A resurgent China and a surprisingly smart move by Donald Trump
Tom Plate says Beijing’s pointed treatment of Singapore and warning of potential war with the Philippines show it is not to be trifled with. And so, the US president, despite being besieged on the home front, may have got it right holding off on South China Sea naval operations
International relations gets advertised and promoted by theorists as if it were insanely complicated. But sometimes it is all quite simple, and not in the least insane.
For those who live in a neighbourhood with those allegedly complicated international relations, their point of view can be stated without complication. All they ask is that every nation play nice and avoid war, especially nuclear. No need for a PowerPoint presentation or a fancy PhD.
And no clearer example of the “complex is the new simple” dynamic can be found than in Asia. For decades, the planet’s most populous region has moved forward on the operational premise that war is the enemy, and that it is a huge impediment to region-wide prosperity. This sensible view has yielded spectacular results. Singapore went from nowhere to being the Switzerland of the East; China went from history’s loser to history’s winner. Japan, for all its economic languor, still tops Germany economically. South Korea is – depending on the rating system – the world’s 10th largest economy or thereabouts. So what’s the problem?
Perhaps any surfeit of success inevitably harvests outcrops of irritation, envy and distrust. Perceived slights become interpreted as policy shifts, if not threats. Resurgent China, now unmistakably the most boisterous elephant in the Asian jungle, is making so much noise tramping around that hardly anyone can sleep at night. The result is an Asia that can seem aggravated, agitated and unsteady.
Consider Singapore, one of the best upsurge stories of the second half of the 20th century. Under its late founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, this overachieving city state managed to gain phenomenal economic traction while annoying as few Asian neighbours as possible (Malaysia being of course a lost cause). On the diplomatic front, this took quite a balancing act: while cosying up to the United States, even hosting a US naval logistics facility on its sovereign territory, and playing nice with Taiwan, Singapore somehow kept China from doubting its genetic Chinese loyalties and throwing it into its doghouse.
But with Lee gone, and his legendary relationship with Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) all but ancient history, Beijing has been giving his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, a hard time. Returning military vehicles from Taiwan are held up during transshipment at a Hong Kong port, pushing Singapore’s diplomatic corps into frenzied behind-the-scenes action to get them released. Worse yet, Lee is not invited to a high-profile economic conference in Beijing. Singapore downplays the snub but obviously it was no oversight. What does it mean? Whatever it is or is not, at a minimum, it is unnerving.
And who will be next to poke the biggest elephant in the Asian jungle? Enter the Philippines, which got a new warning of retaliatory military action from Beijing if it tried to enforce an arbitration ruling over the South China Sea. This is puzzling. After all, has anyone on the planet (with the arguable exception of Cambodia) puckered up to President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) more embarrassingly than President Rodrigo Duterte?
For reasons just or not, Japan always annoys China, and of course the other way too; but through some miracle they have not come to blows. Tokyo is no Manila, and does not have in its character a genetic propensity to back off. Recent Japanese-Chinese diplomacy has sought to calm waters; but, still, some sort of storm never seems too far off.
The Japanese accept the grim reality of the Chinese military build-up, especially naval, because it’s staring them in the face. But this hands Prime Minister Shinzo Abe strong talking points in dialogue with his putatively pacifist-leaning public. He wants serially to loosen the strings of the American-imposed constitution that restricts Japan’s deployment of “self-defence forces”. So the role of the US remains key to the balance, and the Chinese leadership knows it, and bitterly resents it.
Into this maelstrom comes our astonishingly unprepared new American president, now travelling abroad in the Middle East. Besieged by the American media, aides under investigation, attacked constantly by the Democratic minority in Congress, and doubted even by Republican allies in the majority, Donald Trump is still the top decision-maker in the US foreign-policy machine. Is his head too scrambled to make cleared-headed decisions? Do the Chinese worry that they are dealing with a “madman” president? American experts Victor Cha and Michael Green point out that the Chinese as well as the North Koreans are known to wax extremely antsy in the face of unpredictability from rivals, adversaries or even allies who normally evidence predictability and reliability.
They could not be more right. But there is a good side to unpredictability when it yields the unexpectedly smart decision. In a swing away from the old normal, Trump, who brainlessly attacked “China, China, China” during his campaign, has wisely ordered the US Pacific Command in Hawaii to stand down for the time being from major pushy naval forays into South China Sea waters. These excursions, perceived as provocative by Beijing, are officially called freedom of navigation operations. But what for one country might seem like operational freedom, for another might seem like intrusive surveillance.
Earlier this month, Trump was hit with a letter from US senators supporting more such operations. As of this writing, the president, who has warmly invited Beijing to help with the North Korean nuclear imbroglio, is holding his ground. Unexpectedly, perhaps, he is right and the senators are wrong. Give peace a further chance.
Columnist and Loyola Marymount University professor Tom Plate, Asia Media founder, is author of the Giants of Asia series. His next book is Yo-Yo Diplomacy