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Unrequited Love: Duterte’s China Embrace

Marites Dañguilan Vitug

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Unrequited Love: Duterte’s China Embrace
Chronicles of a one-sided affair

“I just simply love Xi Jinping. He understands my problem and he is willing to help…More than anybody else at this time of our national life, I need China.”

                                                               April 9, 2018

     ‘I love China.”

                                                               May 31, 2019

Do you remember these?

It wasn’t too long ago when Rodrigo Duterte made these effusive declarations. In the post-Marcos Sr. era, he was the first Philippine president to openly side with China, dropping any pretense of balancing relations with the rival superpowers.

When it comes to foreign policy, the Duterte presidency was unlike any other of our contemporary leaders. He shifted the earth beneath our feet, his behavior and rhetoric so dramatic and sweeping that these stirred in my head. It was a compelling story that needed to be told.

So, dear readers, please indulge me as I devote this newsletter to my new book, co-written with Camille Elemia, a former Rappler reporter who now writes for The New York Times and other publications.

Unrequited Love: Duterte’s China Embrace is the chronicle of a one-sided affair. A kind of love story that took place amid the backdrop of waves of Chinese intrusions in the West Philippine Sea. 

Published by the Ateneo University Press, it will be released this month, July being the month eight years ago, when an international arbitration court unanimously declared that China’s nine-dash-line claim over the South China Sea is illegal.

The roots of this book date back to the early years of Duterte’s presidency. At the time, I had completed the manuscript for an earlier book, Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China, when the unraveling of the country’s hard-earned legal victorybegan. The book was to be published in 2018. We saw and heard, before our dazed eyes, how Duterte belittled the historic legal ruling, letting it gather dust in a forgotten shelf.

I wrote in the preface:

“Questions swirled in my mind. Where was Duterte coming from? How did he demonstrate his affection for China and how was this reciprocated? What was the impact of the pendulum swing on sectors such as the military and the defense and foreign affairs departments, institutions that had clear geostrategic moorings? What did this mean for the rule of law and our maritime dispute with China?

These questions formed the why of this book.”

Six parts

The book is composed of 17 chapters in six parts, including an epilogue on foreign policy under the presidency of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., covering his first year in office.

Let me walk you through the book. Part one, “From Davao to Malacañang,” returns us to Duterte’s home and his milieu, then moves forward to his years as president, focusing on the ebb and flow of his ties with China.

Part two, “Breaking the Law,” lays out how officials close to the President bent the rules and played favorites during the pandemic, benefiting select Chinese companies.

In part three, “Show of Support,” we track down the infrastructure projects funded by China or given as gifts as well as the shortcuts the Philippine government took to speed these up. It was not all hardware. The information space buzzed with Chinese propaganda and false stories to shore up Beijing’s measly trust among many Filipinos.

Only a fraction of China’s high-profile pledges came to fruition. In part four, “Unfulfilled Promises,” we take a close look at projects that China assured loans to but failed to deliver. There are lessons to learn from this experience.

In the security arena, despite Duterte’s soft stance toward China, tension continued to simmer in the West Philippine Sea. “Flashpoints,” part five, navigates the features where troubles remain. As things stand, these will continue to be the dominant sources of tense relations between Manila and Beijing.

The last part, “Pushback,” shows how institutions, bureaucracies, and leaders rose to the occasion and stood up against China. In the end, backed by public opinion, they foiled Duterte’s attempt to push the country toward China.

The epilogue looks at the ripples of change under Marcos Jr.’s pivot back to the West, a story in progress.

But, as I write in the preface: “Our relations with China…is a story that will be with us for generations.”

Dear readers, I would like to invite you to the launch of Unrequited Love: Duterte’s China Embrace on July 18, from 3 pm to 5 pm, at the Bahay ng Alumni Main Hall, University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City.

Hope to see you then!

For feedback, please email me at

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Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished journalists and authors. For close to a decade, Vitug – a Nieman fellow – edited 'Newsbreak' magazine, a trailblazer in Philippine investigative journalism. Her recent book, 'Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China,' has become a bestseller.