One of the most dangerous leaders in the world is now in a very tight spot

Photo: Jes Aznar/ Getty Images.

One of the most dangerous leaders in the world, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is now an incredibly tight spot.

On Tuesday an international tribunal in The Hague determined that China has unequivocally been violating the sovereignty of its neighbour nations with its self proclaimed “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea.

The tribunal came together after the former Philippine government filed an arbitration request in 2013 in order to stop China from chasing its vessels and fisherman out of the contested waters.

China responded to the ruling by saying that it simply does not care and will continue to do whatever it wants in the waters and on the uninhabited islands in them — islands that China has been militarizing for years.

“Chinese President Xi Jinping said China will not accept any proposition or action based on the decision Tuesday by the South China Sea arbitrage tribunal,” reported state media outlet Xinhua News.

“Xi said the South China Sea Islands have been China’s territory since ancient times. China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime interests in South China Sea, in any circumstances, will not be affected by the award.”

So now Duterte has an incredibly precarious situation on his hands just weeks after taking office. He’s a nationalist known for violent rhetoric against drug dealers and journalists and he’s one of the last leaders in the world anyone needs backed into a corner.

On the South China Sea issue, Duterte’s rhetoric on this matter has been as erratic as it has been bombastic. At one point on the campaign trail, he said that he would ride a jet ski to the disputed Spratly Islands and plant the Philippine flag there.

But he’s also expressed a desire to work with China, even telling the US — its ally — that the country “will be charting a course of our own,” according to a Reuters report last month. “It will not be dependent on America. And it will be a line that is not intended to please anybody but the Filipino interest.”

The South China Sea is already an incredibly delicate geopolitical issue in which Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Taiwan have all joined the Philippines in accusing China of aggressive action.

It’s also a key waterway for global trade.

According to

Robert Kaplan,
geopolitical analyst and author of “Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, “more than half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through these choke points, and a third of all maritime traffic worldwide.”

The Chinese can’t lose face, and Duterte isn’t the type to back down from a fight. This is going to have to be handled very delicately.

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