Regional Security

2023: The US, China, the Philippines and the Emerging Asian Security Order

US-Philippines Society Director and former U.S. Ambassador Frank G. Wisner provided a “strategic outlook” as keynote speaker at the Society’s January 30, 2023 Luncheon in Manila. Ambassador Wisner’s distinguished diplomatic career spans four decades and eight American presidents. He served as ambassador to Zambia, Egypt, the Philippines, and India. In addition, he served as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and as Under Secretary of State for International Security Affairs. Amb Wisner’s thoughtful address covering regional security relations is especially timely in light of recent incidents involving China and the U.S. that have garnered so much global attention.

2023: The US, China, the Philippines and the Emerging Asian Security Order

Keynote Address by Ambassador (ret) Frank G. Wisner

30 January 2023


Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to return to Manila in the company of the US-Philippines Society and address you this afternoon. I am especially pleased to be in the Philippines as you emerge from the Covid pandemic and as you are experiencing the fastest economic growth in the region. It is a special treat to see foreign direct investment returning to the Philippines, notably in technology and infrastructure funding. The US Philippines Society has set its sights on attracting new investment to this country. We believe your marketplace offers special promise.

While good for the Philippines, regrettably, 2022 has not been a good year for much of the world. It was a year of challenge to the global order. 2023 promises similar challenges. We will face great power competition, an economy weakened by recession and inflation and the stress of debt. Climate change will continue its devastating effect, pandemics will linger and thanks to Russia and North Korea, nuclear threats have reappeared.

I cannot address the full range of these issues in the time available to us. Even great power rivalry, the most significant immediate threat to peace would take us into the crisis in Ukraine, Iran’s behavior in the Middle East and North Korea’s aggressive development of nuclear arms and their delivery systems. Instead, I will direct my remarks to the rise of China, its rivalry with the United States, threats to nations along China’s littoral and the need to manage those so that Asia can avoid conflict and continue its extraordinary path to prosperity. All these issues are of direct relevance to the Philippines and our relationship.

My remarks claim no originality. I owe a great deal to Henry Kissinger, Joseph Nye at Harvard, former Ambassadors Blackwill and Freeman and Kevin Rudd at the Asia Society.

Let me begin with a reflection on China. China’s rise to great power status is indisputable. Despite its experience with Covid and the recent decline in its economic fortunes, China’s military and technological prowess, its core economic strength, its political stability, with power firmly in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party, mean China will continue to be a huge force on the global stage for years to come. Its truculence will threaten peace in the South and North China Seas, Taiwan’s autonomy, and India in the Himalayas. China’s voice in international institutions will be powerful and its reach will affect the fortunes of nations worldwide.

This said, we are wise neither to overestimate nor underestimate Chinese power. It is a reality; it is here to stay. Our task is how to cope with the effect of Chinese power. It cannot be thwarted and its impact is not uniformly nefarious — facts overlooked too often in political and media circles in Washington where Chinaphobia has taken firm hold.

Where is China headed? I do not pretend to have an answer, but I am deeply skeptical of the claims of China’s leaders to seek only domestic tranquility, economic progress and the recovery of territory lost with the fall of China’s last empire. Nor I am convinced that China seeks only its fair share of influence in the global order. I assume the exercise of China’s power will result in more pernicious outcomes. And I suspect many of you in the Philippines share my view.

All of us are wise to hedge against the rise of China and seek to moderate it. China’s destination is not only hers to decide. Nor is the outcome predominantly with the United States to shape. This said, we must acknowledge US-China relations are in a dangerous place with grave consequences for the world.

There are many reasons for the decline in the US-China relationship. Not the least was Xi’s decision to state an act on the premise that “China’s time has come”, thereafter, unleashing China’s “wolf warriors”. But no issue has proven to be more dangerous than the question of Taiwan. A question which has been with us for decades.

The current crisis over Taiwan is importantly but not solely America’s making. For years, we and China have cloaked our disagreement in a wrapping of ambiguity, thanks to skillful diplomacy on the part of China and the Nixon and Carter Administrations. Unfortunately, the US has now signaled a willingness to stand by Taiwan militarily and the Chinese reaction has been harsh. Xi has messaged his intention to settle the Taiwan question by whatever means necessary. Some in Taiwan have concluded the island’s safety lies behind an American shield. This is unwise. No vital national American interest is at play. Taiwan’s defense is better protected by a policy of deterrence backed by carefully executed plan of rearmament. Taiwan should turn itself into a porcupine, too difficult to swallow. Of course, America needs to reinforce deterrence, concentrating on improving traditional military platforms, cyber, space and robotic capabilities. Restraint is needed on all sides, and I fear it is unlikely to come near term given overwrought American politics.

Where is China headed and what does the December 8 “back flip” mean. In the three months since the XX Party conference and Xi’s enthronement, there have been dramatic shifts in China’s health, economic and foreign policies. The revamping of Covid policy is tragically clear to see and is reflected in the “blank paper demonstrations” by ordinary Chinese. But more notable is the shift in economic policy. Xi and the CCP are reacting to a deceleration in China’s economy now of several years standing. China begins this year with an economy which has shrunk by 7%. GDP growth may not top 4.5%, the lowest in decades, calling into question the implicit compact between Chinese people and the CCP: growth and prosperity in return for political control. China’s weakened economic performance, coupled with its aggressive behavior in world politics have also undermined China’s standing in global supply chains.

Restoring economic growth, reviving domestic order, assuring employment and price stability have become the driving force in China’s policy and its top domestic and foreign policy objective. Does China’s new direction represent a tackle or a strategic shift. I suggest caution before we adjust our approach to China. I am not prepared to admit a fundamental change in Chinese politics, ideology, or the balance between the state and the Chinese marketplace. Nor do I forecast diminishing pressure on Taiwan or less hostility toward Japan; China’s drive to curtail American influence on the world stage; nor will China abandon its alliance with Russia.

The question I suggest is whether China’s course correction can be turned into a broader pause intentions, allowing for the design of a more peaceful order. A word on the concept on the balance of power — a term that came into vogue with the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, when the nations of Europe agreed to respect one another’s sovereignty and domestic order or combined to confront an aggressor. Nations coming together to secure a balance of power do so to inhibit or deter an excessive use of force by an aggressor not to defeat the offending power militarily unless no other option exists.

Most of Asia’s littoral is rearming, none more aggressively so than Japan. It has announced an unprecedented increase in defense spending, even while it has underscored its commitment to the American security alliance and its acceptance of the United States nuclear shield. Japan has, however, announced its intention to develop counterstrike capability. South Korea has taken a similar approach to the American alliance and so far, accepts the American nuclear shield. We should hope South Korea does not change that policy. The United States welcomes Japan’s rearmament. We are ready on our part to reinforce military deterrence in your region. That said, I recognize arms are only a part of a deterrence equation. An Asian regional strategy is essential to make the balance of power work.

We Americans must recognize the days of our hegemony are over. Reliance on a broader Asian platform is essential – an attitude I argue the Administration shares. Allowing our friends and partners to take the lead, their defense must be a core ingredient in United States Asian security policy. We of course will stand ready to provide the arms and technologies required to make our Asian allies strong.

India’s Foreign Minister, Jaishankar argues for greater “strategic autonomy” and a new conception of security architecture. His message may rasp but it is on target, and it sends a powerful message to the Philippines and your ASEAN neighbors. A new burst of political energy is needed in this region to develop an effective deterrent to China and establish a base for constructive relations with it as well as a balance of power. Here, Philippine diplomacy has a role to play.

Beijing need not regard a coordinated security strategy as a threat. The Chinese should see it as a reinforcement of the peace, a concept China espouses. For China’s neighbors, cooperation with China in investment, trade, climate, and public health policies is to be encouraged. A balance of power assumes constructive, as well as military approaches to relations.

America must stand by its Asian allies, backing the development of a new security order. We must modernize and reinforce our defense capabilities and share them with our friends. We have a key role to play in expanding the web of the balance of power with institutions like the QUAD. Maintaining our traditional alliances, like our ties to the Philippines must remain a key ingredient in establishing and maintaining an Asian balance of power.

Greater autonomy, strategic cooperation and more robust defenses need not lead to a Hobbesian “dog eat dog” world, if we keep our wits about us and design strategies which serve common interests. A strategic framework to manage Asian security should be our objective.

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