President Duterte sparked a media frenzy on his recent visit to China when he declared that the Philippines would "separate" from the United States and align itself with two of America’s top rivals. At a moment when the United States is locked in a power contest with China, losing a critical ally like the Philippines would be nothing short of a disaster. Some have argued that the United States should be concerned about a potential "domino effect" following Manila’s engagement with Beijing. The argument is that if the Sino-Philippine engagement proves to be successful, it might trigger a chain reaction culminating in other countries in the region like Vietnam following suit and abandoning balancing in favor of accommodation with China.1
Theoretically speaking, this is possible but, realistically, it is highly improbable. Despite his bombastic rhetoric, Duterte is not "pivoting" away from America. Like other Southeast Asian leaders, Duterte is only trying to rebalance his foreign policy via hedging. Since the US-China power competition is still ongoing and neither is posing an existential threat to smaller states in the region, it is unsurprising that the Philippines and Vietnam have tried to rebalance their foreign policies and pursue a hedging strategy.
There are two main reasons why the “Asian pivot” of Duterte and, some anticipate, other leaders in the region is only a myth. First, Southeast Asian countries, especially Vietnam, understand that leaning to one side carries profound risk. Second, although the ties between China and ASEAN countries have developed immensely over the past ten years, serious territorial disputes remain. Furthermore, China’s increasingly muscular foreign policy can pose a threat to the security of many countries in the region. Thus, it is unlikely that small Asian states would be willing to bandwagon with China at the expense of their long-term security.
Duterte’s anti-American sentiments are genuine, and there is no doubt that they have found some expression in his foreign policy. However, it would be incorrect to ascribe all of the changes to Duterte. China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea since 2009 has sparked a debate within ASEAN policy circles on the question of the rising power’s ultimate intentions and how to appropriately deal with it. Southeast Asian countries have not only denied or not officially accepted the Chinese leadership, but also called for other outside powers or partners not directly involved in the disputed issues (e.g. territory or sea disputes between China and Southeast Asian countries) to take a leading role. It is rational for small states to pursue a policy of hedging when caught in a superpower struggle.
Equidistance from both superpowers is the equilibrium state of affairs. Hedging will continue to be the regional norm; it is superior as a strategy for small states to survive in this highly uncertain environment. Even if the Philippines deviated from this course, there is no reason why others should follow suit.
Theo The Asan Forum