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How China Lost Asia

China’s efforts to bully its neighbors into acquiescing to its demands and preferences have not only failed; they have led Asia's democracies to deepen security cooperation with the United States. To avoid catastrophe, both sides should tread lightly.

NEW DELHI – Since the dawn of international politics, smaller states have faced the formidable challenge of navigating great-power rivalries. Today, it is the geopolitical contest between the United States and China that has compelled countries to balance their competing national interests. Toward which side they gravitate depends on domestic and external circumstances.

Consider the Philippines, which has an interest in maintaining both its growing economic ties with neighboring China as well as its half-century-old security alliance with the US. The Philippines’ last president, Rodrigo Duterte, placed greater emphasis on the former, turning sharply away from the US and toward China after his election in 2016.

In exchange for effectively siding with China in the escalating great-power competition, Duterte sought Chinese investment in his pet project – the “Build! Build! Build!” infrastructure program – and moderation of China’s aggressive behavior in the West Philippine Sea, particularly its seizure of islets and outcroppings claimed by the Philippines. But China did not oblige. When Duterte’s presidency ended last June, China had delivered less than 5% of the $24 billion it had pledged to invest in the Philippines, and its provocations in the West Philippine Sea, which comprises part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, continued unabated.