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Issues & Insights Vol. 23, WP5 – Understanding Alignment Decisions in Southeast Asia: A Review of U.S.-China Competition in the Philippines

Executive Summary

The United States and China are engaged in an ongoing struggle for the alignment commitments of Southeast Asian governments, employing a variety of measures to entice, cajole, and threaten states to alter their policy behavior. Caught between this competition, countries in Southeast Asia weigh their alignment options in search of the strategy viewed by the ruling regime as most likely to ameliorate risk and increase its prospects for survival. While nonalignment through hedging is a sought-after option, most often smaller states align with the major power that offers inducements (over coercion), as the material and diplomatic benefits bolster regimes’ claim to performance-based legitimacy and its domestic stability and security.

A review of the Philippines’ geopolitical positioning during the Benigno Aquino III (2010–2016) and Rodrigo Duterte (2016–2022) administrations reveals that inducements and coercion have played a significant role in the country’s alignment decisions. During the Aquino administration, coercive measures taken by China in the South China Sea and continued security and diplomatic inducements from the United States underscore the respective approaches of Beijing and Washington. The candidacy and election of Duterte, however, switched this dynamic, and the new president courted and received promises of Chinese economic assistance to support his domestic growth strategy and downplayed U.S. ties in pursuit of a more independent foreign policy. In the end, continued Chinese provocations in the South China Sea and domestic security challenges led Duterte to call upon U.S. assistance once again, and Duterte was unable to initiate a full reconsideration of Manila’s position. Still, his strategic flirtation with China underscores the importance of performance-based legitimacy and the impact of inducements and coercion in shaping the foreign policy choices of smaller states.

The findings of this study suggest that Washington’s focus on great power competition and sanctions handicaps U.S. foreign policy in Southeast Asia and beyond. The Philippines’ leaders focused on securing their domestic political prospects and legitimacy; criticism and coercive measures were largely ineffective for the United States or China in gaining influence over policy decisions. Washington should more often consider the promise and provision of inducements—while remaining sensitive to human rights concerns, governance issues, and liberal norms—to support the needs of Southeast Asian states, incentivize more transparent behavior, and increase the likelihood that these states will support U.S. interests in the future.

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Table of Contents

1.Alignment and Hedging: A Brief Introduction
2.Great Power Competition in Southeast Asia
3.Inducements and Coercion as Important Factors in Alignment Decisions
4.The Philippines’ Alignment: From Aquino through Duterte (2010-2022)
5.Considerations for U.S.-China Competition
6.Policy Implications for the United States
Final Thoughts

About the Author

William Piekos is a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub. He received his PhD in Political Science from the University of Pennsylvania, where his research focused on alignment decisions in Southeast Asia, U.S.-China relations, and East Asian security issues. He was previously a non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow at the Pacific Forum.