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Southeast Asia caught between two suitors

Oct 27. 2016
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By The Nation

China and US are engaged in a wooing battle; its targets must stay light on their feet 



For the first time since the end of the Vietnam War, Southeast Asia is back on the centre stage of global strategic competition. But the dramatic power play has moved on from the South China Sea disputes that have dominated news headlines for the past six years. Now it is all about how each Southeast Asian country is engaging with the two global superpowers – one an old and tired but nonetheless veteran and indispensable force, the other a young, powerful and restless newcomer.

Nothing can be said about the former until the hyperbole and turmoil of the US presidential election ends with the vote on November 8. But the damage has already been done to US prestige in our region, both in terms of politics and security. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is the leader to watch closely, since he could open a Pandora’s box for the strategic status quo in the region. As one of Washington’s closest allies in the Asia-Pacific region, Manila’s plans are pivotal to the security of the region as a whole.

Of late, the US has been rocked by signals of discontent from its former colony. 

Duterte has given the US a strong wake-up call with a stark message – don’t take us for granted. Under the administration of his predecessor Benigno Aquino, the US found it could dictate Manila’s security policy. Now, Washington is no longer in the same position. The new Filipino leader has opted to undo past ties and instead seek the best deal possible from the two global powers.

The second of these is of course China. So far, Beijing has responded in measured terms to Manila’s overtures. China’s leaders are well versed when it comes to dealing with their mercurial counterparts to the south. After all, they have decades of experience negotiating the ups and downs of bilateral relations with their island neighbour. As such, Duterte’s apparent shift in foreign policy does not represent an earthshaking change – though it has reduced tensions between the neighbours.

Both Beijing and Manila now agree that their differences over South China Sea territory should be shelved for future generations to resolve. Duterte’s priority for the present is gaining China’s assistance in improving Filipino infrastructure and trade and investment. Beijing is all too willing to comply, since these propositions fit well with its overseas investment strategies.

So far Duterte has not said a word about the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Manila will take the helm of the regional grouping next year at a crucial juncture as it marks its 50th anniversary. His manner of leadership to date certainly does not conform with the “Asean Way” of decision-making by consensus. As such there is concern that with Manila at the helm, his maverick style will undermine the grouping’s unity and cooperation with dialogue countries. 

Both China and the US have intensified their engagement with Southeast Asian countries. Each of these global powers has its own national objectives and diplomatic strategies. But the response of the Philippines, in changing its tune and actions toward the US, has been dramatic and unexpected. It may have set the tone for other countries in our region, as they eye up the respective benefits on offer in both sides of this regional power play. One thing is certain: The new age of “hedging diplomacy” will not benefit slow movers.

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