US-China rivalry: forcing nations to choose sides is ‘dangerous game’

(SCMP) – The Philippines is committed to keeping the United States as its only military ally but does not believe it needs to contain China or take sides as the world’s top two powers compete for influence in the Asia-Pacific region, foreign minister Teodoro Locsin Jnr said on Wednesday.

The top diplomat said that asking countries to choose sides was a “dangerous game” and would create a “vicious cycle” of security concerns.

Instead, Manila wanted to maintain “beneficial relations with the two biggest manufacturers and markets on the planet”.

Locsin added that his fear was seeing his country caught between two “powers running into each other’s embrace”.

“Lee Kuan Yew said it best. When elephants fight, the grass suffers. But when they make love, there goes the forest,” he said, referring to a quote by the late Singaporean statesman and founding father.

Locsin was speaking at a forum organised by the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Singapore, where he discussed how his country could navigate geopolitical tensions.

He pointed out that while the Philippines and the US had a Mutual Defence Treaty signed close to 70 years ago, Manila still felt “anxiety” over how far Washington would go to uphold it.

He quoted Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte as saying that the US had not stopped China carrying out land reclamation or building military installations near the islets it controlled in the South China Sea, parts of which are claimed by several Southeast Asian nations.

Locsin said that Beijing accepted the concept of freedom of navigation in the contested waters but wanted “special privileges”.

China claims sovereignty over about 90 per cent of the disputed waterway. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan hold competing claims, and the US has condemned Beijing for what it calls “intimidation” by militarising the resource-rich waters.

The Philippines in 2016 took its dispute to the permanent court of arbitration at The Hague and won, but China has not recognised the ruling. Since Duterte came to power after the legal victory, he has declined to enforce it in favour of brokering closer ties with Beijing to woo trade and investment.

Locsin spoke about the 2016 ruling briefly on Wednesday, saying the Philippines believed in international law and went to The Hague only for China not to show up.

He said: “It was a victory for international law, particularly for the Philippines. China does not recognise the award … so is it an empty victory?”

But Locsin said this was not a sign that Manila could be exploited by major powers, arguing that he had filed several diplomatic protests this year against Beijing. One last month came after Chinese coastguard vessels reportedly strayed near a Philippine-occupied shoal.

On Wednesday he said on Twitter that he would lodge another protest if it was confirmed that China was sending up flare warnings against Philippine maritime patrol boats.

On a code of conduct for the waters being negotiated by Southeast Asian countries and China, Locsin said it was a code of “live and let live” and a “manual” for dealing with hegemony.

The agreement between Beijing and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is expected to be passed in the next three years before Duterte steps down.

Locsin said the Philippines needed to pursue what he called a “true independent foreign policy”.

“It is not independent foreign policy if you simply switch your master before whom you have been kneeling. You are still on your knees before another pair of trousers,” he said.

“An independent foreign policy means getting off your knees and on your feet and standing up for yourself.”

He said this analogy would help his country avoid being “everyone’s enemy” when it came to the South China Sea conflict.

But he added that he had no idea whether other countries would take a similar approach as geopolitical tensions grew amid China’s rise.

“The eagle still soars but the dragon is rising, and rising fast,” he said.