By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

TENSIONS between the United States and China could worsen in the Indo-Pacific region this year as Washington holds its biggest joint military drills with the Philippines since 2015, according to security analysts.

The two superpowers are expected to use their economic and cultural platforms to gain influence in the region, which has been beset by the South China Sea dispute and tensions between China and self-ruled Taiwan, they said.

“There will be a tug of war of military strength as the US is expected to mount its biggest Balikatan exercises with the Philippine Armed Forces,” Chester B. Cabalza, who studied national security and policymaking at the University of Delaware, said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

“This is while China is perfecting its simulation of new weapon system using electronic and cyber-capabilities.”

Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr., 65, took office in June amid tensions in the South China Sea and naval competition between the US and China.

Analysts said his independent foreign policy talks would be challenged by regional tensions as well as economic realities facing the Philippines, which is under pressure to fund its economic recovery programs.

“We will see an intensified showdown of economic prowess in the Philippines between the world’s two biggest economies,” Mr. Cabalza said.

“We will see heightened cognitive warfare as the two superpowers are expected to compete for people and cultural engagements to win the hearts and minds of people through scholarships, alumni associations and recognition of historical ties,” he added.

He noted that Washington has boosted the US Trade and Development Agency, which links US businesses to the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which counters China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

“If mainland Chinese businesses become convinced or are brought on side by the Chinese Communist Party in its posturings in the region, that’s when we should be really worried,” Hansley A. Juliano, a political economy researcher, said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

“If Belt and Road is doing its job of carving the intended Chinese sphere of influence, it really doesn’t make sense for them to escalate.”

He said the US and European Union (EU) might impose economic sanctions on the US once it continues with aggressive activities in the region.

Tensions across the Taiwan Strait have also undermined regional stability, with analysts expecting China to invade self-ruled Taiwan in the coming years.

“The Russia-Ukraine case is being seen as the test case since the contraction of the Russian economy via imposed economic sanctions from the US and European Union is also what can deter China,” Mr. Juliano said. “However, if China has already realized its preferred economic supply chain via Belt and Road, that might blunt the effects of US-EU sanctions.”

“Scholars, security analysts and journalists must watch out for that.”

Mr. Marcos visited New York last year for the United Nations General Assembly, where he called for a rule-based order in the South China Sea, which is being claimed by China almost in its entirety.  

On the sidelines of the United Nations event, Mr. Marcos met with US President Joseph R. Biden. 

Last month, the Philippine leader met with his Chinese counterpart in Beijing, with Mr. Xi promising to find a solution to avoid tensions in the South China Sea. The two leaders signed bilateral deals covering agriculture, energy, maritime security and tourism.

But despite the Philippine-China talks, conflicts have persisted.

The Philippine Coast Guard has accused its Chinese counterpart of trying to block a resupply mission at Second Thomas Shoal on Feb. 6 by pointing a military-grade laser on a Philippine vessel.

The Philippines has filed a diplomatic protest, but China insists it had only used a handheld laser to ensure navigational safety.

“As long as Xi Jinping leads China, his hawkish leadership toward his country’s stronger armed forces will be direct and astute in the contested waterways of the West Philippine Sea,” Mr. Cabalza said, referring to areas of the sea within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

He said China would continuously challenge the Philippines’ claims to the South China Sea “while pushing Manila to its limits.”

“Not only will Beijing test Washington’s commitments to Manila but it will try to distract it until the ties crack.”

On Saturday, Mr. Marcos said the laser incident committed by China was not enough for him to invoke the Philippines’ 1995 Mutual Defense Treaty with the US.

“Chinese control over the sea has been a pretty transparent, objective, and recent episodes do not bode well that China will respect borders in good faith — not when they have found it easy to intimidate and play with former President Rodrigo R. Duterte and Marcos, Jr.,” Mr. Juliano said.

The Philippines has given the US access to four more military bases under their Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. Mr. Marcos earlier this month expressed willingness to a three-way defense pact with the US and Japan, which are seen as major obstacles to China’s global ambitions.

“The agreed EDCA locations, especially the additional ones, joint patrols with the US in the South China Sea and a brewing trilateral security arrangement with the US and Japan may signal where Manila stands in the US-China competition,” Lucio Blanco Pitlo III, a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, said in a Messenger chat.

“This may limit the country’s legroom in navigating this growing great power gulf and puts it in a precarious position should tensions escalate.”

Mr. Pitlo said the Philippines’ aggressiveness in pursuing defense deals happen while its neighbors in the region “remain on the fence.”

Regional peers are “probably agreeing for more strongly worded expressions of concern and call for restraint but are unlikely to offer military access to either side.”

He urged the Marcos government to address its sea dispute with China peacefully, especially since US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and China’s top diplomat Wang Yi had both agreed to address South China Sea tensions diplomatically  on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.

“If rival great powers who clash across the board continue to hold talks, why not neighbors quarrelling over waters and rocks?” Mr. Pitlo said.