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Navigating a multipolar Indo-Pacific

/ 04:02 AM December 26, 2020

The Indo-Pacific region faces both challenging and opportune times. While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt the normal scheme of things, it should also be viewed as a creative destruction where states can turn risks into opportunities. However, until such time that a cure for the coronavirus is developed, these opportunities can only arise through the collective efforts of stakeholders across sectors and borders.

Significant international and regional developments, including the incoming Biden presidency in the United States, the shift from Abe to the Suga administration in Japan, and the leadership of middle powers such as Australia, India, and Japan, could benefit the Indo-Pacific in the long run. However, even with the US presence, there is still the need for a multilateral initiative participated in by all states to ensure regional peace and stability, anchored on a rules-based order that addresses 21st-century security threats.

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Moreover, evolving security threats have spilled over to nontraditional spaces with an equally heavy impact on state interests—from economic well-being to civil society rights and interests, and national security. With the digital space becoming the new playing field for political warfare, critical infrastructures and data-sensitive industries need defined security parameters to prevent the manipulation of data and the spread of disinformation.

The Stratbase Albert del Rosario Institute’s annual Pilipinas Conference recently brought together thought leaders from different parts of the region to discuss pressing economic, social, political, and strategic issues that affect the Philippines and the Indo-Pacific. During the Defense and Security session titled “The Philippines and the Indo-Pacific: Responding to the Emerging Regional Political-Security Environment,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana highlighted three areas of security concerns that impact the region: the continuing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the multi-pronged security threats presented by the internet of things, and the erosion of stability in the South China Sea.

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Lorenzana also highlighted the possibility of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations becoming an effective regional platform. According to him, if the Asean were able to set aside the conflicting interests of its members and modify its consensus style of decision-making, it could exert considerable influence on complex issues such as the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Ernie Bower, CEO of BowerGroupAsia, emphasized the return of diplomacy and multilateralism in the region under the Biden presidency. According to him, the United States will shift away from an America first policy and move toward collective leadership and cooperation with its regional allies. In terms of US-China relations, the two sides will remain confrontational but with a much higher level of engagement. And through this middle management and consultative approach, middle power participation will be most crucial in order to navigate, clarify, and define the points of intervention for the United States, and to take the lead in shaping the future regional order as well.

Given the Indo-Pacific’s current political-security landscape, the Philippines is in a strategic position to harness various opportunities to establish a more proactive approach in its foreign policy and realign the direction of its defense posture.

In the broader regional context, the Philippines finds itself in a strategic vantage point relative to the United States, China, and other middle powers due to its nonthreatening posture and its capacity to navigate through the “hierarchical” nature of global affairs. The Philippines possesses the opportunity to play a key role in creating an environment for economic development and people-centered prosperity in the region without undermining the participation of other states.

Beyond the maneuverings and foreign policy dynamics of great powers in the environment of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Philippines can also maximize its well-established network of like-minded democratic states in the region to explore new areas for cooperation beyond the pandemic in 2021, to sustain and elevate the existing rules-based international and regional order.

Dindo Manhit is founder and managing director of Stratbase Group.

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TAGS: COVID-19, defense, Diplomacy, foreign policy, Indo-Pacific, pandemic, politics, security
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