A US V-22 Osprey takes off from the USS Wasp, a US Navy multipurpose amphibious assault ship, during annual joint US-Philippines military exercise on the shores of San Antonio town, facing the South China Sea, on April 11, 2019. Photo: AFP / Ted Aljibe

After a slow start, there are signs that the Biden administration could potentially nudge Southeast Asian countries toward a tougher stance on China.

With the Asian powerhouse aggressively pushing the envelope across the South China Sea, smaller claimant states are becoming more receptive to stronger cooperation with the United States in order to protect their legitimate interests.

Throughout the past decade, Vietnam has been the only Southeast Asian nation that has consistently welcomed warmed ties with the West to counterbalance China. But other regional claimant states could soon do the same.

After months of tough negotiations, Manila is set to retain the crucial Philippine-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which is essential to sustained and large-scale American military deployments to Southeast Asia. 

The final text of the re-negotiated agreement is only awaiting the signature of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who, in his twilight year in office, is facing widespread anger at home over his Beijing-friendly policies.

Neighboring Malaysia, meanwhile, has effectively ditched its decades-long “quiet diplomacy” vis-à-vis China, openly criticizing and directly challenging Beijing’s expansionist moves across the South China Sea. 

This week, Malaysia lashed out at China’s “intrusion” and, accordingly, scrambled jet fighters to evict Chinese military planes entering within 60 nautical miles (110 kilometers) off Sarawak state of Malaysian Borneo.

This photo from the Royal Malaysian Air Force released on June 1, 2021, shows a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft that Malaysian authorities said was in the airspace over Malaysia’s maritime zone near the coast of Sarawak state on Borneo island. Photo: AFP / EyePress News

According to the Malaysia air force, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) airforce deployed a squad of Xian Y-20 and Ilyushin il-76 strategic transporters, which traveled in an “in-trail” tactical formation at an altitude of between 7,014 meters and 8,229 meters without responding to multiple attempts at communication by the Malaysian air traffic control.

“This incident was a serious threat to national security and flight safety,” the Malaysian air force said in a statement, as it deployed its own fighter jets from its airbase in Labuan to monitor and deter the “suspicious” Chinese maneuver with potentially hostile intent.   

Taking its cue from the country’s armed forces, the Malaysia Foreign Ministry immediately summoned China’s envoy to explain the “intrusion” by 16 PLA warplanes into the country’s airspace.

Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, a former defense and interior minister with deep experience in dealing with Beijing, filed a diplomatic protest and demanded China explain the “breach of the Malaysian airspace and sovereignty.” 

“Malaysia’s stand is clear – having friendly diplomatic relations with any countries does not mean that we will compromise on our national security,” Hishammuddin said in a statement, indicating no softening in the country’s stance in the South China Sea despite the abrupt change in government last year. 

China has insisted that the PLA airforce maneuvers were a routine operation that “strictly abided by” international law without prejudice to the sovereignty of neighboring countries.

Likely taken aback by Kuala Lumpur’s decisive response, China’s foreign ministry was quick to emphasize cooperation, and maintained “China and Malaysia are friendly neighbors, and China is willing to continue bilateral friendly consultations with Malaysia to jointly maintain regional peace and stability.” 

Malaysia’s opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan, which took a tough stance against Chinese predatory investments as well as aggressive maneuvers in the South China Sea during its brief reign from mid-2018 to early 2020, urged the government to adopt a “clear action plan” in response to an incident that “raises concern” over Beijing’s intentions in the disputed areas. 

Under the leadership of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, the former ruling party radically altered historically quiescent relations with Beijing. It accused Beijing of ‘new colonialism’ and cancelled several big-ticket Chinese infrastructure projects, which were hounded by corruption scandals. 

This May 10, 2015, photo shows two F/A-18 Super Hornets, left and right, and two Royal Malaysian Air Force SU-30MKM/Flanker H, flying above the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in the South China Sea during a bilateral exercise. Photo: AFP / Lt JONATHAN PFAFF / US Navy

It also took a tough stance in the South China Sea by formally asserting Malaysia’s extended continental shelf claims in the South China Sea at the United Nations (UN), openly dismissing China’s “nine-dash-line” claims as “ridiculous,” and even threatening international arbitration against the Asian powerhouse. 

Crucially, Malaysia also pressed ahead with unilateral exploration of energy resources in areas of overlapping claims with China, sparking a months-long naval stand-off in the South China Sea. 

Soon, even Malaysia’s generally taciturn and supposedly apolitical king pitched in, calling on the elected government to “always [be] sensitive to the maritime domain and adopt a strategy that supports our geopolitical aspirations.”

The sudden ouster of the China-skeptic government in Kuala Lumpur last year by a coalition of old guards doesn’t seem to have dramatically altered Malaysia’s foreign policy. While adopting a more conciliatory tone towards China, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has broadly continued his predecessor’s South China Sea policy on the ground. 

Amid a dangerous stand-off between a Malaysian oil exploration drilling ship and a Chinese survey vessel last year, Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein released a strongly-worded public statement, reminding China that “Malaysia remains firm in its commitment to safeguarding its interests and rights in the South China Sea.” 

By and large, Malaysia will likely avoid any overt military alliance with the US. But its toughening stance in the South China Sea signals growing strategic receptiveness to – and likely openness to expanding low-key defense cooperation with – the Biden administration as part of a broader effort to constrain China’s worst instincts. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte toast during a state banquet at the Malacanang Presidential Palace in Manila, November 20, 2018. Photo: AFP/ / Mark R Cristino

In the Philippines, meanwhile, there are growing signs of a rapprochement, especially as the Beijing-friendly Duterte nears the end of his constituently-mandated single-term in office. Following months of intensive negotiations and open threats by Duterte, the Philippines and US are set to restore the VFA in a bid to keep Beijing’s maritime ambitions at bay. 

The month-long stand-off between China and the Philippines over the Whitsun Reef earlier this year has galvanized domestic support, including among Duterte’s top cabinet members, for restoration of the frayed ties with the US. 

The Biden administration previously warned that in absence of the vital defense deal, which Duterte sought to abrogate amid human disagreements with Washington in previous years, the Pentagon would have to extricate its forces from the Philippines by end of July. This would leave the Philippines fully exposed to China’s creeping presence across the South China Sea. 

In a gentle snob, the Biden administration also left the Philippines out of its list of allies in its interim national security strategy paper. Nonetheless, the Pentagon has made it clear that it’s committed to maintaining robust ties with its Southeast Asian ally.

“We will continue to look for ways to further strengthen and advance security cooperation that addresses shared security challenges and respects human rights,” said Pentagon Spokesman Lt Col Martin Meiners. “Our respective officials are engaged in open dialogue, which is essential to maintaining the strength of any alliance,” he added. 

In a sign of thawing ties, Biden recently called his Filipino counterpart and suggested a potential in-person meeting later this year, likely on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Brunei.

With the two countries set to celebrated the 75th anniversary of their Mutual Defense Treaty agreement, there is growing momentum towards a rapprochement between the estranged allies. 

“They are hopeful that President (Rodrigo) Duterte will of course extend the VFA dahil [because] that’s part of the Mutual Defense Treaty, that’s part of the whole package,” said Philippine Ambassador to Washington Jose Manuel “Babe” Romualdez in a recent media briefing.  

“Our relationship with America has been around for a long time: our diplomatic relations have lasted for 75 years, our Mutual Defense Treaty has been going on for 70 years,” he added, emphasizing the Biden administration’s assistance to the Philippines throughout the years, including the donation of large amounts of Covid-19 vaccines to the Southeast Asian country. 

The Duterte administration has also indicated a likely re-calibration in its strategic calculus. “The President [Duterte] has been pondering on the issue and has a bigger framework of analysis,” Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque said, calling for patience as the Filipino president evaluates a reset with the US amid growing public pressure at home and ahead of his departure from power next year.