Filipino dilemma: Navigating US-China competition

This photo taken on February 15, 2024 shows a Chinese coast guard ship shadowing the Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) ship BRP Datu Tamblot near the China-controlled Scarborough Shoal, in disputed waters of the South China Sea. — AFP

“GENERAL Romulo, how right you were at Bandung! And how wrong was I,” Jawaharlal Nehru reportedly lamented during his twilight years, when recalling a spirited debate with the legendary Filipino diplomat at the Bandung Conference in 1955. Both eloquent and self-assured, Nehru and Carlos P. Romulo had diametrically opposed conceptions of Communist China.

While Nehru saw Beijing as a fellow victim of Western imperialism, Romulo saw nothing but the “new empire of communism on which we know the sun never rises.” While Nehru saw China as a potential ally in his quest to carve out a “third way” beyond the United States-led West and Soviet-led East, Romulo was deeply suspicious of Mao’s intentions.

It didn’t take long before Nehru was proven wrong. In 1962, China brutally exploited the long-running Indian-Pakistan conflict in order to press its advantage in contested Himalayan borders. India’s defeat was reportedly so comprehensive that had the People’s Liberation Army decided to march to New Delhi itself, it would have probably met minimal conventional resistance.

At this moment, Nehru’s India was doubly trapped. On one hand, it found itself encircled by a burgeoning Sino-Pakistani alliance. Moreover, New Delhi ended up relying on Moscow for the bulk of its advanced weapons systems – a crucial development that would shape its defense and foreign policy for the next half a century and beyond.

So far from acting as a global pillar of a “nonaligned movement,” India ended up both vulnerable to China’s predation as well as highly dependent on the Soviet Union, thus setting the stage for decades of strategic animosity with fellow democracies in the West. This partly explains why today’s India has not only refused to join Western democracies in anti-Russian sanctions, but has gone so far as actively abetting Putin’s regime through expanded energy and defence ties.

Amid the ongoing “New Cold War,” the spirit of the Bandung Conference is back with vengeance. All of a sudden, it’s fashionable to talk about the “Global South” – a more politically correct version of the Cold War-era “Third World” – and new iterations of “nonalignment,” namely actively refusing to side with one superpower against the other.

In New Delhi, they often speak of “multi-alignment,” while in South-East Asia we often use the term “bamboo diplomacy.” In Central Asia, which is in the midst of yet another “The Great Game,” they speak of “multi-vector” foreign policy. To be fair, there is a sound logic to this approach, something that I discussed with global experts during a recent event in Washington, co-organised by the Atlantic Council and the Keough School of Global Affairs.

As veteran Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan put it, “We have concerns about both certain aspects of Chinese behaviour and certain aspects of American behaviour.”

Thus, in a world of “multiplicity of interests,” it makes sense for South-East Asian nations to maintain an optimal level of balance in their relations vis-à-vis superpowers.

Nevertheless, not making a choice is a choice in itself. In fact, often what we see is not judicious hedging or balancing strategy by post-colonial nations, but instead, what can be best described as “strategic polyamory”: namely, naked opportunism and crudely transactional relationship with both superpowers.

Lest we forget, post-colonial nations have extremely divergent geopolitical and institutional attributes. In South-East Asia alone, Singapore’s room for autonomous strategic behaviour is far larger than, say, Laos or Cambodia, which are deeply dependent on Chinese largesse.

As for the Philippines, we are just too geographically close to Taiwan and geopolitically tethered to America, a treaty ally, to be totally neutral on cross-straits developments. Not to mention, we have direct territorial disputes with China – but not with the West. The likes of Malaysia have benefited from large-scale Chinese investments, while the Philippines has so far been a victim of Beijing’s pledge trap, namely empty pledges that enticed geopolitical subservience under the gullible Rodrigo Duterte presidency.

In short, we need to be extremely judicious when we deal with the superpowers, making sure we avoid “false equivalence” as well as mindless promiscuity. Otherwise, we might end up alienating both superpowers at our own peril.

Crucially, we should not allow China to weaponise the Global South discourse to conceal its hegemonic ambitions. After all, isn’t chair Xi Jinping more of the “Mao with the Money”? — Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN

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