsequent turn towards the West beginning in 2011 was the 1st big change in Southeast Asia this decade. Duterte might be the 2nd. Or he might be overthrown, or impeached, or face serious resistance from his bureaucracy and Manila’s powerful business community. It is frankly hard for most analysts to imagine Pinoys casting off a relationship that has brought them a lot of benefits (close economic ties, a security blanket, a second home for many) to snuggle up to a country feared and mistrusted by most of its neighbors and without historically close ties with the Philippines.* But until the matter is cleared up, Duterte will serve as an important warning for other countries about what happens when you elect assholes.


There is a significant and old Chinese community in the Philippines, but culturally the 2 countries are quite far apart and Filipino opinions on the Chinese have generally not been high.