After a two-year hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, Asia’s premier security conference, Shangri-la Dialogue, resumed with rivals United States and China trading barbs, accusing each other of raising tensions in the region.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and China’s Defense Minister Wei Fenghe held talks, for the first time, face-to-face, to find ways on how to deepen security cooperation and to de-escalate rising tensions in the Korean peninsula, the Taiwan Straits and South China Sea.

But, in the plenary sessions where both delivered speeches, they exchanged pointed remarks, wooing countries in the Indo-Pacific region to their sides and painting each other as the bad guy in the room.

Austin assured regional allies and partners the United States would maintain an active presence in the region, selling the concept of Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) cooperation and seeking to expand the Quadrilateral Dialogue with Australia, India and Japan.

He also spoke about the ambitious Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI) as a testament to Washington’s security commitment to the Indo-Pacific region, unveiling a plan to expand military exercises with countries in the region, support the region’s capability buildup to deter aggression, and defend US interests.

Although Ukraine was half a world away, Austin took a swipe at Russia’s Vladimir Putin’s “reckless war” in Ukraine, calling for rules-based international order based on mutual respect. He was drumming up support for the US-led coalition helping Ukraine fight Russia.

Austin’s bravado about US commitment betrayed America’s deep concerns and apprehension as China’s creeping global influence has slowly diminished Washington dominance both economically and militarily.

China’s economic influence in the United States’ backyard in Latin American countries has been growing, overtaking Washington.

Beijing has gained a foothold in the Pacific Islands with a deal with Solomon Islands, allowing the People’s Liberation Army to have a presence in the region. It also began building a naval base in Cambodia.

In a few decades, China can become the largest economy in the world and the mightiest global military power, outnumbering the US in the number of warships, warplanes and missiles.

In his 2015 book, “The Hundred-year Marathon”, defense policy expert Michael Pillsbury outlined China’s secret plan to supplant the United States as the world’s dominant power by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party’s rise in China or the birth of the People’s Republic of China.

Washington is in panic to stop China’s rise as it sees countries around the world falling one by one into Beijing’s sphere of influence.

Washington can forget Moscow and focus more on Beijing, but the conflict in the Ukraine has been giving the US an excuse to rally allies and partners to its cause.

Although Austin has made a firm assurance that the US has no intention of creating a similar North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) mechanism in the Indo-Pacific region, some countries in the region are suspicious of the formation of QUAD and AUKUS as a starting point to contain China.

In the same security conference, host Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pointed out that America’s Indo-Pacific vision cannot be imposed on anyone and no country in the region can be forced to make a choice between two superpowers – the US and China.

US efforts to bring in line its allies and partners in the region behind its strategic goal to contain China and Russia would be very dangerous and could further escalate tensions in the Indo-Pacific area.

The Philippines could be dragged into the superpower conflict as it has an active alliance with the United States under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement, and the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.

Under EDCA, the Philippines allowed access to US military forces in at least five local military bases – in Nueva Ecija, Pampanga, Palawan, Cebu, and Misamis Oriental.

US military planes can land and take off in many airfields in the country, including at a former US air force base in Clark where US surveillance planes – P3C Orion and P8 Poseidon – have had a rotating presence since 2012.

Rodrigo Duterte in fact offered the United States the use of Clark air field in case the war in Ukraine spills over in the region.

Closer to home, a potential conflict in the Taiwan Straits could drag the Philippines because of its proximity. There were instances when China’s military aircraft entered the Philippines’s extreme northern Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) whenever Chinese planes tested Taiwan’s readiness to scramble fighters to intercept China’s fighters and bombers.

Chinese missiles might be targeting these local military bases to prevent the US from staging attacks from these locations. It would be a disaster for the Philippines to be brought into a conflict it did not want to get involved with.

The incoming administration of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. must seriously review the country’s security relations with the United States, particularly the VFA and EDCA.

Marcos Jr. must consider the country’s national interests above the alliance with the US, which has been an unreliable security partner.

In 2012, Washington brokered a deal with Beijing to withdraw from Scarborough Shoal after a three-month stand off. But it did nothing when Beijing did not leave the shoal. It also allowed China to build seven artificial islands in the Spratlys.

The Second World War also serves as a grim reminder of what had happened to the country because of its close relations with the United States.

Marcos should pursue an independent foreign policy, abstaining from actions that could escalate tensions in the region. The Mutual Defense Treaty with the US should be kept only for the country’s interest, not in the US interest.

The US has been abandoning allies and partners if a conflict or dispute is not in its national interest and will interfere in other domestic or international affairs if its interest will be affected.

Marcos should understand that the Philippines will not enter into a situation when its national interests are not at stake. Foreign policy should work for the country’s national interests.

The incoming national security adviser, Clarita Carlos, is right. The Philippines should remain neutral in the Russia-Ukraine war but should vigorously assert the country’s sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea.

It should not take sides in a conflict between the US and China over Taiwan. The Philippines has the right to turn down the US if it invokes the MDT because Congress has the power to stay neutral in a conflict it is not directly involved in.

It is uncertain if the MDT will be really an effective deterrent but past actions have shown that the US cannot be relied upon despite the “ironclad” protection Washington had promised.

Take Lee Hsien Loong’s advice at the Shangri-la Dialogue.

Marcos Jr. must remember that an independent foreign policy does not mean taking sides. It should be truly independent from any influence.