US influence evident in the escalating tensions between Manila and Beijing

Key to the South China Sea confrontation

The recent escalation of tensions between Manila and Beijing in the South China Sea has brought the USA’s enduring influence in the region to the forefront. Former President Rodrigo Duterte’s pro-China stance, which was once seen as a strategic pivot, now appears to be unraveling in the face of deep-seated pro-US sentiments among the Filipino public. As the Philippines navigates its complex relationship with China, the fingerprints of US influence are becoming increasingly apparent, shaping the dynamics of this evolving diplomatic saga.

Duterte’s presidency in 2016 marked a significant shift in the Philippines’ foreign policy. His pivot towards China was a bold departure from the traditionally close ties with the USA. Duterte’s decision to downplay the South China Sea dispute and pursue economic and military cooperation with Beijing was met with skepticism both domestically and internationally.

However, this shift in allegiance was not merely a strategic realignment; it was an attempt to diversify diplomatic partnerships and reduce dependence on any single global power. Duterte’s pragmatism led him to seek economic benefits from China’s deep pockets, envisioning infrastructure investments and financial support that could propel the Philippines into a new era of development.

The pragmatism that defined Duterte’s foreign policy faced a formidable challenge— the deeply entrenched pro-US sentiments within the Filipino public. Despite his efforts to pivot towards China, the historical ties, shared democratic values, and longstanding military alliance with the USA continued to resonate with the Filipino people. The balancing act between China and the USA proved to be a precarious dance, fraught with political consequences.

As Duterte faced criticism for his perceived capitulation to Beijing, the Filipino public remained skeptical about the sustainability of the pro-China tilt. The South China Sea dispute, particularly the 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in favor of the Philippines, fueled nationalist sentiments and strengthened the resolve of those who saw the USA as a more reliable ally in safeguarding Philippine sovereignty. The USA, cognizant of the pro-US sentiments within the Philippines, strategically leveraged its military assistance and deepened its alliances in the region. The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), signed in 2014, allowed the US military increased access to Philippine bases, strengthening their presence in the South China Sea. This move served both as a deterrent against Chinese aggression and a reaffirmation of the US-Philippine alliance.

Furthermore, the USA provided military aid, equipment, and training to the Philippine armed forces, enhancing their capabilities to address security concerns in the region. This support bolstered the Philippines’ ability to assert its territorial claims, sending a clear message to Beijing that any attempt to infringe upon Philippine sovereignty would be met with resolute resistance.

Recent incidents in the South China Sea have brought the simmering tensions to the forefront. Manila’s assertion of its sovereign rights over areas such as the Scarborough Shoal and the Recto Bank has not only reignited the dispute but has also exposed the fragility of Duterte’s pro-China policy. The Filipino public’s vocal opposition to perceived encroachments by China, coupled with the assertive stance of the Philippine government, reflects a growing disillusionment with the benefits of the pro-China pivot.

As the international community watches the developments in the South China Sea, the USA has seized the opportunity to reiterate its commitment to upholding the rules-based order and supporting its allies in the face of territorial threats. American warships conducting freedom-of-navigation operations in the region serve as a symbolic display of solidarity with the Philippines and a clear message to Beijing that unilateral attempts to alter the status quo will not go unchallenged.

The USA and China are still dancing delicately in the South China Sea as the Biden Administration re-engages with the Philippines. The result will not only determine the Philippines’ future, but it will also demonstrate the persistent power dynamics in Indo-Pacific geopolitics.

Duterte’s pro-China tilt was fueled by the promise of massive Chinese investments in Philippine infrastructure projects. However, the economic realities have not matched the grand expectations. Delays, disputes over terms, and concerns about the debt implications of Chinese financing have dampened the initial enthusiasm surrounding these investments.

In contrast, the USA, recognizing the economic aspirations of the Philippines, has offered alternative avenues for economic cooperation. Trade agreements, investment partnerships, and development assistance packages have been proposed, providing the Philippines with viable alternatives to navigate its economic future without overly relying on China.

The change in the US administration brought with it a recalibration of American foreign policy priorities. The Biden Administration, while acknowledging the importance of engaging with China on global challenges, has also placed a renewed emphasis on strengthening alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region. The Philippines, given its strategic location and historical ties with the USA, has become a focal point in this regional recalibration.

Through diplomatic overtures, economic initiatives, and military cooperation, the Biden Administration aims to reinforce the Philippines’ position as a key ally in the Indo-Pacific. This strategic engagement is not only a response to the evolving geopolitical landscape but also a testament to the enduring influence of the USA in shaping the destiny of its allies.

As Manila finds itself at a geopolitical crossroads, the question of how to navigate the complex web of alliances and rivalries looms large. The Filipino leadership, under the weight of public expectations and external pressures, must carefully balance national interests, economic considerations, and security imperatives.

The evolving situation in the South China Sea underscores the importance of a nuanced and agile foreign policy that acknowledges the realities of a multipolar world. While the USA continues to exert influence through military alliances and economic partnerships, China remains a significant player with the capacity to shape the region’s future.

There is no denying American influence in Manila’s latest conflict with Beijing. The USA has deliberately positioned itself to play a key role in determining how the Philippines responds to the difficulties posed by an aggressive China, from military backing and strategic alliances to economic alternatives and diplomatic engagement.

The Duterte administration’s initial pro-China stance was met with a lot of attention, but it soon encountered difficulties when attempting to reconcile practical considerations with deeply held public opinions. As the Biden Administration re-engages with the Philippines, the USA and China continue to tread carefully in the South China Sea. The outcome of this delicate dance will not only shape the future of the Philippines, but it will also serve as a testament to the enduring power dynamics in Indo-Pacific geopolitics.

The region has long been a hotbed of geopolitical tensions, with various nations vying for influence and control. As such, the outcome of this ongoing struggle will have far-reaching implications for the region and beyond. It remains to be seen how the situation will ultimately play out, but one thing is certain: the stakes are high, and the world is watching. Although the pro-China shift of the Duterte administration attracted notice at first, it eventually ran into problems when trying to strike a balance between practical concerns and firmly held public opinions.

The USA and China are still dancing delicately in the South China Sea as the Biden Administration re-engages with the Philippines. The result will not only determine the Philippines’ future, but it will also demonstrate the persistent power dynamics in Indo-Pacific geopolitics.

Abdul Rahman Malik
Abdul Rahman Malik
The writer is a freelance columnist

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