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Tough from a distance

On Nov. 3, Bilahari Kausikan (former permanent secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore) reminded Nikkei Asia readers of the Obama administration’s “strategic patience,” which he suggests was a euphemism for being so risk-averse as to be practically paralyzed in the face of Chinese aggressiveness in the region. Kausikan wrote that on one hand, American foreign policy would be more professional and predictable but that it runs the risk of being weak again in the face of China; but then this may be less about Obama and more about China’s own strategic vision and the realization among American policymakers of the limits of the projection of their country’s power.

Three years ago, an Australian defense analyst, Hugh White, wrote a fascinating article (“Without America: Australia in the New Asia”) on the inevitability of China’s dominance in the region. Repeated attempts to war-game a confrontation between the US Navy and the People’s Liberation Army Navy, he wrote, showed American leaders were unprepared to call China’s bluff if it deliberately invited, or accidentally triggered, an armed confrontation in our region. There was simply no political math to justify risking a world war or American lives for Asia. He suggested that Japan and South Korea would have to go nuclear to create a regional deterrent to China, but that neither country could be expected to have the appropriate appetite for risk; perhaps India, with its own history of uneasy relations with China, would take up the mantle of regional leadership and push back (it has begun to do so, focusing on regional bases to counter China’s).

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The only unforeseen thing, White wrote, was that America’s expected retreat from Southeast Asia should have taken a generation but accelerated under Donald Trump. In contrast to Kausikan, White portrayed Trump as sending the message to China that America would be cavalier about its allies, plus be as unwilling to pursue real brinkmanship in the region. Today, White’s views might be challenged by Asians like Kausikan and many Filipino Americans who voted for Trump. What in fact was going on was that there were two camps within the Trump administration — those who wanted a more collegial approach so as not to disrupt business, and the hawks who viewed America and China in the grip of a life-and-death struggle for mastery of the world. This view strongly held that America would soon lack the money and muscle to resist being supplanted by China unless it acted decisively, now, to confront China.

This muscular approach, in contrast to Obama’s risk aversion, was in fact something the Trump campaign seized upon. In a Foreign Affairs article leading to the 2016 election, the most hawkish of Trump’s advisers on China, Peter Navarro, specifically pointed to Obama’s leaving the Philippines in the lurch when

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China reneged on an American-negotiated way out of an impasse between the Philippines and China (we backed out, on American guarantees that both sides would; China didn’t). The aggressiveness of the Trump response to China (which ebbed and flowed depending on whether moderates or hardliners had the ear of Trump at any given time) heartened pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong and in China; it may have accounted for Vietnamese Americans, alone among Asian Americans, having a majority for Trump, according to the Asian American Voter Survey of 2020.

Vietnamese Americans today remain where most Asian Americans were yesterday. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog pointed out that back in 1992, less than a third of Asian Americans voted Democratic. The most recent survey revealed 52 percent of Filipino Americans intending to vote for Biden compared to 34 percent for Trump, but that GOP support among Asian Americans has been rising in recent years.

In a recent Bloomberg forum, Bill Clinton said something interesting. Post-Mao China, he said, “by no means a democracy, still guaranteed enough debate, and play, and openness because there was a regular rotation of leadership.” But now China has embarked on a new era of one-man, lifetime, rule. This is new territory, Henry Kissinger warned in the same forum: “America and China are now drifting increasingly toward confrontation, and they’re conducting their diplomacy in a confrontational way.”

It is interesting that if Filipino Americans voted for Trump to be tough on China, they were doing so from the safety of America, far from any potential outbreak of hostilities in our part of the world.

Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @mlq3

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TAGS: China aggression, Donald Trump, Manuel L. Quezon III, The Long View, US-China relations
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