For all the current focus on the Middle East, and particularly on Syria, it is in the South China Sea that is the principal playground in the competition among the world's major powers for global influence. There, tension between China and the US continues to grow unabated, even though real crises in the relationship are still a long way off. 

Dmitri Trenin
Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, has been with the center since its inception. He also chairs the research council and the Foreign and Security Policy Program.
More >

While China, by means of incremental changes in the status quo, seeks to establish itself as the leading power in East Asia, the US is struggling to hold the line drawn in the period of the Cold War. 

The 10 countries of Southeast Asia are all members of the ASEAN group. However, they all pursue independent foreign policies. Some members are close to Beijing, others look more to Washington. 

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's recent moves go in that direction. A popular and populist politician, he is not only engaged in fiery rhetoric against the US, but is reaching out to China. Toning down tensions between Manila and Beijing, still locked in a dispute over islands in the South China Sea, and the expanding economic ties between the two would strengthen China's position in the entire region.

It is still too early to say whether Duterte will be willing or able to pivot away from Washington. Like elsewhere in the world, however, Philippine populism is essentially a reaction to the model of globalization which has left many people, and many nations, behind. The nationalists' animus is against the US as the system's dominant power, and they pin their hopes for a better deal on those who challenge US supremacy. This is China and Russia.

China to them is an economic and financial powerhouse, and Russia is a political and military resource. After his visit to Beijing, Duterte plans to visit Moscow before the end of the year. He may meet Russian President Vladimir Putin even earlier, at the APEC gathering in Lima, Peru, in November. No doubt Putin will be interested. 

Moscow's foreign policy is busy rediscovering Southeast Asia, which it largely ignored, along with much of the rest of the world, in the two decades following the demise of the Soviet Union. 

Last May, Putin held court in his Sochi residence for ASEAN heads of state during the first-ever Russia-ASEAN summit. (Duterte had not yet entered office by that time). Putin has even called for linking the Eurasian Economic Union, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and ASEAN in an economic mega-compact of "Greater Eurasia."

Russia's economic ties with the Philippines are more than modest: under $1.5 billion, but there are areas, such as hydroenergy or extractive industries, where Russia could be an important partner. 

Duterte has mentioned interest in purchasing Russian arms, which would provide an opening for Moscow into a US-dominated market. Russia, of course, would have to act carefully not to damage its relations with China. A normalization of Sino-Philippine relations would make these arms sales less problematic.

As it re-enters the region, Russia has to clearly define its interests and the role that it seeks to play. It is mostly looking for markets and business opportunities. 

Locked in a new confrontation with the US, Russia would welcome a reduction of the US global role, including in Asia. However, the Sino-Russian entente still falls short of an alliance, making the Sino-US and the Russian-American relations strictly bilateral affairs at this stage. 

On the issues in the South China Sea, Moscow professes neutrality, calling for the parties concerned to settle their differences with each other peacefully, on the basis of the Code of Conduct, while suggesting that outsiders, namely the US, keep out. 

Moscow was negative on the recent ruling of the Hague court on the Philippine claim against China, so as not to create a precedent of such issues being decided when one of the parties refuses to accept the court's jurisdiction in that matter. (Such a situation might arise should Ukraine try to sue Russia over the waters off Crimea). 

Russia also went ahead to conduct naval drills with the PLA off Hainan Island - after having carried out exercises last year with the Chinese navy in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. 

At the same time, Russia continues to be the main arms supplier to Vietnam and has recently discussed the possibility of returning to the Cam Ranh base which it abandoned 15 years ago. 

What Russia may seek in the long term in Southeast Asia is a position of a respected and seemingly disinterested outside power helping maintain an equilibrium in a potentially highly volatile region.

This op-ed was originally published in the Global Times.