By Suresh Somu
Jakarta. 01 October 2019.
HOT heads are getting hotter and these are not signs of positive moves as the South-East Asian countries try to catch two hares at the same time. The growing tensions between the United States and China are keeping majority of the Asean neighbours in an awkward tightrope situation, especially the Philippines.

Just a fortnight ago, Philippines President Duterte returned with empty hands after the meeting China President Xi Jinping. When it comes to the South China Sea issue, he should have known China was unlikely to give way after claiming almost the entire ocean as theirs. And it was very unlikely to relent to any arbitration ruling. And yet, the gung-ho President Duterte walked into the lion’s den with no strategy and came out, rather predictably, with nothing to show. To dial back, in 2012, there was a stand-off between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea.


A Philippines Navy Frigate intercepted eight Chinese fishing boats in Scarborough. The US mediated a deal, with both sides to withdraw from Scarbourough. Philippines withdrew but China, remained and sealed off the entire atoll. So China, had a clear strategy. It’s all about
conquer and control as China continues to flex its muscle and solidify its position.
Now it becomes a double whammy for countries like the Philippines who are literally sandwiched between the two big fishy hares, USA and China. Duterte publicly complained that the US is “always pushing…making him the bait”; a disheartening statement from a leader who appears to run out of negotiation-ammunition. Very openly, the US promotes freedom of navigation as its moral high ground; conducts joint military exercises in the South China Sea. Much of an irony is that China agrees to freedom
of navigation, a fundamental principle of the law of the sea. But it appears to have a different interpretation of it. In 2018, the American and the China warships narrowly missed a collision by a distance of 40m.


In response, Chinese’s words were “it respects and protects other countries” right to freedom of navigation and over-flight in the South China Sea, but “resolutely opposes” other countries’ moves to challenge China’s sovereignty and security in the name of “freedom of navigation”
And according to the Americans, Chinese naval vessels appear to be conducting “unsafe and unprofessional” manoeuvres. Quite evidently, both sides pointed fingers at each other. But clearly is it really tough to sail across the South China Sea without bumping into a warship?
Beyond exercising self-restraint is the first Asean-United States Maritime Exercise held this month, which may create more high ripples. Analysts are of the view that it was neither politically sensitive nor technically sophisticated. But the underlying real significance of the exercise lies in the effort to balance two previous joint maritime exercises Asean had with
China. Those watching the action in close proximity say it is an art of balancing ties with the US and China. So at all costs, it is the intent of South-East Asia nations to avoid taking sides and also not be pressured to do so. It’s not going to be walk in the park for Asean, say analysts.


So in the event if tensions between the US and China escalates, there will be immense pressure on countries such as Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and Philippines to station American military ships and aircrafts.
Recently, the US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said that he was in favour of placing ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles in Asia relatively soon, a day after the United States withdrew from a landmark arms control treaty. Now, where and how soon will this happen? Above all, his comments were not well received by China. It vowed to “take countermeasures” against whichever country that agrees to do so. Such a predicament for
smaller nations who doesn’t have much weight against the big fish and yet become a pawn to an uncalled for tension and adversary which was only brought upon them. Such tension has clear ramifications to China’s Belt and Road initiative and American’s Indo-Pacific strategy. And so, it remains to be seen how skillfully Asean can continue to be in the tightrope of a
driver’s role, manage the regional security architecture and catch the two warring hares at the same time.