How China lost Asia
16 Mar 2023|

Since the dawn of international politics, smaller states have faced the formidable challenge of navigating great-power rivalries. Today, it is the geopolitical contest between the United States and China that has compelled countries to balance their competing national interests. Which side they gravitate towards depends on domestic and external circumstances.

Consider the Philippines, which has an interest in maintaining both its growing economic ties with neighbouring China as well as its half-century-old security alliance with the US. Former president Rodrigo Duterte placed greater emphasis on the economy, turning the Philippines sharply away from the US and towards China after his election in 2016.

In exchange for effectively siding with China in the escalating great-power competition, Duterte sought Chinese investment in his pet project—the ‘Build! Build! Build!’ infrastructure program—and moderation of China’s aggressive behaviour in the West Philippine Sea, particularly its seizure of islets and outcroppings claimed by the Philippines. But China didn’t oblige. When Duterte’s presidency ended last June, China had delivered less than 5% of the US$24 billion it had pledged to invest in the Philippines, and its provocations in the West Philippine Sea, which comprises part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, continued unabated.

Duterte’s successor, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, has so far taken a more prudent strategic approach. Deeply concerned about the territorial disputes fuelled by Chinese claims in the South China Sea, Marcos has decided to reaffirm and enhance his country’s partnership with the US.

To that end, the Philippines has decided to grant the US access to four more military bases—for a total of nine—some of which are located near disputed areas of the South China Sea. American troops rotate regularly through the designated bases. The US and the Philippines have also agreed to resume joint patrols in the South China Sea, which, under Duterte, were suspended for six years.

Beyond the US, the Philippines and Japan recently agreed to deepen defence ties, with Japanese troops securing greater access to Philippine territory for training and logistics. The Philippines is also pursuing greater maritime cooperation with the United Kingdom. The two countries held their inaugural maritime dialogue on 7 February. Two weeks later, the Philippine defence minister agreed with his Australian counterpart to formalise their ‘strategic’ defence engagement—potentially including joint patrols in the South China Sea.

So, the Philippines is gradually becoming a key hub of military cooperation among Southeast Asia’s democracies. This affords the US important strategic benefits—for which China has only itself to blame. China’s efforts to bully its neighbours into acquiescing to its demands and preferences have not only failed but have led to the emergence of a kind of anti-China coalition in the Indo-Pacific.

This has certainly been the case in South Korea. After the country agreed in 2016 to deploy a US THAAD missile-defence system on its territory—a response to escalating threats from North Korea—China imposed heavy economic sanctions. With that, public opinion in South Korea turned sharply against China. Measured on a scale of 1 (most negative) to 100 (most positive), South Korean sentiment towards China now stands at 26.4—two points less favourable than sentiment towards North Korea (28.6), according to a Hankook Research poll conducted in 2021.

Partly in response to public opinion, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, like Marcos, has sought to strengthen its alliance with the US. He is also working to improve long-strained relations with Japan, not least by announcing a plan to compensate Koreans who performed forced labour under Japanese colonial rule during World War II.

China’s aggressive sanctions against Australia—imposed in 2020 as punishment for the Australian government’s call for an independent inquiry into the origins of Covid-19—spurred a similar foreign-policy reorientation. In September 2021, Australia formed an ‘enhanced security partnership’, known as AUKUS, with the US and the UK. And Australia, India, Japan and the US have sought to strengthen the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

All of these steps aim to bolster security, but they also carry risks. In his 1995 book Diplomacy, former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger argued that it was Imperial German leaders’ combination of ‘truculence’ and ‘indecisiveness’ that ‘hurled their country first into isolation and then into war’. In his view, World War I erupted partly because leaders were ‘swayed by the emotions of the moment and hampered by an extraordinary lack of sensitivity to foreign psyches’. A similar dynamic may be at play today.

Ensuring that the dark history of the 20th century doesn’t echo today will require sound judgement from both sides. China must recognise the fear it has incited with its bullying, and democracies across the Indo-Pacific must take care to ensure that their responses don’t heighten tensions excessively. Otherwise, we may well sleepwalk into catastrophe.