IT was the elephant in the room at the Asean Summit held in Indonesia last week: President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr.’s embrace of the US as the Philippines’ big brother, not just as a purported deterrent to perceived Chinese aggressiveness in the South China Sea, but to be a platform for the US military to defend Taiwan when Beijing invades it.
While of course the development wasn’t discussed openly nor even privately among the Asean heads of Asean state and government, at least three of them, through their officials, expressed their worry over the Marcos administration’s move — despite the president’s denials — to totally align the country with the US, in opposition to China.
“That’s really a blow to Asean’s efforts to be non-aligned, to have the two superpowers equidistant from it,” a foreign diplomat said.
Singapore had for decades been the Americans’ big ally in Southeast Asia, with the island nation depending to a large extent for its military strength on the Americans’ sale of billions of dollars of high-tech warplanes and other military equipment. Singapore in 2019 even agreed to renew until 2035 a three-decade pact that allowed the US military to transit to use the city state’s facilities. Despite that pact, however, Singapore in its geopolitical stances, because of its economic might and global financial reach, has slowly distanced itself from US influence.
Now, with the Philippines’ Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), there are two Asean nations that could slow down the regional organizations’ efforts to be non-aligned in the struggle between the two superpowers. A respected right-wing historian Niall Ferguson even claims that raging now is the globe’s second “Cold War,” after the first that started in 1947 and ended in 1991, involving mainly the US and the USSR. “Cold” as it was mostly, it brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war.
“The region’s people do not remember this period fondly, and they do not want to repeat it,” wrote Huong Le Thu, a nonresident fellow at the US think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies in a recent article in the US-based Foreign Affairs magazine. Huong explains why: “During the Cold War, the region was an epicenter of great-power rivalry as the Soviet Union and the United States (and later China) vied for supremacy. The contest led to violence that killed millions — in traditional wars, civil wars and systematic state repression.”
Asean has been striving hard to develop its non-aligned stance over any issue, which is why it had refused — despite intense US pressure — to issue a statement supporting the arbitration ruling made in 2016 by a three-man panel of European judges that was portrayed (falsely though) as a legal victory for the Philippines against China involving maritime claims in the South China Sea.
Asean successfully reaffirmed its neutrality when Vietnam at the 2017 Asean foreign ministers’ meeting demanded that the body include in its communique its concern over “island building and militarization” in the South China Sea, an obvious reference to China’s building of installations on the seven reefs it controls. While the Asean foreign ministers thumbed down the Vietnamese proposal, it was the first time in many years that Asean’s neutrality and unity were threatened if the summit failed to issue a communique. Vietnam, however, was prevailed upon to withdraw its motion.
Asean leaders, diplomatic sources claimed, have become worried that Marcos’ unexpected embrace of the US would increase pressures from both China and the US for them to draw closer to one superpower or the other — endangering their neutrality.
“While [past president Duterte] in words was anti-American,” another Asean diplomat said, “he actually maintained Philippine non-alignment as he did not do anything to implement EDCA, which therefore helped portray Asean as non-aligned. Marcos on the other changed the Asean balance, for a member to be aligned with the US.”
Asean leaders, even Singapore’s, want the organization as well as their own countries to remain neutral, especially at this time when the rivalry between the two superpowers is intensifying, and with the outcome of this conflict difficult to predict.
The Americans still have the most powerful military on the planet, but the Chinese are fast catching up, and there is no doubt in Asean leaders’ minds that China will overtake the US economic might in just a few years, and its investments in Asean countries, except in Singapore, will overtake those from the US, and that it will be the hegemon in Asia in the next decade. “So siding with the US or with China is not exactly the best position at this time to adopt,” an Asian diplomat pointed out.
“If we’re pressured to ally with the US, as Marcos did, and then a new American president decides to move away from Asia, leaving the vacuum to China, then we’re in trouble,” one Asean diplomat pointed out.
A clear move to ally with one superpower, the diplomat pointed out, weakens an Asean country’s ability to pit one superpower against the other, in order to get more concessions, especially development aid from both of them. The Philippine move, he pointed out, would encourage the US to increase its pressure on all Asean countries to similarly do so. The Philippines, he pointed out, has become the weakest pro-American link in Asean neutrality.
Ironically, the Philippines, after Vietnam, has the smallest US investment position (see table), which at $4,724 million in 2021 is not too far from China’s $4,458 million, even if the Chinese started going into the Philippines only since 2002, while American capital has been flowing into its former colony since its independence in 1946. China’s investments in major Asean countries have been accelerating so that it could overtake the Americans’ in a few years.
That Foreign Affairs article cited earlier explained: “Washington’s push to get countries to decouple from China has also proved deeply irritating, even to longtime friends such as Singapore. The push also means that the United States is adopting a trait of its adversary: typically, it has been China that demands that governments make binary choices. (In 2017, for example, Beijing disinvited Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong from a Belt and Road forum after he defended an international court’s ruling about maritime claims that went against China and in favor of the Philippines.) But ever since US President Donald Trump announced his ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ strategy alongside a volley of trade actions against China, Washington has come across as the great power demanding that countries pick a side.”
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What I believe is that Marcos Jr. knelt before US before embracing it. That was US wanted him to do anyway.