A statement by Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in response to escalating tensions over Taiwan last month has spread across Southeast Asia.
“Bongbong”, as he is known, said that US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taipei “did not heighten” what was already a tense political situation, and the instability in the region showed the importance of his country’s ties with Washington.
The president’s comments, made after a meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, were seen by some observers as a pivot away from China and towards the US after the tenure of his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte.
Analysts have criticized Manila in the past for speaking “from both sides” when it comes to rival powers. But PhilippinesThe shift in public rhetoric and subsequent regional backlash was emblematic of the challenge Southeast Asian governments face as they balance competing pressures from Beijing and Washington.
China, which claims Taiwan as her territory, she stepped up her scare tactics after Pelosi’s visit. These include declaring military exclusion zones that overlap with the exclusive economic zones of Japan and the Philippines, as well as launching ballistic missiles into Tokyo’s EEZ.
Such moves make it “impossible for Southeast Asian states to ignore the risks . . . of cross-Strait conflict,” said Drew Thompson, visiting senior fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.
The dilemma is most apparent in the Philippines, given its proximity to Taiwan. Chinese recent naval live fire exercises includes a portion of the Bashi Channel, located in the Philippine EEZ, approximately 40 km from the nearest island.
The Philippines has a mutual defense agreement with the US, and Washington would likely seek access to its bases in the event of a conflict, experts say. China would treat the country as a potential site for launching US military action.
“There is no consensus among Southeast Asian states on how to mitigate the risks, but most agree that they do not want to pick sides or risk antagonizing China for the certainty of disproportionate retaliation from Beijing,” Thompson said.
USA has tried to reassure his allies, to guarantee that he would be able to use their bases and avoid them getting closer to China. Blinken told Marcos that the US would come to the country’s defense if it was attacked in the South China Sea.
Marcos’ stance marked a significant change, says Hervé Lemahieu, director of research at the Lowy Institute think tank. Under Duterte, the Philippines “wasn’t in the game,” he said, after the former president announced a “separation” from the US and tied his country closer to China. “Now you have the option of them helping the US,” Lemahieu added.
Richard Heydarian, author of a book on Duterte’s foreign policy, said: “I think the US will push the Marcos administration to make up for lost time and expand cooperation in a way that it could have if the Philippines had not elected someone like Duterte.”
Beijing has sought to convey that supporting Taiwan would be risky and costly for countries in the region, while encouraging governments and citizens to condemn US behavior as provocative.
A recent video message from China’s ambassador to Singapore, Sun Haiyan, spoke directly to the city-state’s 5.5 million residents as images of the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan flashed across the screen. “Let’s talk to those troublemakers together. No! Not here, not in our house.”
“China is putting quite a bit of pressure to stick to China’s talks, especially with ‘One China,'” said William Choong, a senior fellow at Singapore’s Yusof Ishak Institute, referring to Beijing’s stance of asserting sovereignty over Taiwan.
Singapore has good relations with China and the US, as well as long-standing ties with Taiwan. A neutral city-state would have to consider whether to support U.S. naval operations or allow U.S. aircraft to pass through its waters and airspace in the event of a conflict.
“The Chinese would be breathing down Singapore’s neck immediately,” Lemahieu said.
Another geographically important country is Indonesia. Panglima, or military commander, General Andika Perkasa is friendly to the US but is reaching retirement age this year.
Indonesia hosted last month Garuda Shield war games with the USA, which are held every year, but for the first time have been expanded to include Japan, Singapore and Australia. China, which often opposes its own exercises, held exercises with the Thai Air Force at the same time.
Analysts warned that the Garuda Shield exercises should not be taken as a sign of a move towards the US. “There was some consternation in Jakarta about how that display would play out with China. There was not universal support for it,” said one person familiar with the government’s discussions.
Others said Indonesia was unlikely to pick a side or even condemn any action. “I think the conversation is leaning towards not allowing any military ship to pass through our archipelagic waters in times of conflict, whether it’s the US or China,” said Gilang Kembara, a researcher at the Jakarta-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. – tank.
Economic pressures add to the region’s concerns, with global growth prospects weakening and fragmented supply chains hitting export-reliant countries. The US has trumpeted the benefits of its Indo-Pacific economic framework, while China has offered governments incentives, loans and other economic opportunities.
“Everything is more difficult for [south-east Asian] countries to have their cake and eat it too,” said Chong Ja Ian, an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore. “Neither country has articulated what it would do in the event of a conflict, but soon it may have to.”