Trump’s loss, China’s gain?
Is superpower America losing its grip on Asia?
US President Donald Trump’s presence at the Asean Summit was ponderous compared to the demeanor of other delegates. He also missed the East Asian Summit on Nov. 14, leaving many Asean leaders clueless on whether the region was in his interest radar. Outside the summit, Filipino and American activists burned his effigy. At the Nov. 11 Apec Summit in Da Nang, his unsolicited offer to mediate maritime feuds was nixed by President Duterte and Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.
Trump’s 11-day swing through Asia showed signs of an America way off the changes sweeping the region. In the Korean nuke crisis, China’s diplomacy is gaining traction over Trump’s tough approach. Japan’s Shinzo Abe and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in fly to Beijing early in 2018 for talks on the Korean crisis. Aware of Beijing’s key role in defusing the crisis, Japan has downplayed its dispute with China over islands, as well as on the South China Sea (SCS). At the Apec Summit, Abe and China’s Xi Jinping shook hands to jump-start their trade ties. This came on the heels of America’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a move that did not sap Tokyo’s resolve to push the agreement along with 10 other countries.
Asean and China will begin talks in 2018 on the Code of Conduct based on the framework agreement signed last August. But amid the momentum in forging a final Code, the SCS maritime issue was not raised at the summit. Reason: Some claimant countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines are now in bilateral talks with Beijing to resolve the disputes and explore cooperation for energy development in the disputed waters. All these fit into Beijing’s “dual track” route on the SCS: Maritime rifts should be settled bilaterally among claimants, and China and Asean should work together to ensure peace and stability.
During his tour, Trump brandished the triumphalist “America First” and threatened to rework “unfair” trade deals with Asian countries. Typical of China’s soft power, Xi Jinping spoke on multilateralism, “international cooperation” and “economic openness,” which appealed to Asian countries. Trump’s “trade barbs” are pushing Asians “closer to China’s orbit,” says Bloomberg. Today, Asean is China’s leading trade partner, accounting for 15 percent of its total trade. China is also the Philippines’ No. 1 trade partner this year. Welded by trade integration, China and its neighbors are a major driver of global GDP growth.
Asean countries look to China for economic growth and to America to counterbalance China’s power. This is the conventional theory. US strategists are aware of America’s receding economic influence in Asia, but US military supremacy will stay indefinitely. Without any coherent Asian policy, Trump will continue his predecessor’s rebalance strategy which aims to preposition 60 percent of US forces in the Asia-Pacific by 2020. He has also affirmed a US defense alliance with Japan and South Korea. Joint war exercises with the Philippines will be enhanced in 2018 and US facilities will rise inside five Philippine military camps.
But what is new is China and Asean will hold joint naval drills next year. Does this signal that China is no longer a security threat in the region? (In 2015, Asean refused the US 7th Fleet’s plan for a regional maritime force to patrol the SCS.) Mr. Duterte has dropped joint US-PH patrols in the SCS so as not to anger China. Countries that have military ties with America avoid being dragged in a war with China at the risk of losing their dynamic economic ties with Beijing.
Growing perceptions in Asia of waning US economic and even security clout in the region are sound. US economic hegemony under neoliberal globalization has been hurt by the 2008 financial crisis, leading to sluggish growth and large-scale underemployment. US armed intervention in many countries has spawned extremism and ruined economies in fragile states. Today, US global credibility is at its lowest point.
But far from diminishing strategic interests, America remains the world’s No. 1 economic and military power. In due time, Asia’s evolving role as the world’s growth center will make US power here irrelevant.
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Bobby Tuazon, is director for policy studies of the Center for People Empowerment in Governance, a book author, and UPprofessor.
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