Why the US is no match for China in Asia, and Trump should have stayed at home and played golf
Hugh White says Asia hands in Washington continue to underestimate the seriousness of the challenge from China, and are mistaken if they think any country in the region wishes to jeopardise ties with Beijing on the back of American promises
You could call it the “Woody Allen Doctrine”. For years, Washington’s formidable band of Asia experts have persuaded US presidents to spend precious days, and endure gruelling transpacific flights, to attend Asia’s annual round of summits with their silly shirts and anodyne communiqués, by quoting the comedian’s most famous line: Eighty per cent of success in life is just showing up.
It is an appealing idea. Simply by attending these meetings, the experts have argued, the president can convince both allies and rivals of America that it is fully committed to Asia, steadfast in the support of its allies and determined to remain the region’s leading power. It doesn’t matter what the president says or does. Just being there is enough to remind the region who is boss.
Well, Donald Trump has disproved all that. His trip to Asia was not enough to prop up US regional leadership. On the contrary, America’s position in Asia would be stronger today if he had stayed at home playing golf on his own courses, rather than undertaken the 12-day trip which ended this week.
Much of the blame for that lies with Trump himself, and the coterie of economic nationalists who crafted his message on trade. That message starkly repudiated the commitment to free trade which has been the bedrock both of Asia’s remarkable economic achievement and of America’s central role in it. Trump’s visit to Asia dealt America out of the region’s economic future.
Trump must also take the blame for the cringingly fawning way he conducted himself in Beijing, the intemperate tweets about North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, and the curious boastful flippancy with which he offered himself as a mediator in the South China Sea disputes.
The trip confirmed that Trump is simply incapable of representing America and its interests effectively on the world stage. Memo to the White House: keep Trump at home.
But it is not all Trump’s fault. We miss the deeper significance of what we have seen over the past couple of weeks if we focus solely on his poor salesmanship. The problems with America’s position in Asia go much deeper than Trump.
These deeper problems are exemplified by the Woody Allen Doctrine. The fact that generations of Asia experts in the White House, the State Department and the think tanks have, even half in jest, suggested that America just needs to keep turning up to summit meetings in Asia shows how grievously they have underestimated – and still do – the seriousness of the challenge from China. They are also exemplified in the ideas and proposals which Washington’s Asia hands had hoped and intended the president would use during his visit.
These were set out in a major speech by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington last month. The big idea he floated was the vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, plainly offered as the alternative to a China-led region. His big proposal was that this vision could be realised, and China’s bid for regional leadership blocked, by concerted cooperation between the region’s foremost democracies – America, Japan, India and Australia – the so-called “Quad”.
Many in Washington put a lot of faith in the “free and open Indo-Pacific” and the Quad. In the previews for Trump’s Asia trip, these ideas were heralded as the foundation stones of a new US-Asia policy to replace the Obama-era “pivot”, which was unceremoniously dumped just weeks after Trump’s inauguration. They hoped and expected that these would emerge as the key messages of the trip, and present a direct and effective riposte to China’s growing assertiveness.
Trump at Apec: ‘Not going to let the US be taken advantage of any more’
But Trump wasn’t interested in delivering this message. His big set-piece speech to Apec (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) CEOs in Da Nang, where he was expected to highlight America’s determination to work with like-minded countries to contain China’s ambitions, hardly touched on these questions. And the much-previewed meeting of senior officials of the Quad nations in Manila was a damp squib.
After my tour of Asia, all Countries dealing with us on TRADE know that the rules have changed. The United States has to be treated fairly and in a reciprocal fashion. The massive TRADE deficits must go down quickly!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 14, 2017
But even if Trump had toned down the protectionist rhetoric and delivered the message that the experts hoped he’d deliver, what difference would it have made? It makes no sense any longer to imagine that China’s bid to replace the US as East Asia’s leading power can be deflected by mere phrasemaking or cosy meetings between officials.
Take the Quad. Its meeting is a classic example of an empty gesture masquerading as a policy. The four countries may have been willing to agree that they would rather China did not dominate the region. But what exactly are they willing to do to stop it?
Does anyone imagine that India is really willing to sacrifice its relationship with China to support Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, or that Japan would endanger its interests with the Chinese to support India in its interminable border disputes with China? Or that Australia would jeopardise trade with China for either of them, or even to support America? That is the reality of China’s power today.
In the stark power politics of Asia today, the Quad would never do anything to contain China’s ambitions unless all four are willing to pay real costs to support the others in standing up to Beijing.
But all of them value their links with China far too much to do that.
China understands that, and the Asia hands in Washington who have been placing such faith in the Quad should understand it too. But they still don’t see what they are up against with China.
Until they do, no matter who is president, the US will fail to resist China’s skilful and relentless campaign to ease America out of Asia, and take its place. And that is the reality that China’s neighbours need to start thinking about much more seriously. Whatever their problems with China, America will not be the answer.
Hugh White is professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra