The Guardian view on Asia-Pacific competition: risks and opportunities | Editorial

The Philippine president’s vow to separate from the US has highlighted Washington’s rivalry with Beijing

After four months as president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte has become notorious for erratic and attention-grabbing statements. But his remarks on his country’s longstanding alliance with the United States make his other pronouncements appear a model of understatement and consistency. He announced that he was separating from the US “in military [and] economics also” and talked of a possible new troika “against the world: China, Philippines and Russia”. On Monday, he reversed course. Existing alliances were alive and there should be no concern about them changing; all he sought was trade and commerce with China, he said. By Tuesday, he was lashing out at Washington again. The US has said it is seeking clarity on his intentions; so, it seems, are his colleagues, and perhaps even Mr Duterte himself.

If his manner is sui generis, the strategic question he faces is not. Beneath the bluster appears to be an attempt to extract advantage from the rival ambitions of the US and China. Beijing’s growing economic and military power and increased confidence have produced a discernable shift in the region (helping to explain why Mr Duterte is downplaying his nation’s victory over China in a tribunal ruling on their South China Sea dispute). The situation has been complicated both by what the US has done, and what it hasn’t. In 2011, Barack Obama announced a “pivot to Asia” and stressed that the US was a Pacific power, a message bolstered by plans to station marines in Australia. Beijing saw that as an attempt to contain it, and efforts to gloss the message failed to undo the damage. But it alarmed China without achieving much: in reality, the Obama administration had little time to devote to the region. It has been too busy elsewhere. That seems unlikely to change significantly, even if a President Clinton proves more active and keener to make alliances count – especially given that she has renounced the pivot’s economic plank, the TPP trade deal including multiple Pacific nations but not China.

There are broader echoes, too, in Mr Duterte taking exception to criticism of his high-death-count war on drugs. Thailand’s tilt towards China has gained pace under the military junta; Beijing does not question the 2014 coup and associated human rights abuses. Malaysia has also moved towards China while the US Department of Justice has pursued the corruption scandal concerning its 1MDB development fund.

Beijing may enjoy Washington’s discomfiture, but it knows how much is still to play for. Though regional players seek cash and support – without awkward questions about domestic affairs – they are worried by China’s growing clout and assertiveness. The multi-sided South China Sea row is as much symbol as cause of tensions. Last month saw a rare public spat between Singapore and China, as the city-state’s ambassador clashed with a populist state-owned tabloid over its approach to the dispute. There are rising tensions with Vietnam, too. Meanwhile, India has been taking an increasing interest in the region, with US encouragement. Even Mr Duterte appears to be looking beyond China; hence this week’s trip to Japan.

Smaller nations may see opportunities in the ongoing competition between these great powers. But there are also real risks that, in the longer run, this rivalry and more localised conflicts could destabilise the region. That is in no one’s interests.



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