Amid China-US rivalry, Asean finds a role model in Duterte’s Philippines
Mark J. Valencia says the Philippine leader, whether intentionally or not, has apparently succeeded in doing what most nations in the region must do – maintain its relations with both Beijing and Washington to its own benefit, but without angering either
However, we may well be underestimating the diplomatic skill and determination of at least some Southeast Asian nations to avoid such a future.
Indeed, some say that the origin of Asean was stimulated by fear of the “fall” of more states – like dominoes – to the communist movement. Clearly, Asean’s formation favoured the US-backed opposition to that movement. Some even suggest that the US had a great deal to do with its origin.
Most are not blatantly choosing sides. Instead, they demonstrate that the matter of political choice between the two is not black and white: the choice between China and the US as a continuum – not an either-or.
Some Southeast Asian nations are skilfully negotiating the political tight rope and benefiting from both sides’ largesse in the process. It is true that there is a yawning chasm filled with adverse implications beneath this tight rope should a country lose its balance. But for clever, self-confident and bold leaders, this dilemma presents an opportunity that can be used to their nation’s advantage.
Singapore is thought by some to be in the US camp. Indeed, it provides temporary basing for US Navy warships and aircraft collecting intelligence, and carrying out surveillance and reconnaissance in connection to China. It also supports America’s broad interpretation of “freedom of navigation” – a contentious issue in the region because the US uses it to justify its “right” to “spy” on China. However, Singapore’s current role as both Asean interlocutor with China and Asean chair has encouraged it to take a more neutral position. Recently, Singapore’s prime minister said he was cool on the US-proposed Quad – a potential security arrangement between Australia, India, Japan and the US – because he did not want to end up with “rival blocs forming”.
The Philippines is an example of a country “playing both sides”, so far successfully so. Indeed, despite considerable domestic and international opprobrium, the Philippines may be showing others the way out of this dilemma.
Duterte may have calculated that the US needed the Philippines as a base for power projection, resupply and maintenance of its warships and planes as well as rest and recuperation for their crews. According to this theory, he knew he had some leeway with the US if he turned diplomatically and economically towards China. In this version, Duterte looks like a political genius. But it could just as well have been a stroke of serendipity. Whichever it was, Duterte’s manoeuvring and the outcome so far have shown other countries “the way” – if they have the political courage and domestic support to follow the lead.
The Philippine example may only be the beginning of a series of skilful balancing acts that can benefit some Southeast Asian countries.
But one thing is fairly certain: China-US balancing will become increasingly important and difficult for Southeast Asian countries. It will also stress Asean unity and weaken its “centrality” and influence in security matters in the region, both collectively and for its individual members.
This unfolding political drama could turn out very badly for all concerned – but especially for Southeast Asian nations. But it could also be a boon to those countries skilful enough to safely navigate these treacherous political waters. We should not underestimate the political acumen of some Southeast Asian countries to do so.
Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China