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

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 April, 2018, 4:31pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 April, 2018, 7:49pm

Speaking as the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at an Asean-Australia summit, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned member countries that they will have to learn to deal with “tensions” and “pressure” from the rise of China. 

Many analysts, including myself, have been predicting gloom and doom for Southeast Asian states and Asean unity as they are increasingly pressured by China-US geopolitical competition. Indeed, there is concern that some members may be used as political pawns or proxies in the burgeoning China-US contest for hard and soft power dominance in the region – and in particular in the South China Sea. This could well happen and there is some evidence that the US-China struggle is creating political fissures as Southeast Asian nations waffle and hedge between the two. 

However, we may well be underestimating the diplomatic skill and determination of at least some Southeast Asian nations to avoid such a future. 

Why China and the US cannot afford to ignore Asean

They learned a great deal from the cold-war period when pressure by the Soviet Union and the United States led to a fundamental split between communist Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia on the one hand and the founding members of Asean – IndonesiaMalaysiathe Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – on the other. 

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. 

US urges Southeast Asia to take strong stand on South China Sea

Now Southeast Asian nations are again under intensifying pressure to choose between China’s economic dominance and largesse, and the US security umbrella. Former US president Barack Obama’s 2011 military “pivot” to Asia, combined with the incumbent Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact, has meant the US approach to the region has focused more on the military than the economic aspect of its Asian relationships. The goal for many nations is to maximise the economic benefit of China’s rise while retaining the benefits of US security protection. But the balancing act required to reach this goal is becoming more like a tightrope walk as both China and the US turn up the heat on individual nations.

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. 

For clever, self-confident and bold leaders, this dilemma presents an opportunity that can be used to their nation’s advantage

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.

According to Max Fisher and Audrey Carlsen, writing in The New York Times, there are three groups at various stages in this ever evolving continuum – counteracting China, shifting towards China, and playing both sides. For core US allies – AustraliaJapan and South Korea, the spirit of the alliance coupled with the need for the American security umbrella dominates, so far. But some Asean countries – like Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and perhaps nominal US ally Thailand – appear to be shifting towards China, preferring China’s economic incentives over the benefits of US military “protection”.

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”.

Is China chipping away at the Asean bloc?

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.

In this version of what may be happening, Duterte looks like a political genius

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s abrupt pivot from staunch US ally to a more independent and neutral stance between the US and China is an example of the art of the possible. So far, the Philippines has benefited from its better relationship with China while maintaining – though less robustly – its military relationship with the US. 

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. 

How Duterte transformed the Asian geopolitical landscape

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