Philippines joining Beijing’s South China Sea drill ‘shows nations are hedging bets’ in Sino-US tussle

Southeast Asian countries also cooperating with US and Japan to keep China in check in the region, analysts say

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 October, 2018, 6:18pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 October, 2018, 11:31pm

Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are hedging their strategic risks in the South China Sea by stepping up military cooperation on multiple fronts as tension between China and the United States grows in the region, political analysts have said.

The assessment follows Monday’s decision by the Philippines to join a regional military exercise involving China and other Asean countries later this month, and comes days after a Chinese destroyer and an American warship came within metres of colliding in the South China Sea.

The drill, from October 22 to 29, would be Manila’s first military exercise with Beijing, and will form the second phase of a tabletop maritime exercise China held in August with several Asean nations in Singapore, in which they focused on simulating joint search and rescue operations under the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea.

The upcoming naval drill will be held in waters off Zhanjiang city, in southern China’s Guangdong province, after Chinese and Asean officials agreed not to stage it in areas that are the subject of territorial disputes.

The Philippines’ participation can be seen as a marked change in Manila’s stance towards China regarding the South China Sea since Rodrigo Duterte became president.

However, Dai Fan, a Southeast Asian affairs expert from Jinan University in Guangzhou, Guangdong, said Asean countries were also exploring ties with Japan and the US to counter China’s rising influence in the region.

“Asean [members] are deliberately cooperating with external countries like Japan and the US to offset Chinese sway, especially regarding the South China Sea, and US and Japan have long been encouraging Asean countries to guard their own interests against China,” said Dai.

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Manila and Washington have stepped up cooperation, agreeing to hold 281 joint drills in 2019, up from 261 this year. That is also a shift from when Duterte first came to office and scaled back aid from US.

Vietnam, another vocal claimant to disputed areas of the South China Sea, has enhanced cooperation with Japan. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc visited Tokyo on Monday and called on Japan to enhance its role in promoting peace and stability in the South China Sea.

Phuc was to attend the 10th Mekong-Japan Summit on Tuesday, joining Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand in reaffirming their commitment to addressing tensions in the South China Sea, where China has been flexing its military muscle, according to a summary of agreements to be made at the meeting.

Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies with Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the strategic hedging of Asean countries could give the bloc more room for autonomy and leeway when major world powers are at odds.

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“They can play off these external powers against each other, balance these relations, maximise the benefits to be extracted out of this balancing game, yet at the same time try assiduously to stay out of the crosshairs of these powers,” said Koh, adding that Japan was still a major investor in Southeast Asia, the US remained a key source of technology and both nations retained a significant role in Southeast Asia.

The Philippines filed and won a case against China over its claims in the South China Sea at an arbitration tribunal in The Hague in 2014.

China has built several artificial islands in the South China Sea, where it has installed military equipment to consolidate its control over the waters.