When fighting with an opponent bigger and tougher than you, boxers have a couple of rules. First, precision beats power. Second, timing beats speed. And finally and most importantly — make your opponent respect your punch.
After years of cozying up to Beijing under former President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines under leader Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is taking a stand. The most recent example can be found in Manila’s reaction to China’s insistence that it moves a rusty old tank landing ship in the South China Sea. The Armed Forces of the Philippines says one of its supply boats was blocked and water-cannoned by a Chinese vessel on Aug. 5, as it tried to deliver supplies to troops stationed on the ship. 1 But Beijing says Manila is violating its sovereignty.
This is not a new fight. Both sides lay claim to the contested waters, as do multiple other stakeholders, including Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia. What is new, though, has been the force with which Manila has come out punching.
“I’m not aware of any such arrangement or agreement that the Philippines will remove from its own territory its ship, in this case the BRP Sierra Madre from the Ayungin Shoal,” Marcos said in a video posted on his official presidential account on Facebook. “And let me go further, if there does exist such an agreement, I rescind that agreement now.”
On a tour of Southeast Asia earlier this month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called on Manila to resolve the issue through dialogue, adding he hoped the Association of Southeast Asian Nations would maintain vigilance against the “masterminds” who might try to “stir up troubles” between China and the Philippines. No prizes for guessing who Beijing sees as the “masterminds.”
China is regularly irked by what it sees as US interference in its affairs — particularly over Taiwan. The Chinese military launched drills around the island over the weekend, days after Taiwan’s vice president stopped over in the US and met American officials in Paraguay.
But it is not the US that China should blame for Manila’s recent bravado. Beijing has its own economic problems — and while in the past it had the cash to spend on development and infrastructure in the region, it may no longer have such heft. As this report from global think tank the International Institute of Strategic Studies shows, the number of new Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure projects has slowed since 2019 due to the country’s “domestic economic downturn.” Still, while the report notes that the BRI is an important element of China’s foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific, a longer-term trend of slower Chinese growth will mean that while Manila is the first, and perhaps most vocal, Asean member to stand up to Beijing, it is unlikely to be the last.
It would be far too simplistic to view this as solely a transactional relationship. China and its neighbors have long historical and cultural ties that go beyond the money. Plus, Southeast Asian countries tend to follow a hedging strategy, repeating the mantra that they do not want to choose between the US and China. Every time I’ve interviewed a Southeast Asian head of state, they’ve said: “We want to be friends with all, enemies with none.”
It helps when those friends come with benefits. In China’s case those aren’t as visible as they used to be.
The much-touted Chinese deals promised during Duterte’s rule have yet to materialize in any concrete manner. Indonesia looks quietly skeptical, too, with President Joko Widodo singling out the troubles in Beijing’s real estate sector in a speech on Aug. 9 as a warning of what happens when debt spirals out of control. Slower growth is already hitting Japan’s exports, with figures in July weakening for the first time since February 2021 on the back of slower Chinese demand.
It’s worth pointing out that these are isolated incidents. No one is writing off a China that’s still growing. Southeast Asian nations will always have an egg in the Chinese basket, says Collin Koh of the Singapore-based Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, given it is still the largest trading partner for ASEAN countries. But he notes nations with interests in the South China Sea are “diversifying their sources of investments and export markets.”
In the case of the Philippines, there’s also a renewed focus on the US. It signed a deal earlier this year to expand the US military presence, increasing the number of bases Washington has access to nine from five.
Beijing tends to view countries that have a strong security relationship with the US through a hostile lens, Amanda Hsiao from the International Crisis Group notes. “As it begins to feel more encircled by US security alliances, there will be a tendency for Beijing to feel that it needs to show its resolve and overreact.”
That encirclement is becoming more visible. Washington has reaffirmed its commitment to support Manila in the face of an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, vessels or aircraft in the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, the Philippines and Vietnam have planned a cooperation agreement on the South China Sea. Australia — a key US ally in the region — sent its biggest warship to the disputed waters and the US, Japan and Korea held a successful three-way summit over the weekend where China was very much on their minds.
The tough talk from Manila is likely to continue. It has just appointed former foreign minister Teddy Locsin as the special envoy to China. Beijing will still be smarting from a colorful Twitter exchange in 2021 over what Manila described as a dangerous maneuver against its Coast Guard.
At the time, Locsin infamously posted: “China, my friend, how politely can I put it? Let me see…O….Get the f*** out.” He later deleted that tweet, but this is not the kind of conversation you expect between friends. With China’s ATM slowly running out of cash, other countries — while they may not be as colorful or as loud — may well take a leaf out of Manila’s playbook.
Source : Bloomberg