PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte has finally reacted to the growing concern over the new Aukus security alliance forged by Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Under the pact, the US will supply nuclear-powered submarines to the Royal Australian Navy, making Australia only one of seven nations with nuclear-fueled warships.
Malacañang said the President is worried that arming Australia with nuclear-powered subs could trigger a nuclear arms race in the Indo-Pacific region. The President will be meeting with his Cabinet to come up with a "clear position" on the issue.
Malaysia earlier warned that Aukus could induce other powers in the region to act more aggressively, a clear reference to China. And Indonesia has reminded Australia to abide by its nuclear nonproliferation obligations.
The US-Australia submarine deal could have eluded the turbulent waters of controversy were it not for France, which raised a howl after Australia scuttled a French contract to supply it with conventional subs. Paris fired away at Washington and Canberra, accusing them of backstabbing.
Far from being amused at the three allies going at each other, China has warned that the Aukus endangers regional peace, stability and the international order.
A Chinese foreign ministry official doubts "whether Australia is really sincere in improving and developing its relations with China, or whether it is saying one thing while doing another behind the scene, or even blatantly stabbing in the back."
The alliance is a key component in the US' Asia pivot policy, the grand plan to shift its military alignment from Europe to Asia Pacific. Washington believes that the region will be the next theater of confrontation, and it must be a key player here if it hopes to preserve US political, economic and military dominance.
If a line has to be drawn to challenge China's own ambitions at being the biggest global power, it will be drawn in the Asia Pacific.
China will be a formidable rival in the region. It has the home court advantage and its military buildup is at a frenzied pace.
"China has been building a capacity over the last two decades to deny the US significant freedom of action in the western Pacific," notes Sidharth Kaushal, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, Britain's top security think tank.
China started with long-range anti-ship missiles, "but now there is a growing naval capacity — and it has reached the point where the US is only viable because it has allies in the region," Kaushal said.
Being built in Shanghai is a 315-meter aircraft carrier, the same size as the latest US Ford class carrier and with the same electromagnetic catapult for launching jets.
In just 20 years, China's naval fleet has tripled and the Pentagon estimates that the fleet now has 350 warships, already outstripping the US Navy's 293 ships. Some experts, however, believe that in terms of tonnage, technology and combat experience, China still lags behind the US.
The US is eager to establish regional alliances like Aukus because it is aware it cannot by itself face off against the Chinese. It also needs a semblance of legitimacy to maintain a military presence in the region.
In its rush to build a defensive line, the US and its allies may have given little thought to smaller players that could be caught in the crossfire once the actual shooting starts. It appears that the Philippines, Indonesia or Malaysia were never consulted or briefed by the alliance partners about how the Aukus will impact them.
In our own pond, we are the minnows.
To survive, we have to walk the tightrope and keep our diplomatic balance, engaging with all the protagonists, offering them a venue to reconcile differences and defuse tensions, pushing them away from the brink.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) could be such a forum. It has regional reach and clout. Asean could be the calming influence, the back channel for negotiations.
But first it must secure a guarantee not only from Aukus but China as well that they will respect Asean as, in the words of Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, a "zone of peace, freedom and neutrality."