What's making it harder for S-E Asia to walk the US-China tightrope

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (left) with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Belt and Road Forum at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing last May. China has decided that the best way to assuage regional concerns about its geopolitical ambi
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (left) with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Belt and Road Forum at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing last May. China has decided that the best way to assuage regional concerns about its geopolitical ambitions is to focus on geoeconomics instead - with the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative leading the way.PHOTO: REUTERS

I was in Manila in late 2016 when Rodrigo Duterte infamously proclaimed that, for the Philippines, it was "time to say goodbye" to the United States, economically and militarily. Filipino business and government leaders told me to discount their president's words as those of a loose-lipped populist, giddy from his feting by President Xi Jinping in Beijing's Great Hall of the People.

But under their breath, the same Filipinos also said their country would inevitably pivot away from the US and towards China - the polar opposite of the intended impact in the region of then President Barack Obama's "pivot" of American foreign policy towards Asia, announced with great fanfare in my hometown of Canberra, Australia, five years earlier.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 03, 2018, with the headline 'What's making it harder for S-E Asia to walk the US-China tightrope'. Subscribe