We discussed briefly Thailand’s gingerly balancing act in its strategic and diplomatic approaches in the Southeast Asian and wider contexts. Indeed, what Thailand has thus been doing is a microcosmic reflection of what many other Southeast Asian countries have been pragmatically exercising throughout the centuries as well, being geographically crucial to the world’s major trade routes, hence attracting the attention and “interests” of the various major powers of the world.
Seen in this light, President Duterte’s recent “re-pivot” to China, at least economically, and thus the corresponding distancing away from American tutelage, as abundantly expressed during his recent state visit to China, is not quite surprising to many Southeast Asian observers. After all, let’s not forget, as was mentioned, that a shrewd Thailand more than a century and a half ago, when “squeezed” by the British and French colonial powers from its western and eastern borders respectively, chose to pattern itself socio-economically after the British (thus ostensibly moving away from French influence), only to “lend way” to the Japanese Imperial Army (apparently in exchange for Thai independence) many decades later during the Second World War as the latter swooped down to invade British Malaya.
Southeast Asian leaders perforce have to act in what they perceive to be in their nation’s best interest, at least for the moment, if long-term prospects remain unclear. The strategic rivalry between the US and China is tangibly real for the moment, but indeed for the moment only. For many years in modern times, especially after President Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing in the early 1970s, US and China enjoyed a long stretch of honeymoon ties, enabling China to focus on developing its humongous economy on the one hand, and allowing the US to focus on bringing down the former Soviet Union. It is only in the most recent years that the seemingly inevitable rise of China was perceived to be threatening the American hegemony at least in the Asia-Pacific region, if not the whole world. And even now, the Sino-American trade volume remains the largest in the world. In short, friendships or rivalries are not permanent, but interests, and hopefully national interests, are here to stay. What President Duterte has been doing diplomatically over the past few months, despite being expressed perhaps a bit too vehemently and colorfully, is not much different from what many other Southeast Asian countries have been doing, albeit more quietly and perhaps in less colorful terms.
Over the last two decades, for example, while trying not to upset their existing deep ties with the US, many Southeast Asian countries, prominently Thailand and Malaysia, have been steadily increasing their trade volume with China, in clear view of the latter’s seemingly inexhaustible economic muscle versus the US’ perceived declining economic performance. The China-Malaysian annual trade volume, for example, is not only the largest among Southeast Asian countries; it is also twice the size of Sino-Russian annual trade volume, despite the latter two being superpowers of the world. So if President Duterte sees his administration’s priorities as reviving the Filipino economy and revving up its aging and often lacking critical infrastructure, and that in his opinion China is for the moment the most feasible foreign partner to be invited to ameliorate these urgent situations, then he is actually in the same league with many other Southeast Asian leaders, who perhaps choose to remain more reticent but working closely with Chinese investors on the ground nonetheless.
And even strategically, some Southeast Asian countries have long diversified their weapons purchases away from their traditional, albeit ideologically similar major suppliers. Malaysia has purchased French- and even Russian-made military equipment in the past. Vietnam has also in recent months decided to take on equipment from its erstwhile enemy during its war of liberation – the US. So even if President Duterte’s reported decision to purchase weapons from China as well comes to fruition, it is again in line with other Southeast Asian practices dating back to at least the 1990s. In these sorts of conceivably paradigm-shifting weapons-purchase decisions, compatibility with existing weapons system to ensure smooth operability in times of crisis is of course critical, but so, frankly, is the tacky issue of pricing and terms, which many developing countries with competing basic national priorities simply could not ignore.
Observers from outside Southeast Asia, including those from both the US and China, are undeniably often aghast at the swift shift in the Filipino diplomatic positions from that of almost-unconditional leaning toward the US under former President Aquino to now seemingly cosying up to China under President Duterte. The examples of many other Southeast Asian countries having doing similar “tap-dancing” acts in recent times are actually abundant, with only several more illustrative examples hinted above, albeit in less publicly expressive manners. This, alas, has always been a region in flux, and to govern at least competently often means having to ride the amorphous “tides,” and sometimes even jumping from one subsiding tide to another cresting one.