It is now clear to all that the major factor in international politics will be the US-China competition, in Asia more than anywhere else. The new Biden administration has signaled that it will pick up where the Trump administration left off and undertake an “extreme competition” with China. Beijing, meanwhile, has made increasingly clear its aspirations to hegemony over Asia and its consequent opposition to US influence – the primary roadblock to that goal – in the region.
The question for countries in Asia is how to navigate this divide. This dilemma confronts not only non-allied states like Vietnam and Indonesia but also US allies like Japan, Australia, South Korea and the Philippines. Most Asian states, especially in Southeast Asia, would prefer to steer clear of any choice. But given China’s increasingly coercive and domineering behavior in recent years, against both American allies and other nations in the region, cooperation with the distant United States with its support for a free and open Indo-Pacific seems clearly preferable to a domineering China. Witness how Beijing has wielded its newfound power against states in the region, most recently Australia but also the Philippines itself, and its basic message that weaker states must kowtow to Beijing.
The more pointed question, though, is whether it is safe to challenge Beijing. This is a question that President Duterte has candidly raised. And it is a fair one. It is one thing to want a free and open Indo-Pacific, a region in which states can chart their own futures. But if trying to preserve one will be futile and, even worse, will lead to countries suffering Beijing’s ire without hope of relief, then prudence may well dictate accommodating China.
The truth is that America is strong and resolute enough to lead such a coalition. Already, American diplomacy has worked to build up the Quad as a cornerstone to an effort to balance China. At the same time, Washington has signaled its commitment to Japan and the Philippines’ security treaties, including in the disputed East and South China Seas. Washington has also supported Vietnam in its confrontation with China over disputed claims in the South China Sea and backed India in its standoffs with Beijing.
These kinds of efforts will be enduring. Americans across the political spectrum recognize China as the nation’s primary threat. They also recognize the importance of working with other countries to oppose it. Indeed, agreement on the China challenge and the importance of working with allies and like-minded countries are among the few points of genuine bipartisan agreement in the American political debate. While the Biden administration may take a different tack than the Trump team, the new administration has clearly signaled its intent to confront Beijing. And America’s economy, while battered by COVID, has better long-term bases for growth than any other major state – including China.
More to the point, America’s military is increasingly dead set on addressing the grave challenge posed by the People’s Liberation Army. With its 2018 National Defense Strategy, the Pentagon decisively shifted its focus to China. And the Defense Department has only become more fixed on the threat posed by the Chinese military since then.
Nor is the American military only preparing to fight some long-range war, leaving US allies and partners in Asia to their fates. Rather, Washington has made clear it is concerned about America’s most exposed allies – including even Taiwan, only 100 miles off the Chinese coast. The Pentagon is now focused on blunting a fait accompli attempt even against such exposed US confederates. And if Taiwan is within the Pentagon’s planning framework, so too is the Philippines – located well to Taiwan’s rear and even more defensible given America’s great advantages in aerospace and maritime power.
For these reasons, sticking with the United States as well as Japan, the Republic of Korea, India, Australia, and others in seeking to protect a free and open Indo-Pacific from Chinese domineering is not only attractive for the Philippines – it is a safe and prudent bet. Manila should therefore work even more closely with the United States and these other Quad members to stand up to China’s aggressiveness, whether in the South China Sea, in terms of military collaboration to ensure an effective defense of the Philippines, or in the economic domain to build up the Philippine economy. Capitulating to a domineering China, on the other hand, would not only be a bitter blow to the Philippines’ autonomy and freedom to chart its own future, but it would be unnecessary and unsuccessful.
Dennis Blair is a retired Navy admiral who served as director of national intelligence from 2009 to 2010 and as head of the U.S. Pacific Command from 1999 to 2002. Elbridge Colby, a principal at The Marathon Initiative, served as deputy assistant secretary of defense from 2017 to 2018, during which he led the development of the 2018 National Defense Strategy.