It has now been a little more than two years since the ASEAN Master Plan on Connectivity 2025 was introduced. It seemed that, following years of calls for increased investment, ASEAN as an organization has recognized the need for regional infrastructure to enable closer economic and social linkages between the member states. The current plan, an update over the 2011 version, has a firm footing in global connectivity trends and a more focused agenda. Compared to the first plan, which had a bit of a wish-list character, the current connectivity plan has been well-received, particularly by ASEAN’s external partners.

The year 2018 witnessed an intensification of the geopolitical rivalry in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, particularly between the United States (US) and China. In January 2018, the Pentagon released the summary of the classified National Defense Strategy (NDS). Along with Russia, the NDS identified China as one of the “revisionist powers.” Overall, the NDS provides that Beijing’s objective is to “reorder the Indo-Pacific region to [its] advantage,” as well as the “displacement of the [US] to achieve global preeminence in the future.” Thus far, China appears to be taking geopolitical steps to achieve these strategic objectives.

Despite an international ruling that largely debunked China’s maritime claims, Beijing continued with beefing up its artificial islands in the South China Sea (SCS). This year alone, China installed, among others, anti-ship cruise missiles and surface to-air missile systems, as well as jamming equipment. In May 2018, China landed bombers in the Paracels, the range of which includes practically the entire Philippines. Washington responded by conducting more freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the region. In September 2018, the US and China were nearly in a literal collision when the guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur, conducting a FONOP, was approached by a PRC Luyang destroyer and “conducted a series of increasingly aggressive maneuvers accompanied by warnings for [USS Decatur] to depart the area.” The US further added that the PRC destroyer “approached within 45 yards of [USS Decatur’s] bow, after which [USS Decatur] maneuvered to prevent a collision.” On the economic front, Washington and Beijing are engulfed in a trade war.

The Balangiga Bells. File Photo from The Star/Krisjohn Rosales

In his speech marking the return of the Balangiga bells, United States defense secretary, Jim Mattis emphasized the need to deepen the “respect” between the two allies, the Philippines and the United States. Seen as either war booty or as relics of a bloody period, the return of the bells mark an end to a heavily disputed period between the allied countries. President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has used the bells to needle the Americans, going even so far as asking for their return in his State of the Nation Address in 2017.

President Xi Jinping’s two-day state visit to Manila (November 20-21) was considered a milestone in Philippines-China relations. While depth still requires more work, the increasing breadth of the ties was demonstrated with 29 cooperation documents signed ranging from trade, investment and economic cooperation, infrastructure, agriculture, finance, information and communications technology, education, and culture. This provides much of the substance behind the elevation of the ties to a “Comprehensive Strategic Cooperation.” The visit reinforced continuity, downplaying of disputes and expansion of practical areas of cooperation. It also saw both countries’ attempt to remedy setbacks in some earlier agreed projects.