A new look at the pivot to Asia

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping
The Philippines is a staunch U.S. ally, but President Rodrigo Duterte (L) has courted China, meeting with President Xi Jinping in October 2016 (source: dpa)

The United States has the geographical privilege that two wide oceans separate it from possible aggressors. The U.S. also managed to acquire allies on the other shores of each ocean. On the eastern coast of the Atlantic, this ally is Europe. It will therefore remain in the U.S.’s interest that Europe does not become dependent on Russia.

Similarly, the U.S. had built a system of alliances on the opposite shore of the Pacific, to contain China. It stretched from South Korea and Japan in the north, through Okinawa, Taiwan and the Philippines to Singapore. Good relations were maintained with Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia. Lately, Vietnam moved toward the U.S., concerned about a more assertive China.

President Barack Obama announced – after some attempts to convince China of his policies and offering “carrots” – an American “pivot to Asia,” which also included less focus on the Middle East and defense of Europe. This created concern in Europe, but without inducing European countries to make the necessary efforts to support their own defense. However, growing tensions with Russia brought the U.S.’s attention partially back to Europe.

The “pivot to Asia” included more military deployments in the Pacific to counter Chinese claims to the South China Sea, but also a focus on trade, which was to be facilitated by the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

During this period, China went on a charm offensive in Southeast Asia. This was strongly driven by a wish to keep countries in the region from taking united action in Beijing’s dispute with the Philippines and Vietnam. Secondly, the Chinese intended to create a wedge between some countries and the U.S. The results of these efforts can be seen in the stances taken by Malaysia, Thailand and, more recently, Cambodia. Significantly, Cambodia just canceled a joint military exercise with the U.S.

The new administration will prefer bilateral arrangements to multilateral ones ... this offers opportunities

Worst of all for the U.S. are developments in one of its most important and closest allies, the Philippines. President Rodrigo Duterte openly questions his country’s collaboration with the U.S. and has made overtures to China.

The motivations of these countries vary. Some took Beijing’s financial bait, while others are afraid of their large neighbor. But in the Philippines, the reason seems to be President Duterte’s concern that the U.S. might intervene in his country’s internal affairs for “values” reasons, something he does not have to fear from China. Because of his positions and governing style, he appears to prefer the suzerainty offered by the Chinese dragon over the American nanny's meddling.

On one hand, President Donald Trump has declared he will take a tough line toward China. On the other, his determination to retreat from the TPP agreement and his intention to reduce foreign involvement arouses concern. This might also give some countries, such as Vietnam, further reason to improve relations with China out of caution. However, this tendency had already started before the U.S. elections.

It appears that the change in the White House is again causing additional unease in Southeast Asia, just as in 2009, when President Obama began his politics of appeasement to China.

The Trump administration will have a difficult time keeping allies in line, especially the Philippines – due to its leader being a loose cannon – and its non-official potential ally, Vietnam.

On trade, the new administration will prefer bilateral arrangements to multilateral ones such as the TPP. This offers opportunities and allows more flexibility. On defense, it will need a good, continuing commitment to America’s allies.

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