Brief: Philippines and Cambodia Do a Little Balancing

U.S. and Philippine top officials have been in touch, while Cambodia abruptly suspended exercises with China.

Background: Southeast Asia is the fulcrum of U.S. strategy in the Indo-Pacific and the great impediment to Chinese strategic imperatives both in the region and beyond. Thus, China has been attempting to pull regional countries tightly into its orbit through a mix of threats and rewards. The main focus of its efforts have been the Philippines – whose geography and Mutual Defense Treaty with the U.S. make the archipelagic nation the biggest potential problem for Beijing – and Cambodia, which among littoral states in the region has been the most receptive to China’s courtship. In response, the U.S., often viewed as powerful but capricious and inattentive to the region’s needs, has had to recalibrate its diplomatic approach. What Happened: On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and his Philippine counterpart, Delfin Lorenzana, held talks on the two countries’ Visiting Forces Agreement, a critical accord that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte spent much of 2020 attempting to scrap. Without the agreement, the Mutual Defense Treaty doesn’t have much teeth, and a stalled 2014 agreement intended to provide U.S. troops with rotational access to several Philippine bases would remain dead in the water. The call follows a similar one between U.S. Secretary […]

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