In a couple of weeks’ time, Xi Jinping should have re-established himself as China’s paramount leader. He can then turn to welcoming the leader of the other pole in the global geopolitical axis, US President Donald Trump, who will be visiting a series of Asia’s most sensitive regions to smooth feathers ruffled by his administration in recent months.
In November, Trump will give a speech at the Apec conference in Hanoi that has the potential to set the agenda in Asia for a generation to come. Xi will be listening, and more than half-willing his American counterpart to fail – but not completely. Trump’s failure could actually be a “nightmare” for Xi, or so argues an important new book.
China’s World, by veteran Asia analyst Kerry Brown, would serve as an excellent primer if Trump wants to understand the challenges that face him as he travels to China, South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam. One of Brown’s central points is that America’s decisions in the region in the very near future will determine the actions of a China that is still hesitant about how far and how fast to increase its influence and temper its actions.
“The opportunity to be a truly regional dominant power is within China’s grasp,” he argues, but the country is still poised between a new boldness and the traditional timidity that prevents it from having a genuinely global vision.
That is why Trump’s Apec speech in Hanoi has the potential to be so important. The president’s visit could be a turning point for US policy in the region, but by definition, that also means it’s a turning point for Beijing as well. If the US is serious about creating a regional alliance to deal with North Korea, reassure South Korea, work to shape the policy direction of Shinzo Abe’s Japan, and deepen new alliances with former enemies such as Vietnam, then Trump needs to work hard and speak clearly.
This latest farcical situation in the US, with the president appearing to be at war with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, doesn’t help. Nor does the rumour that the Trump’s Hanoi speech may be written by Stephen Miller, one of the White House policy advisers closest to Steve Bannon, who has spoken of a future war with China.
The policy crisis being engendered in the region is real and becoming more evident. On a recent visit to Singapore, I was struck by the way that foreign policy seems to be more split over how to manage the precarious balancing act between the US and China that veteran leader Lee Kuan Yew navigated for decades.
Singapore never became a formal ally of the US, unlike the Philippines or Japan, but it certainly regarded America as a close and trusted partner. Yet it was able to tack towards China too; encouraging Mandarin language study and nurturing a rhetorical closeness to Jiang Zemin’s China in the late 1990s in a shared discourse over (supposed) Asian values. Now there is a sense that Singapore may be forced to choose. A Trump doctrine that is ambivalent about the region may strengthen the conviction that Singapore has to tack more strongly towards the one power that, through reasons of geography, will not be leaving the Asia-Pacific region under any circumstances.
“China has had to factor in the immense unpredictability that Trump has brought with him,” Brown notes in his book. The question now is whether China has the skills to turn that unease in the region into regional willingness to hear what China has to say.
This would demand a large number of pivots. First, it would mean taking South Korea’s concerns over security seriously, which means active creation of a multi-party regional mechanism in which China would have to take the lead and responsibility for success in addressing the North Korea crisis. It would also mean finding a new language to use with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Japan.
But China is a position of strength right now. If Trump’s visit to Asia is as problematic as his recent trip to Europe, then Xi’s hand will be stronger still. It will be up to him to decide how to use it. ■
Rana Mitter is Director of the University China Centre at the University of Oxford and author of A Bitter Revolution: China’s Struggle with the Modern World and China’s War with Japan, 1937-45: The Struggle for Survival