America under Trump lacks the commitment to compete with China in Asia to defend the global order

William Choong says despite the challenge a rising China presents to the post-war security order, it is the Trumpian approach of excoriating allies and tearing up global rules that has the region worried. Recent efforts to reaffirm US commitment just do not go far enough

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 August, 2018, 2:03am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 August, 2018, 2:02am

When James Mattis, the US secretary of defence, took to the stage at the 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, the mood in the Island Ballroom of the eponymous luxury hotel was apprehensive. The Donald Trump administration was five months old, and the new US president had withdrawn from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership and sought to renegotiate Nafta.

But Mattis hit all the right notes about the sustainability of American power in the Asia-Pacific. Asked whether the United States was “present at the destruction” of the US-led post-war order, Mattis dodged the bullet by paraphrasing Churchill: “Bear with us. Once we have exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing.”

Fast forward a year, and the Trump administration has made some headway in the region. In April, a bipartisan effort in Congress saw the introduction of the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) aimed at reassuring allies, deterring adversaries and securing US regional leadership.

Speaking at the 2018 edition of the Shangri-La Dialogue, Mattis stressed yet again that the interests of the US and the region are “inextricably intertwined”, singled out China’s “intimidation and coercion” in the South China Sea and called for a “free and open Indo-Pacific”.

At meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Singapore recently, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a US$300 million package for security cooperation across the Indo-Pacific focused on maritime security, humanitarian help and countering transnational threats. He also announced a US$113 million investment into technology, energy and infrastructure initiatives.

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In the battle for influence in the region, however, it is not that the American approach to the Indo-Pacific has changed that much; it is China’s position which has changed more.

China is now the top trading partner for Asean, and for US allies Australia, New Zealand and Japan. And for a region crying out for investment in infrastructure, China’s US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative, despite accusations that it is a “debt trap”, is making headway. China’s military spending continues unabated. IISS Military Balance figures show that China’s defence spending, in 2010 dollars, doubled in the decade leading up to 2018, to US$135.6 billion.

China’s strategy is not hard to decipher: weaken US alliances, erode American centrality in China’s periphery and, eventually, create a new security order in Asia with China at the core. A classic example is the Philippines – a long-standing US treaty ally which has carried out an about-face in its dispute with China over features in the South China Sea.

To Washington’s credit, it is now proffering the so-called Indo-Pacific strategy. This is nothing out of the ordinary, in its stress on principles such as a rules-based order, freedom of navigation, respect for international law and maritime security.

Watch: The South China Sea dispute explained

The Indo-Pacific strategy and the “Quad” (the US, India, Japan and Australia), which has more of a military manifestation, do not have “China” written all over them. But, quite astutely, China sees them as a form of soft containment.

The Indo-Pacific strategy has yet to yield tangible outcomes for a region more inclined to economics than hard security. The US$113 million connectivity initiative is laudable, but the challenge would lie in Washington helping US business to identify bankable projects and easing joint ventures between American companies and their counterparts from other countries.

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Similarly, as my colleague Rahul Roy-Chaudhury argues, India’s interests and strategy sit uneasily with those of the other Quad members. New Delhi’s engagement with the Indo-Pacific will be “diplomatic, economic and rhetorical”. India’s focus will remain west of the Strait of Malacca.

More importantly, the US’ “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy means little – for now – in terms of halting China’s controversial militarisation of the South China Sea.

In June, Mattis said that the US had disinvited China from Rimpac – the world’s largest naval exercise – and warned of “much larger consequences”. The Trump administration has conducted six freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. Yet, these operations are technical-legal instruments to challenge excessive maritime claims, and are not meant as displays of deterrence or military strength.

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Essentially, how China manages the South China Sea dispute is a microcosm of how it will deal with the wider region – that is, foisting its narrative of a power reclaiming past glories from a “century of humiliation”, the sidelining of international agreements (such as the 2016 Hague ruling on the South China Sea) and Beijing’s preference for dealing bilaterally with claimant countries.

The reality on the ground (or high seas) has not gone unnoticed across the region. What is most disturbing for regional states, however, is the Trumpian urge to undo the very rules-based order that has been undergirded by American power through the decades. Trump’s rage against the system – his tirades about multilateral trade deals, attacks on the defence spending of Nato allies, the ditching of the Paris climate accord and comity with Vladimir Putin – has sparked much concern.

To allies and partners, the Trumpian “America first” approach suggests they might be ditched next. After all, Trump has asked allies like Japan to pay more for their defence, then slapped them with tariffs and withdrawn from the TPP (a pillar of the Japanese prime minister’s economic plan).

Unnecessary concerns about China’s role in South Pacific

Not surprisingly, what were whispers of disquiet last year have now become a resounding chorus.

Speaking at a IISS Fullerton Lecture in March 2017, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop warned that regional countries were in a “holding pattern” to see if the US and its allies would play a “robust and constructive” role in preserving the peace.

At this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen noted that both the US and China had deviated from global norms to protect their core interests – Washington for slapping tariffs on steel and aluminium imports, Beijing for its build-up in the South China Sea.

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Speaking at another IISS Fullerton Lecture earlier in August, Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland directed the biggest warning yet about Washington’s unravelling of the post-war regional order. Canada and like-minded countries, she said, should not accept a world defined by a “ruthless struggle” between great powers along short-term and mercantilist “pursuit of self interest”.

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The administration of Barack Obama’s approach to the region was marked by what I once termed an “attention deficit disorder”, given its focus on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as concerns in the US “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia.

The Trump administration’s problem is far more serious – whether the boilerplate reassurances by Mattis and Pompeo about US staying power in the region carry any weight, given the unpredictability of the man in the Oval Office.

True, talk about America’s demise in the region is grossly exaggerated, given the strength of Washington’s regional trading relationships, its network of alliances, and its unparalleled defence budget. But if Trump continues on this track, America’s aura across the region will only diminish.

William Choong is a Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies