Was Donald Trump’s fiery Apec speech a response to waning US influence in Asia-Pacific?
US president promised in Da Nang to always put America first, but experts say he knows better than to isolate such a key economic region
After an uncharacteristic show of diplomacy during his three days in Beijing, US President Donald Trump’s return to form at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam on Friday was evidence of the tension that remains in the battle for dominance in the Asia-Pacific.
In a fiery and confrontational speech in Da Nang, Trump accused countries in the region of trade abuses that the US would no longer tolerate, and pledged to “always put America first”.
His tone was in sharp contrast to that of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who spoke after Trump and made no bones about his support for globalisation, saying the trend towards it was “irreversible”.
“Openness brings progress while self-seclusion leaves one behind,” Xi said.
Wary of the unfolding rivalry between the world’s two biggest economies, Asian nations have followed Trump’s first visit to China attentively, trying to decipher Beijing’s complex love-hate relationship with Washington and the personal interactions between Trump and Xi.
To many people’s surprise, the US president’s stay in Beijing was largely hassle-free and uneventful.
Instead of much-anticipated diplomatic wrestling over North Korea, trade, Taiwan and the South China Sea, Xi, at the height of his power after being elevated to Mao Zedong-like status last month, exchanged flattery with the embattled Trump, who has been plagued by protracted political chaos at home.
Apart from offering Trump lavish ceremonies, grandiose banquets and a rare respite from protesters and unfriendly media coverage, Beijing also signed more than a dozen business deals worth more than US$250 billion in a move to appease Trump’s discontent over America’s trade deficit with China. Most of the deals were signed in the form of non-binding memorandums of understanding, instead of contracts.
With Trump hailing Xi as a great leader and a friend he respects, observers predict their flourishing personal ties since their first meeting at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida in April may prove useful to steer Sino-US relations through uncertainties and simmering tensions.
But they could hardly alter the geopolitical landscape of structural competition brought about by the relative decline of the United States and rise of China, they said.
“The competition for influence in Asia is well under way and will probably grow fiercer,” said Timothy Heath, a senior international defence research analyst at the RAND Corporation. “The future of the global economy will be centred on Asia, and the United States cannot afford to neglect that region.”
While China’s rise offers regional opportunities for economic prosperity, such as the “Belt and Road Initiative”, Xi’s signature push for global trade and infrastructure development, it has also stirred fear and anxiety among many neighbours.
“The US will thus remain an essential player in ensuring peace and stability in a region full of historical animosities and uncertainty,” Heath said.
Analysts said Beijing’s increasing assertiveness under Xi, especially on its expansive territorial claims, had shifted the balance of power and rendered a formula that had worked for the past quarter of a century effectively useless.
“The dualist approach of ‘going with China for economics and going with America for security’ that many countries in the region have pursued will bring more problems than benefits for them in the future,” Alexander Vuving, a China expert at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies in Honolulu, said.
“We are witnessing the beginning of a historical moment of ‘destructive creation’ where countries in the region are seeking and building new approaches to regional security.”
From Beijing’s perspective, the White House’s repeated talk of a vaguely defined Indo-Pacific and an emerging US-led quadrilateral alliance targeting China were alarming and might become new irritants in China’s relations with its Asia-Pacific neighbours, Pang Zhongying, a Beijing-based international affairs expert, said.
“It looks set to revive Beijing’s bad memory about former [US] president Barack Obama’s signature pivot to Asia strategy targeting China – albeit under different names,” he said.
The revival of the “quad” – the US, India, Japan and Australia – first initiated a decade ago is the latest example of an emerging strategic grouping to balance China’s military and economic clout.
Acting US assistant secretary of state Alice Wells said late last month that the informal grouping was aimed at providing alternative options to help countries in the Indo-Pacific region, but denied it was designed to contain China.
Japan has been the most vocal supporter of the US-led initiative, but India and Australia were not enthusiastic about it until recent months, in the face of China’s perceived challenges to the existing, US-led world order.
Australian politicians, including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, have repeatedly warned against alleged attempts by Beijing to influence Australian politics and China’s expansionism in long-standing South China Sea disputes, calling them “direct disregard” of international order.
China’s recent border stand-off with India in the desolate Doklam plateau in the Himalayas had also served as a wake-up call for New Delhi, Dibyesh Anand, a China expert at London’s Westminster University, said.
“Indications are that China’s discontented neighbours, including India and Japan, will not remain silent spectators but forge closer relations with the US and each other,” he said.
With growing competition between Beijing and Washington, Southeast Asia’s mostly small nations would have to turn more and more towards hedging and try to keep out of the way of major rivalries, Jay Batongbacal, a maritime law expert at the University of the Philippines, said.
Unlike mid-ranking powers such as Japan, Australia and South Korea, which were capable of taking a more active role to fill in any voids left by the US, smaller countries had few options left.
“If China continues to press itself on these smaller countries it might actually encourage them to coalesce more rapidly to protect themselves from the possibility of more extreme or harder-edged policies of China,” he said.
Unlike his predecessors, Xi has pursued a bolder and more assertive foreign policy and no longer emphasises the need to reassure the US and Asian neighbours that China’s rise will be peaceful, something he saw as a sign of weakness.
But his ambition to project China’s economic and military power beyond the Asia-Pacific region has strained Beijing’s relations with key regional countries such as Japan, India, Australia and South Korea, and also North Korea and Taiwan.
China’s trade and investment push through chequebook diplomacy, which has seen Chinese investment back many new road, rail and port projects in Asia, has also had a mixed record in reducing suspicions and antagonism towards Beijing.
Many analysts said a watershed moment in Beijing’s relations with its neighbours came when then foreign minister Yang Jiechi snapped at his Singaporean counterpart at a 2010 regional meeting in Vietnam: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”
Vietnam, which for more than a year has been the lone vocal opponent of former communist ally China in the South China Sea disputes, was also at the forefront of the competition between Beijing and Washington, observers said.
Xi’s visit to Vietnam was his first overseas trip since consolidating power at the Communist Party’s five-yearly congress last month, with Vuving describing his trip as “part of a double balancing act by both China and Vietnam”.
He said Hanoi and Beijing continued to challenge each other’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, with China stepping up shows of force to intimidate its smaller neighbour.
During Vietnam’s independence day in early September, China conducted a military drill in a contested area in the sea close to Vietnam’s central coast, prompting angry protests from Hanoi.
But Vietnam’s economic dependency on China, which hampered its efforts to leave China’s orbit and its defence efforts, remained the biggest risk behind Hanoi’s dualist approach.
“Vietnam has actually run out of options,” Vuving said. “It is turning to some [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] members, but the US, Japan and India remain the key players that can help Vietnam counterbalance Chinese influence.”
Analysts said the fact Asia was not particularly stable and that most regional governments tended not to trust one another had also contributed to the tensions and growing rivalry between China and the US.
Trump’s transactional foreign policy, bereft of any consistent, overarching strategy, has accelerated the decline of US influence in the region, antagonised US allies and partners, and allowed China a freer hand in advancing towards regional dominance and the lead on trade, climate and other high-stakes issues.
Carlyle Thayer, a regional defence expert at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, said Trump’s isolationist approach had effectively passed the baton of leadership to Xi in the eyes of Southeast Asian countries and signalled that the post-war era of US primacy was rapidly drawing to a close.
“It does the United States little good to outmatch China in military power if there is no leadership and strategy to use all elements of national power to bolster a rules-based regional and global order in concert with allies, partners and like-minded states,” he said.
“Xi has moved into this void with a condemnation of Western liberal values and offering China as a model for other states to follow.”
Many analysts said that although nine in 10 Americans still favoured a strong global leadership role by Washington, Trump’s disdain for multilateral trade agreements and flip-flops on American commitments to its friends and allies had generated unprecedented strategic uncertainty around the globe.
“An understaffed, underfunded and demoralised State Department has left America punching below its weight in the region,” said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Japan’s Temple University.
Such views were supported by statistics from the American Foreign Service Association, the union that represents diplomats, which warned this week that the ranks of America’s most seasoned diplomats were thinning at a dizzying speed, with 60 per cent of career ambassadors having left the State Department since Trump took office in January.
South Korean analysts said the recent thawing of ties between China and South Korea over the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system was a huge geopolitical gain for China in its regional leadership competition with the US.
“The rapid loss of so many senior officers has a serious, immediate, and tangible effect on the capacity of the US to shape world events,” association president Barbara Stephenson said.
Dr Seong-Hyon Lee, a research fellow at Sejong Institute in South Korea, said: “The US-China relations have entered a ‘structural competition’ period. In fact, the THAAD dispute was more about the rivalry between the US and China in the region.”
During his recent visit to the US, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also expressed concerns over the growing competition between China and the US, saying it had become more difficult to stage a delicate balancing act between the two powers, especially during tensions.
Singapore’s relationship with the two global giants largely depended on how America’s relationship with China developed, he said in an interview.
“Well, it’s never easy to be a small country next to a big neighbour,” he said. “If there are tensions between America and China, we will be asked to pick a side.”
Lee said that was something Singapore did not wish to do.
Like Lee, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is also keen to prove that smaller nations can become power brokers in their own right with equidistant yet fruitful relations with all major powers, especially China and the US.
But deep-rooted mistrust and suspicion about Beijing’s intentions will always remain, not only because of China’s increasing competition with the US, but often because of China’s past lack of transparency about its policies and its repressive practices at home.
“The secrecy of Chinese leadership decision making and the increasingly authoritarian restrictions it imposes on Chinese citizens reduce Chinese influence in some neighbouring countries; Asian observers often judge that the way Beijing rulers treat their people reflects how the rulers would deal with them if China were dominant in Asia,” said Robert Sutter, an international affairs specialist at George Washington University in the US capital.
Describing Beijing as the rising alpha male in Asia, Seong-Hyon Lee said Beijing needed to step up efforts to gain respect from its neighbours while minimising resistance. However, “it still doesn’t seem to know what the real meaning of ‘soft power’ is”.
Batongbacal agreed, saying the much-touted belt and road trade plan had often met with criticism for inadequate assurances and“will only be shiny new trappings for the older geopolitical/geo-economic strategies of imperialism unless China demonstrates otherwise”.
“China, up to the recent past, has been inward looking and self-centred, which runs against the internationalist and international community-building framework of the world order in which it is seeking a place,” he said.
But like many other experts, Batongbacal also expressed hope that Xi’s consolidation of power could be a watershed moment.
“If China chooses to set itself apart and above the rest of the region, claiming pre-emptive and superior rights or prerogatives above others, it may well set the region against it; but if it decides to regard itself as an equal partner in cooperation and benefit, then it will become a truly accepted leader of a community of nations,” he said.
Additional reporting by Kristin Huang, Laura Zhou and Liu Zhen
Illustration: Lau Ka-kuen