Will Trump force Asia to choose China?
David Shambaugh says with the Trump administration seemingly withdrawing its attention from Asia – to the unease of the region’s smaller nations – China will be the one to benefit. But can Beijing seize the day?
It is no secret that the competition for power and influence between the United States and China in Asia has been growing in recent years, and is now thought of by most analysts as the principal geostrategic factor in the region. The Obama administration did much to enhance American power and standing in the region, leaving their successors with perhaps the strongest position the US has ever held in the region. But the Trump administration is potentially on the verge of squandering – if not wrecking – it.
Should the Trump administration become more internally preoccupied – as it is giving every sign of being – or even if it is distracted from Asia for six months or more, it will have the net effect of significantly enhancing China’s position. If mishandled by Washington, history may look back on this period as the turning point similar to when Britain retreated from the western hemisphere at the dawn of the 20th century, paving the way for America’s “manifest destiny” to prevail.
While inattention to Asia would be very deleterious for America and the region, Donald Trump’s likely confrontational policies towards China will place even more strain on various countries throughout the Indo-Asian region. Most Asian states have sought – and struggled to maintain – balanced relations between Washington and Beijing in recent years; they do not wish to “choose” between Washington and Beijing and, above all, they seek a stable and functional US-China relationship. At a minimum, Trump’s likely confrontational China posture will make them extremely nervous and, at a maximum, may entice some to gravitate closer to China.
None will side with the US in such a superpower spat. And there is zero appetite to support Trump over his apparent desire to reopen discussion on the “one China” policy. They much prefer Uncle Sam to remain a steadfast balancer against expanding Chinese ambitions and influence.
Taken together with the fluid dynamics of the region at present, Trump could offer Beijing a golden opportunity to expand its position and influence. By neglecting the region while confronting China, such a schizophrenic posture could squander America’s currently strong position in Asia.
These dynamics are particularly acute here in Southeast Asia, where the geostrategic and geo-economic sands have been shifting significantly in recent months. There is considerable fluidity at present and China’s position and influence is growing quite quickly. Across the region, China is exploiting openings and opportunities. To be certain, its island-building and territorial claims in the South China Sea – which were legally nullified by The Hague ruling – have been a net negative for Beijing, but overall China’s role has steadily grown in recent years. Its geographic proximity and money are Beijing’s two greatest assets in extending its influence.
China has become the dominant economic actor in the region. It surpassed the US in goods trade with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2007; by 2014, China’s goods trade with Asean was US$480 billion – more than twice the US total of US$220 billion. The 2010 China-Asean Free Trade Area has done much to dramatically grow this trade. China’s direct investment into Southeast Asia is also growing rapidly on an annual basis, although the total stock of American investment in Southeast Asia remains greater than China, Japan and the EU combined.
As China’s footprint and influence have broadened, it is also important to note that China’s embrace can sometimes feel suffocating to smaller states. This was Myanmar’s experience. Once in China’s embrace, it is very difficult to get out of it. As a Thai diplomat told me in Bangkok last week, “It is too late to get out of China’s embrace, but we need to learn how to be embraced without being crushed.”
Despite the strong “gravitational pull” of China, many Southeast Asian countries do not wish to be drawn fully into its orbit – a 21st-century version of the ancient “tribute system”. They accept a high degree of “connectivity” with China, but eschew dependency. Asean states have a long and hard-fought tradition of independence and neutrality; fending off dominance by big powers is nothing new to these states. Yet it is much easier to deal with big powers if they are a long way away – whereas China is right next door. It will be difficult to avoid dependency, given China’s proximity and huge amounts of money, ability to build much-needed infrastructure across the region, its Belt and Road initiative, its diplomatic assertiveness, and the overseas Chinese role as a commercial conduit for Chinese business. This is why the US, and to a lesser extent Japan, offer Southeast Asian countries crucial alternatives and balance against China.
Looking ahead, US-China strategic competition will continue to be the overarching strategic factor in the broad Indo-Asian region. This competition and the accompanying tensions are only likely to increase in the months ahead as a result of a more confrontational Trump administration posture towards China (especially if it involves an attempt by Trump to contest the “one China” principle), combined with relative inattention to Southeast Asia.
This dynamic will place a variety of Asian countries in an increasingly uncomfortable position. Most of them are unlikely to be supportive of Trump’s confrontational China policy, which, combined with Beijing’s ability to deliver tangible economic and diplomatic benefits to various states, may well produce a gravitational shift in the Asian regional order away from the US and towards China. There is no doubt a lot of contingency planning is going on (or should be) in various Asian governments. The region is crying out for reassurance and continuity in American policy.
Finally, we will have to see how adroit China is in its regional diplomacy and ability to take advantage of the vacuum potentially presented by the Trump administration. While Beijing has a demonstrated capacity to use its economic clout, it has also shown itself often to be diplomatically demanding. If you do not agree with China, it will punish you economically – which creates ill will. China’s soft power also remains relatively weak – especially when compared with American popular culture, universities and open society.
Nor does China have the military capability (or inclination) to become the security guarantor for the region. Only the United States has that capacity. Thus, just because the Trump administration may hand Beijing a strategic opportunity on a golden platter does not mean that China can effectively take advantage of it.
David Shambaugh is distinguished visiting professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, on leave from George Washington University