A bit more than two months into the new administration in Washington, DC, the US is arguably facing the severest threat since World War II to its military and diplomatic ascendency in Asia, a situation President Donald Trump seems, from his public statements, not to understand.
And, although the president compounded the problems with his withdrawal of the US from the Transpacific Partnership, the US-centric omnibus trade bill that would cover 40 percent of global commerce, much of it is not his fault. Former President Barack Obama has been criticized by his own allies, including former Ambassador to China Max Baucus, for not aggressively pursuing passage of the trade measure his administration negotiated.
Although Obama announced in 2011 that the US would intensify its engagement with Asia – the so-called 'pivot' -- many observers say he largely delivered only rhetoric through much of his presidency, despite the fact that concerns in the Middle East left over from former President George Bush’s disastrous decision to invade Iraq have tied down US air and naval forces there.
With the US withdrawing from the TPP, China is eager to take advantage while other nations, led by Japan and Australia, are seeking to resurrect it. The US will be the loser, and California will be the state that loses the most.
Likewise, Obama’s pivot pretty much ended up with nothing but a couple of battalions of US Marines in Darwin in northern Australia and two or three Independence-class Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) to Singapore.
Well before the new administration came into office, the US Seventh Fleet, which has commanded the Asian sea lanes for decades, has found no effective answer to China’s fortification of islet specks in the South China Sea. The outposts are of minor military significance, but they give substance to Beijing’s claim to sovereignty over almost the entire ocean up to the doorsteps of the littoral nations with their so-called “nine-dash line,” a map invented by Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist government in 1948 before the Communists ever came to power.
Part of the US’s problem is the march of history. China has now become the world’s second- biggest economy and looks likely to become the biggest before too many years are out. Its current president, Xi Jinping, is asserting China’s strength in a way unseen since the Ming Dynasty allowed the Imperial Navy to fall into disrepair in the 1500s. It is relatively easy to assert its new strength in the South China Sea, which is on China’s doorstep and 12,100 km from California, with attendant supply line struggles.
But beyond that, other serious problems have intruded, some of them caused by what has been the US’s staunchest ally since World War II: The Philippines and its thuggish president, Rodrigo Duterte. The 71-year- old Duterte remains what he was – a small-town mayor who was elevated onto the international stage by dint of his vow to execute drug dealers, which he has done unmercifully, and who so far has betrayed little understanding of international law or relations.
In June of 2016, the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal in The Hague ruled on a Philippine claim that China’s nine-dash line was invalid and that the Philippines had exclusive sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea. It was a historic ruling that Duterte, shortly after he became President, said he would set aside, shocking the international community, which had sought to present a united front against China behind the ruling.
Duterte and his foreign secretary, Perfecto Yasay Jr – who has since been disqualified from office by having held US citizenship – have since that time told different stories, sometimes insisting that the ruling by The Hague is sacrosanct, at other times downplaying it.
Now Duterte has triggered an almost incomprehensible diplomatic gaffe, apparently giving China permission to explore a resource-rich area within the Philippines’ claimed exclusive economic zone 350 km. east of the main Philippine island of Luzon – without telling either his Department of Foreign Affairs or his Department of Defense that he had done so, in a conversation late last year with Chinese officials.
There is speculation in Manila that Duterte mistakenly thought the area, a submerged extinct volcanic ridge more than 3,000 meters underwater known as Benham Rise, was actually in the South China Sea rather than the Philippine Sea east of the country. In any case, when earlier this year a Chinese research ship showed up to explore the area, Delfin Lorenzana, the Philippine Defense Secretary, told reporters he had given instructions to the Philippine Navy to “accost them and drive them away” only to learn that Duterte had said they had permission to be there.
As with the ruling in The Hague, Duterte and his administration have veered between tough talk against the Chinese, defending Philippine sovereignty and offering to give it away. That has caused major problems for other countries that have looked to the US to help counter China’s expansionist urges. Vietnam, for example, has had a long series of confrontations with China over island-building and what it views as attempts by China to appropriate Vietnamese territory.
But other allies appear to simply be folding. Malaysia, which once surreptitiously allowed US troops to train in its jungles, is wavering. Its prime minister, Najib Razak, is the focal point of a US investigation into the theft of US$1 billion from a state-owned investment fund that may have lost as much as US$11 billion from mismanagement and theft. He has responded by moving his country’s foreign policy closer to China and away from the country that may want to prosecute him.
Thailand, which has cooperated in military exercises called Cobra Gold with the US and other allies for decades in what has been called the biggest joint military exercise in the world, featuring 35 nations, has since come under severe US criticism because of a draconian military coup in 2014. The Thai government has responded by appearing to veer towards China, inking important agreements to develop a key rail project and arranging for the purchase by China of billions of dollars in agricultural products.
Cambodia has consistently taken China’s side in Association of Southeast Asian Nations deliberations.
Trump himself caused trepidation by carefully orchestrating a pre-inauguration telephone conversation with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen that was widely interpreted as resetting the debate over what China considers a rogue province. Then, when controversy blew up, Trump appeared to say it was all Tsai’s idea and later endorsed the longstanding one-China policy. The resultant confusion in Taiwan has demoralized the administration there.
While these events have been taking place, China’s extensive “One Belt, One Road” plan to reconstruct the historic Silk Road is moving forward to build sea, rail and highway infrastructure that would ensure that much as all roads led to Imperial Rome, all roads from Indonesia to Central Asia would lead to Beijing.
Counteracting China’s burgeoning influence in its own backyard seems almost imaginably difficult, given Beijing’s growing expertise and experience in international affairs. A new, untried and woefully inexperienced regime in Washington is confronting Xi and Beijing. That showed during US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent trip to Beijing.
Despite Tillerson’s earlier rocket-rattling over Beijing’s South China Sea installations – offering during Congressional testimony to use US power to blockade them – the language he used during his inaugural visit to China was seized upon gleefully by the hardline Global Times, a state-owned publication, as having capitulated to Beijing in endorsing the idea that China and the US are equal in the region. That is something that no previous administration has done. Tillerson later had to clarify that there would be no change in US policy.
Japan has begun to cautiously step into the breach, sending its largest warship, a helicopter carrier, on a three-month tour of Southeast Asia in an attempt to reassure allies, much as Germany has had to take on new responsibilities as the new administration has blown cold on the European Union.
But Japan is no match for growing Chinese might and expansionism today. The US administration, faced with a newly formidable adversary in Beijing, with a North Korea eager for any adventurism to keep the pot boiling, with more allies looking north instead of across the Pacific, has its work cut out for it. It won’t be helped by that kind of inexperience and a 31 percent cut in the State Department and US Agency for International Development budgets.