As discussed in a previous column of this series, the U.S. requires a firm alliance with Europe, and particularly Germany, to compete globally with China. Yet the outcome of that rivalry also rests fundamentally on the strength of U.S. relationships with the countries encircling China’s East Asian and Southeast Asian periphery.
If U.S. alliances and partnerships with countries from South Korea to Vietnam hold firm, those nations will be able to resist Chinese coercion, and Washington will retain regional footholds to counter Beijing’s power. If those relationships fracture, the U.S. will be pushed to the margins of the Indo-Pacific, and China’s neighbors will be unable to resist its advance.
China’s leaders understand this: President Xi Jinping’s mantra of “Asia for Asians” is code for a region from which the U.S. is excluded and Beijing is unrivaled. And nowhere are the stakes higher than the Philippines, a vital ally that has been drifting away from Washington for a half-decade.
The Philippines is so crucial because it is where the many subregions of the Indo-Pacific meet. It is a frontline state in the South China Sea, where it has borne the brunt of Chinese pressure over the past decade. It anchors the southern flank of a strategic cordon, running from South Korea to Japan to Taiwan to the Philippines, that impedes China’s access to the open Pacific.
It connects the U.S. alliance system with Southeast Asia, an area where geopolitical alignments are fluid and competition for influence is intense. All of which is why the deterioration of U.S.-Philippines relations has so unsettled the regional equilibrium.