Could the Philippines fall victim to a US-China proxy conflict?


There is an intensifying and increasingly shrill debate as to whether the US and China are on the brink of a new kind of cold war. Those who say they’re not cite one major difference between their rivalry and that of the US and Soviet Union in the cold war: the US-China struggle has not manifested itself in proxy conflicts. Others say “perhaps not yet”, but that it is sowing the seeds of proxy conflicts between and within some states.

They point out that China and the US are increasingly vying for influence in several countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, in contexts that could eventually lead to violent domestic conflict. The Philippines is a good example.

Philippine domestic politics is increasingly racked by a polarising debate over its policy towards China, particularly its claims in the South China Sea. The Philippines, under the administration of then president Benigno Aquino, brought the question of the legality of China’s jurisdictional claims in the South China Sea before an international arbitration panel. In July 2016, the panel ruled overwhelmingly in the Philippines’ favour.

But then, newly elected Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte abruptly pivoted foreign policy away from the US and towards China. He did not try to take immediate advantage of the panel’s ruling and instead forged a positive relationship with China, gaining Beijing’s cooperation and the possibility of economic largesse.

But this policy shift outraged international and domestic legal idealists as well as Philippine Americanophiles, sparking bitter opposition. This has resulted in a major domestic political struggle between factions favouring preferential relations with one or the other country.

Filipino-American ties run deep and wide. The Philippines is a US ally by virtue of a 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty and harbours US military troops and assets.