Ties with South-east Asia: Can US put the genie back in the bottle?

The genie of nationalism, independence and flexibility in foreign policy may be out of the bottle and stirring South-east Asian international relations. Indeed, the declaration by new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte of a "pivot" away from the United States has demonstrated that courageous leadership in long dependent countries can defy the foreign policy preferences of the protective hegemon and even bring benefits - at least in the short term.

As an apparent reward for its new stance, China has allowed Filipinos to fish again in the vicinity of the disputed Scarborough Shoal. Moreover, Mr Duterte returned from his China trip with US$9 billion (S$12.5 billion) in soft loans and US$15 billion in economic deals. Given that leadership in Asia is often focused on survival, and economic development is their citizenry's overwhelming priority, others may soon follow suit.

Mr Duterte's pivot in Philippine foreign policy will "separate" it from the US and bring it closer to China and Russia. He has indicated that he may rescind the 2014 US-Philippines Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) that allows the US to rotate troops and assets through bases in the Philippines. Indeed he said: "You have the EDCA, well forget it... I do not want to see any military man of any other nation except the Filipino." Access to those bases is an important part of the US pivot and its strategy to counter China's advances in the South China Sea.

Explaining the new administration's angst, Philippine Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay said: "The United States held on to invisible chains that reined us in towards dependence and submission as little brown brothers not capable of true independence and freedom." Indeed, the legacy of American colonialism is still very much alive in the Philippines. It manifests itself in the constitutional recognition of English as an official language and in the education system, as well as in the US diplomatic approach and US military and "tourist" treatment of Filipinos and especially Filipinas. Former US Pacific commander Dennis Blair acknowledges that recent Philippine resentment of the US stems from "a combination of the US having had big bases there, of supporting Marcos for too long, and providing economic support through demeaning channels ". Indeed this deep well of resentment has built up over decades of US hubris and heavy-handedness towards the Philippines and the region as a whole.

Let's look at the situation from a Philippine realist perspective. It is unsure if America will back it up in a conflict with China and realises that geographically it will have to live with and get along with a burgeoning China in perpetuity. Moreover, its leadership is genuinely tired of being patronised and lectured by the US, particularly on domestic policy. In such circumstances, it is understandable that the Philippines wants to promote a more independent foreign policy by rebalancing its military relationships and barring foreign troops from its soil.

However, there is growing concern among analysts that Mr Duterte's volte-face may be a tipping point towards the demise of the US pivot to Asia. Senior fellow Max Boot at the Council on Foreign Relations concludes that Mr Duterte's renovated foreign policy "is a potential disaster" because "China could either neutralise this vital American ally or even potentially turn the Philippines into a PLA Navy base".

Even the New York Times editorialised that "such an alarming about -face would be a serious blow to regional stability and to President Barack Obama's policy of strengthening relations with Asian countries as a counterpoint to a newly aggressive China".

In sum, the Philippines is no longer a victim of China around which other Asean countries can be rallied. For Vietnam and other members of Asean, the shift by Mr Duterte will result in increased Chinese leverage and decreased US status and influence. Asean states may be warming to China's demand that the other claimants in the South China Sea negotiate directly with China. If so, this would be another step towards a Chinese-driven realignment in South-east Asia.

Indeed, China's policy towards the region has been somewhat successful. It persuaded most Asian countries not to criticise Beijing's refusal to accept an international arbitration verdict against it regarding its maritime claims. It has divided Asean on the issue. It is probing and widening crevices in America's regional alliances and networks. And it is leveraging its economic trade, investment and aid to advance its political interests. China's economic largesse has more appeal than US policymakers may realise, and the US cannot compete economically, especially if the Trans-Pacific Partnership fails to materialise.

Beijing has also stepped up its effort to revive the slogan of "Asia for Asians", tapping into lingering anti-American resentment in Asia which is more prevalent among Asia's elite than US policymakers may want to believe. The idea of "Asia for Asians" has also helped acceptance of China's alternatives to the traditional US-led regional institutions in Asia.

The ripple effect is spreading rapidly. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is visiting China this week seeking investment and closer ties. Relations improved markedly in late 2015 when Chinese companies agreed to buy assets of troubled 1Malaysia Development Berhad for US$4 billion. This was a great relief to PM Najib, its creator and chairman of its advisory board, because it helped ease public concern over the organisation's ballooning debt. This gesture by China should be seen in contrast to the US Department of Justice filing lawsuits regarding money laundering by the organisation.

There may be no connection, but Malaysia has agreed to increased defence cooperation with China and to buy littoral mission ships from it. This means that Malaysia will probably not be buying similar vessels from the US. According to Euan Graham of the Lowy Institute, " a US-backed initiative has effectively died now. At the same time a new bridge has been opened to China. If you put those together, it does send a combined signal of pulling back from the US and outreach to China".

Meanwhile, US relations with another ally Thailand are not good. Thailand is going through a tumultuous political transition and its military government is very unhappy with US criticism of its domestic policies and lack of progress towards democracy. Consequently, it has expanded its military relations with China.

Although the US is making some inroads militarily with Vietnam, it is quite premature to count China out there. The two maintain good party-to-party relations and Chinese PLA Navy vessels just visited Cam Ranh Bay.

Overall, it does seem that China is currently outplaying the US in Asia. Mr Obama's pivot policy is stalled and may even be unravelling, and some South-east Asian countries are re-evaluating their position vis a vis China and the US. It seems very unlikely that the US can put this genie back in the bottle.

  • The writer is adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 03, 2016, with the headline Ties with South-east Asia: Can US put the genie back in the bottle?. Subscribe