US’s Tillerson Stirs up The South China Sea

United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Southeast Asia has exposed how the US’s current obsession with North Korea is undermining more important long-term interests. The only good thing one could say about the visit, which took in the Philippines – for ASEAN’s 50th anniversary – Thailand and Malaysia was that his words were guarded and left plenty of room for reinterpretation as required.

The fundamental problem is that American narcissism, never far from the surface, has come to the fore. Thus the possibility that a nuclear North Korea has a missile capable of reaching the continental US is deemed an imminent threat and cause of a crisis.

The fact that South Korea and Japan have for years been living with the reality of being within easy reach of Pyongyang’s weapons is somehow dismissed as irrelevant, even though those countries have no deterrent capability of their own but must rely on the US. So too has Guam though no one seemed worried about that until now. The North has merely learned the 1950s doctrine of mutual deterrence.

The Trump administration seems to have decided that a sanctions war against North presents an easy and uncontroversial target, taking minds off more difficult issues such as Afghanistan and the South China Sea. But the cost is likely to prove high. For a start, threatening China with trade sanctions if it does not exert sufficient pressure on Pyongyang undermines the US case on very real trade issues it faces with China.

The Chinese are of course now making all the right noises of disapproving of the North and joining new sanctions resolutions at the UN. In the short term the US may proclaim a diplomatic success. But Beijing has no interest in squeezing a stubborn North to the point of regime collapse, even were that attainable given the pain that the Kim regime has been able to inflict on its people in the name of nationalism and self-reliance.

Tillerson seemed pragmatic enough implying in an Aug.2 statement that eventually Washington must negotiate with Pyongyang. Much to the chagrin of the armchair “regime change” advocates in the Republican party he claimed that the US was not pursuing regime change, just an end to nuclear and missile capability. Hence if Pyongyang does pause in its missile tests there is scope for talks – and China will claim some credit for that.

But Tillerson followed those remarks with a Southeast Asian visit where he continued to focus on North Korea. This was an astonishing wasted opportunity. The fact is that the ASEAN states are not interested in the North Korean issue. They will sign a statement of concern but know perfectly well that even if they did care their voices would be irrelevant. What they do care about is their sea issues and the balance of relations with China and the US.

At a time when President Duterte has trashed the Philippines’ victory over China at the Court of Arbitration and is now contemplating a deal with China which would sell its sea rights, the focus on Pyongyang seemed doubly irrelevant to US interests in Southeast Asia (population 600 million).

As it was, only because the Vietnamese, who are rightly contemptuous of the venal politicians in Manila, dug in their heels at the ASEAN meeting, prevailing on the group to come up with a slightly more critical statement about China’s behavior in the South China sea than had been expected, or the Philippines, as host, wanted.

Tillerson continued with his mission against North Korean with visits to Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur to urge the cutting of trade and other ties with Pyongyang. Just visiting did make up a fraction of the ground lost by the US in the region since the elections of Trump and Duterte.

It may be sad for a country preaching democracy and the rule of law but continuing to give the cold shoulder to the military regime in Thailand had been providing new openings for a China already using money power to bring Thailand closer to its orbit.

Likewise, misgivings in Washington (and Singapore) about Chinese money influence over the kleptocracy running Malaysia could not stand in the way of Tillerson being polite to Prime Minister Najib despite the fact that the US Justice Department’s kleptocracy unit has accused “Malaysian Citizen 1” of having stolen at least US$1 billion from the state-owned 1Malaysia Development Bhd. and investing it in US assets.

Nonetheless, by focusing on what concerns the US rather than how the US can help in Southeast Asia, Tillerson reminded his hosts that the “America First” attitude was troubling prospect for traditional allies such as Thailand and Malaysia, newer ones like Vietnam.

Philip Bowring is a co-founder and consultant editor to Asia Sentinel. A version of this appeared in The Globalist.