Over the past several weeks, Filipinos were bombarded with the phrase “open and free Indo-Pacific region” as the United States made a hard sell on its strategy to remain the dominant power in this part of the world.

The Philippines willingly embraced the American Indo-Pacific strategy to push back on China’s growing sphere of influence in this part of the world, as Manila showed too much concern over Beijing’s assertiveness in disputed areas in the South China Sea.

China’s gray-zone tactics have been escalating from shadowing Philippine navy and coast guard vessels to pointing military-grade lasers and nearly ramming a Coast Guard vessel, BRP Malapascua, twice smaller than the Chinese Coast Guard cutter.

These incidents made headlines. Washington readily exploited them to demonstrate its willingness to show support to a weaker ally and former colony.

But no other Southeast Asian states attempted to weigh in on the issue: China’s bullying and US assurances.

It seems other Southeast Asian countries do not want to get involved in the increasingly big power rivalry between Washington and Beijing.

Since 1954, the United States has also had a treaty alliance with the Kingdom of Thailand.

It also has strategic relations with Singapore where US planes and ships were allowed access. In return, Singapore multi-role fighters were allowed to land and train in US bases.

Washington has working relations with Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, but testy relations with Myanmar and Cambodia.

The US imposed sanctions on Myanmar generals after a February 2021 power grab and the jailing of former leader Daw Aung Suu Kyi and her NLD partymaters.

The US has strongly opposed Cambodia’s decision to allow China to use a seaport as its potential naval base, strengthening its power projection in the region.

Indonesia, chair of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), has been delicately balancing the bloc’s relations with the world’s two largest economies and military powers.

When Washington unveiled its Indo-Pacific strategy at the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore a few years back, Jakarta came out with its own document to keep neutrality.

Asean wanted to keep its centrality, staying in the driver’s seat to set the direction of the bloc and avoiding choosing sides between the US and China.

Next week, Southeast Asian leaders will gather in the Indonesian capital for a leaders’ summit, the first for the year under Jakarta’s leadership.

The US and China will not be in the meeting but their voices will surely be heard as they will be lobbying strongly for their interests.

China will prevent the US from dominating the summit’s agenda, accusing Washington of provocation to escalate tensions around the Taiwan Straits and South China Sea.

On the other hand, the US will have its plate full in rallying support to its defense of Ukraine, Taiwan, and coastal states in South China Sea.

Washington will paint Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea as the bad guys. Russia and China will do the same on the Americans.

Asean cannot simply focus on intra-Asean political, security, and economic affairs. The big power rivalry will always come up in the meetings.

The “free and open Indo-Pacific region” phrase will certainly be discussed. Asean should avoid using the American phrase because it has to stick to its own security architecture.

Asean has a leading role in preserving peace and stability in the region. It has to keep its centrality, cohesion, and unity in diversity.

Asean should reject attempts by the US to hijack its agenda to counter China and other countries opposed to the West.

Coming from a series of bilateral meetings in Washington — the 2+2 ministerial meeting and the Biden-Marcos one-on-one discussion, the Philippines should not allow itself to be a pawn by promoting the “free and open Indo-Pacific region” at the Asean summit.

It can hurt the Philippines’s image as an independent and sovereign country.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr has been announcing to the world his administration will be pursuing an independent foreign policy, but buying the US Indo-Pacific strategy could prove that the Philippines has become dependent again on the United States.

The Philippines has not gained anything from the United State after granting US military forces access to nine local bases — three of them staring across Bashi Channel.

What Marcos really got from his trip to Washington was a measly $1.3 billion in economic pledges. The military was promised three transport planes and four small cutters, which are second-hand equipment.

It is early to rejoice until the US makes good on its promise that it will really back the Philippines against China’s aggression.

The last time Manila asked for help, Washington turned its back and abandoned its ally, allowing Beijing to take full control of Scarborough Shoal. The US did not lift a finger.

Before the Philippines jumps with ecstasy over the small US pledges, Manila should remember it also has the Asean to watch its back.