On Aug. 6, the highest official in President Joe Biden’s administration, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, will make a brief pitstop in Manila before traveling to South Africa and Rwanda.

Blinken will actually come from Phnom Penh where he will attend the first face-to-face meeting of Southeast Asian foreign ministers since 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic started.

In Cambodia, the United States will rally its allies and partners behind a global campaign against Russia after Moscow launched in late February what it called “special military operations” in Kyiv.

Blinken will also reassure allies and partners of continued US presence in the region to counter China’s growing influence as well as aggressive behavior in the South China Sea.

North Korea and Myanmar are also on the table, issues that are close to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ heart. The US has been trying to stop North Korea’s continued nuclear tests and missile launches that make its southern neighbor in Seoul and Japan nervous.

Blinken will join Asean foreign ministers in condemning the executions in Myanmar and in calling for the generals to restore peace and stability in the resource-rich country under a five-point consensus agreement struck with Asean leaders in Jakarta last year,

Asean is punishing Myanmar by barring its political leaders from joining the bloc’s August summit until it gives up power and hands it over to civilian authorities led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Asean is only allowing Myanmar’s senior career diplomats to participate in the Ministers’ Meeting, including in the Asean Regional Forum.

Blinken has tough meetings ahead to convince Asean to act decisively on a number of international security issues, like the conflict in Ukraine, South China Sea, North Korea, and Myanmar, as well as on responding collectively on the coronavirus pandemic.

Asean is taking no sides in the Russia-Ukraine conflict and is resisting efforts by other countries, like the United States, European Union, Japan, and Australia to exclude Russia from the region’s processes, most importantly in preventive diplomacy for peaceful management of disputes and tensions within and outside Southeast Asia.

“Everyone is welcome to attend Asean meetings,” said Daniel Espiritu, the foreign affairs assistant secretary for Asean affairs. “We said no one will be excluded. No process will be disrupted.”

Asean always wants to be in the driver seat, protecting its principle of non-interference in domestic affairs and its centrality, charting its own directions and avoiding any external forces to influence its own decision. While Asean stands firm in the middle, it has allowed external powers to joust on issues of international concern.

Blinken’s short trip to Manila highlights the United States’ most important security concern in the region. It will not allow a long-time military ally and a former colony to fall into China’s sphere of influence.

Blinken’s Manila trip comes a month after China sent to the Philippines its own foreign minister, Wang Yi, to hold talks with both President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo.

Political observers saw the visits of Wang Yi and Antony Blinken as part of the ongoing tug-o-war between China and the United States to get the Philippines’s attention and cooperation.

The Philippines sits in a very strategic location in the Indo-Pacific region. It site between China’s first and second island chain of defense, a buffer zone against potential aggression.

The Philippines is also part of the United States’ imaginary Asia defense line, stretching from South Korea and Japan in the north down to Australia in the south, a forward location for its offensive units to protect US interests in the region.

Many people in Washington consider Manila as the weakest link in the defense line, especially after Rodrigo Duterte pursued an appeasement policy toward Beijing and downgraded its security alliance with Washington.

The election of Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos Jr opens opportunities for China and the United States to jostle for attention.

The two powers are expected to offer close friendship along with larger trade, investments, and military assistance.

Marcos should not allow himself to fall into the same trap when Duterte went the extra mile to appease Xi Jinping. He didn’t get the economic tradeoff and even lost more opportunities in developing gas fields in the Reed Bank, and did not stop the expansion of China in the disputed waters.

Marcos should learn from the balancing acts of the country’s neighbors like Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam. These Southeast Asian countries have enjoyed huge amounts of trade and investments under the Belt and Road Initiative but, at the same time, these countries were tough in protecting their maritime interests.

For instance, Indonesia has been blasting Chinese fishing boats straying into its territorial waters. Vietnam also did not blink during the standoff with Chinese maritime law enforcement vessels in gas fields in the South China Sea.

Marcos should realize the importance of the Philippines to both China and the United States. He should take advantage of the geographical location and strategic value of the country by getting the best of both worlds.

The Philippines already has an advantage in keeping close relations with Washington. It could also do the same with China by talking with Beijing on how to reduce its presence and activities in the South China Sea.

Beijing fears Manila will fall again under the US sphere of influence, which can be translated into increased presence and activities from its bases in the Philippines.

Although Manila opened relations with Beijing in the 1970s under the late dictator, the country remained suspicious of China because of past efforts to ship Chinese weapons to the New People’s Army.

Former president Fidel Ramos was credited for improving relations after the Tiananmen incident in China. Military contacts were established under Ramos’s watch despite Beijing’s violation of the Manila declaration on the South China Sea when it occupied the hall-submerged Mischief Reef in the West Philippine Sea.

Former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo brought in new perspectives in the Philippine-China relations after the Bush administration got angry when she pulled out the 50-man Philippine Army unit in Iraq in 2004.

But the relations turned sour when Arroyo got entangled in controversies surrounding the $329-million broadband deal with China.

Relations turned for the worse when Benigno Aquino filed an arbitration case in The Hague to settle sovereign rights issues in the West Philippine Sea.

Duterte swung back the pendulum in China’s favor during his six-year term.

China’s concern that Marcos’ policies may swing back to Washington’s favor is real after the new leader vowed to uphold the 2016 arbitral ruling.

As both China and the United States try to push and pull the Philippines to their side, Bongbong Marcos must play smarter and get the best out of the two conflicting powers.