Manila’s Pivot Towards Washington: Limited Impact on Regional Handling of Taiwan and South China Sea

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In a recent meeting between Philippine leader Ferdinand Marcos Jnr and US President Joe Biden, the strengthening relationship between the Philippines and the United States was described as essential amid the complex geopolitical situation in the region. The Philippines, recognizing the potential risk of being collateral damage in a conflict in the Taiwan Strait, has been making efforts to deepen ties with Washington. However, observers believe that Manila’s pivot towards the United States is likely to have a limited impact on how other nations in the region handle issues related to Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Diplomatic observer Charmaine Willoughby highlights that the Philippines’ moves to enhance its alliance with the United States are driven by the recognition that it could be affected in the event of a Taiwan contingency. These efforts include the modernization of the Philippine armed forces and the establishment of a maritime-focused national security strategy. While reaffirming the alliance between the Philippines and the United States benefits both parties and regional security, analysts argue that it is unlikely to lead to significant changes in other Southeast Asian countries’ approach to Beijing, particularly concerning the South China Sea and Taiwan.

Southeast Asian nations have been attempting to balance their ties between Washington and Beijing, considering their deep trade relations with China. Dylan Loh, an assistant professor in foreign policy, suggests that while the United States would welcome the Philippines’ closer alignment, each country in the region will make decisions based on its own interests. Although closer US-Philippine ties may lead to increased engagement between regional navies and the US military, attitudes towards China are not expected to change dramatically. Factors such as economic interests, threat perceptions, and domestic politics will continue to shape policies in the region towards China.

While some Southeast Asian countries may be cautious about an increased American military presence in the region, including Indonesia and Malaysia, a closer relationship between the Philippines and the United States could have implications for ASEAN, the regional bloc. The expansion of the defense pact between the Philippines and the United States, granting American troops access to additional bases, including one near Taiwan, raises the possibility of an ASEAN country being directly involved in a US-China conflict. However, Southeast Asian governments are likely to remain extremely cautious on the Taiwan issue and respectful of Beijing’s stance, known as the red line regarding the self-ruled island.

In conclusion, Manila’s pivot towards Washington is seen as a response to the potential risks associated with a conflict in the Taiwan Strait. While the deepening alliance between the Philippines and the United States benefits both parties, its impact on other nations in the region’s handling of Taiwan and the South China Sea is expected to be limited. Southeast Asian countries are likely to maintain their cautious approach and balance their relations with Washington and Beijing based on their own interests and the complex dynamics of the region.