ON the sidelines of the Group of 20 (G20) summit in New Delhi last week, as part of the US strategy to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a multinational rail and shipping project, the “India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC)” was announced, with a memorandum of understanding being signed. The signatories of this multinational transport infrastructure include India, the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, France, Germany, Italy and the European Union. US President Joe Biden called the launch of the IMEC “a real big deal.” His national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said the project reflected Biden’s vision for “far-reaching investments” from “effective American leadership.”
On the other hand, within the ambit of the US Indo-Pacific strategy, which is in motion, the US is looking to increase ties with the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) members, not just with the Philippines but even with Vietnam, to counter China in the Asia-Pacific region. The recent maneuver in this regard was the recent one-day visit of President Biden to Vietnam after the G20 summit in India, his first-ever visit to Vietnam. During the visit, the US and Vietnam upgraded their bilateral relations to a “comprehensive strategic partnership,” Vietnam’s highest tier of international partnership extended to China and Russia.
Many observers of the G20 summit in India see IMEC as Washington’s attempt to counter China’s BRI. But the huge question and the challenge is how this IMEC, just like the Build Back Better World (B3W) of Biden in the last Group of Seven summit in 2021, will be funded and whether the US as the strongest proponent of IMEC is indeed financially committed to this plan and has the means to push through with it given the much-challenged economic conditions of the US these days.
Even if IMEC has some amount of funding for its launch, it will still have difficulty persuading the developing world to leave the BRI for it because of the probable strings attached or conditions that come with IMEC, just like the B3W concerning human rights, democracy, and the like. Also, it seems that IMEC, just like B3W, lacks a coherent strategy and is akin to arbitrary whim and propulsion to contain and counter China.
Whereas the BRI is better coordinated and funded with a coherent endeavor to integrate multiple continents commercially through hard and soft infrastructure. It focuses on policy coordination, infrastructure connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration and closer people-to-people ties. China’s multitrillion-dollar BRI global infrastructure initiative has been in progress since 2013. It has thus far been very successful. One fundamental reason why the BRI is flourishing is because of China’s strong commitment, pushing through win-win partnerships and cooperation with many countries within the BRI framework.
The BRI focuses on Asia, Europe, Africa and even Latin America, and is open to all partners. It is not an exclusive league or a “China club.” It neither makes a distinction nor discriminates against countries by ideology nor plays the zero-sum game. The BRI has expanded from Asia and Europe to include new participants in Africa, Latin America and the South Pacific. Under the BRI, countries are not forced to choose sides between Washington and Beijing. Something that developing countries see as refreshing, reassuring and a real game changer for the developing world.
Hence, IMEC, just like B3W, is another buzzword in an attempt of the Western alliance led by the US to counter and contain China’s peaceful rise. The real test of the relevance and endurance of a US-proposed initiative like IMEC is if it will have follow-through and deliver sufficiently and satisfactorily on its promises. Whether IMEC, just like B3W, will be realized or not, or it’s just all air, and whether it will be launched and can be sustained or not by its proponent, the US and its allies in the G20, it remains to be seen.
US IPS strategy
Moreover, within the security and defense realm of the US Indo-Pacific strategy, which involves strengthening security and defense ties with key partners and allies in the Indo-Pacific region, as well as efforts to expand security partnerships with others. Biden’s recent visit to Vietnam was an attempt to further deepen cooperation with Vietnam and to sway the country to its side.
In many ways, Vietnam is vital to US foreign policy for political, economic and geopolitical reasons. First is the strategic is contiguous to major global shipping lines like the South China Sea and shares a border with China. Likewise, the US is swaying Vietnam to its side, for it can use it as a counterbalance to China’s influence in Southeast Asia. The US is banking on the idea that since Vietnam is a neighboring country with historical tensions with China and has a dispute with China over the contested waters of the South China Sea, it would likely side with the US. Vietnam is seen as an important partner in this regard geopolitically and a vital partner in advancing US interests in the Indo-Pacific.
The decision of Vietnam to upgrade its bilateral relations with the US to a comprehensive strategic partnership amid great power rivalry is a calibrated and well-measured move on the part of Hanoi, putting a premium on economic considerations such as economic cooperation agreements, particularly on semiconductor, tech, aviation, chipmaking and artificial intelligence to forge business partnerships between Vietnamese and US firms.
But in the sphere of foreign policy, I see Vietnam exerting more efforts to balance its relations with all major global powers like China, Russia and the US. I don’t think it will join any coalition by the Western alliance led by the US against China or Russia. Vietnam will continue to pursue an independent foreign policy, prioritizing its national interests and a well-calibrated balancing act, especially between Beijing and Washington.
As far as Southeast Asia is concerned, just like Vietnam, several regional countries have maintained varying degrees of security, military and defense cooperation and partnership with the US. For instance, Singapore has a strong and long-standing strategic partnership with the US. The two countries have close military ties, with the US Navy using Singapore as a logistics and maintenance hub. Indonesia is not a formal ally of the US but has a working relationship with it in maritime security and counterterrorism. Thailand is also not a formal ally of the US. But it has a history of security cooperation and military engagement with the US. Malaysia has thus far relatively good diplomatic and economic ties with the US. However, the level of security cooperation has been more limited compared to some other Southeast Asian countries. Brunei maintains diplomatic relations with the US and is not a formal ally, though there is some degree of security cooperation, particularly in counterterrorism and regional stability.
It is indeed noteworthy that over time, countries in Asean have managed to transition and evolve their relations with the US to a more non-aligned one and pursue independent foreign policies. But sadly, not the Philippines, because of security agreements/treaties like the Mutual Defense Treaty, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement and the Visiting Forces Agreement with the US, which in many ways, established, legalized and legitimized US presence and a certain level of control over the Philippines militarily speaking, for more than a century.
Unlike other Asean countries, the Philippines remains the ever-perpetual semicolonial outpost for US defense and security strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. It remains one of the oldest, if not the oldest, Asian partners and strategically a major non-NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) ally of the US in Asia. For the same reason, the Philippines remains within the sphere of strong US influence, semicolonial control and the battleground for US Indo-Pacific strategy against China under a Marcos Jr. presidency.
Sad but true. What a melancholic truth and disheartening reality indeed for Filipinos to behold and witness.
Prof. Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy
is a PhD economics candidate at the Institute of South-South Cooperation and Development in China’s Peking University. She is analyst, director and vice president for external affairs of the Asian Century Philippines Strategic Studies Institute (ACPSSI), a Manila-based think tank.