In a US-China war, whose side is Southeast Asia on? Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia ponder the unthinkable

In a US-China war, whose side is Southeast Asia on? Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia ponder the unthinkable

  • Amid China’s military drills near Taiwan and fears that the South China Sea is becoming a proxy for Washington and Beijing’s deepening rivalry, Asian analysts are considering the worst-case scenario
  • Caught between superpowers clashing in their own backyard, Southeast Asian nations might find staying neutral is not an option

Across Southeast Asia, scenario planning exercises by analysts and policymakers preparing for the unthinkable – a military clash between the world’s two largest economies in their backyard – has taken on added significance in recent weeks.

Tensions between the US and China, already fraught over trade,technology and the South China Sea, deepened as Beijing protested against Washington’s ties to Taipei and conducted military activities close to the self-ruled island last week.

The question “What will happen if a shooting war erupts between China and the US?” has played on the mind of Manila-based defence researcher Jose Antonio Custodio.His answer, without hesitation, is: “The United States will go ahead and position their troops here.” The Tagalog word he uses is brutal: “sasagasaan” – run over. “The Americans will just run over the Philippine government.”

“This country can’t say, ‘leave us alone’ – exigencies of war will take over,” says Custodio, a non-resident fellow of the think tank Stratbase ADR Institute.