The Canberra hawks hope that our tough stance on China will encourage US resolve. But that underestimates the flightiness of Donald Trump.
From an Asian viewpoint it’s as if the American Imperium is off on sick leave.
The US President and Secretary of State were “no shows” at the Asian summits in Bangkok, a contrast with the Obama presidency during which the president and his two secretaries of state attended carefully to the Asian summit calendar. The downgraded US delegation offered a meeting with Trump’s new national security adviser, Robert O’Brien. Seven out of 10 ASEAN heads of government skipped it, only sending foreign ministers.
Last year, a poll by a Singapore think tank showed that 73 percent of the south-east Asian elite considered China the dominant power in the region. While most of ASEAN wants the US to stay in Asia to balance China they have to calculate that China is just over the horizon, growing richer by the month and eager to export surplus infrastructure under the rubric of Belt and Road. Trump’s dishevelled policy-making has made this settled orthodoxy in the region’s foreign ministries.
One source says Canberra has tilted to adversarial policies on China because China wants to unwind the US alliance system in the region. The logic is foggy and the dots don’t join: why would India, Japan or any ASEAN state go hard on China because Canberra keeps “calling out” China or routinely demands more US ships and planes in Asia?
Instead of deferring to Canberra, India and Japan are guided by their own calculus of national interest. In fact, not even our good friend Singapore picks up the Australian tone. The speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Shangri-La Dialogue in May is markedly at odds with it.
Ever the naïf, we failed to anticipate that an erratic US president himself, not sinister Chinese diplomats, might do the unwinding.
The US is still distracted in the Middle East with any attempt to disengage by a president sick of endless wars being contradicted by a feisty, interventionist Congress. More important, Washington will be absorbed by an impeachment process for at least three months, poisoning its national life and rendering it yet more polarised, before it fades into an historically bitter presidential election.
ASEAN’s capitals follow what the US does in the Middle East: Malaysia and Indonesia because of openness to the Islamic world, Singapore because of sensitivities about its own survival, others like Thailand and Myanmar because of their interest in US-China rivalries. Leave aside the abandonment of the Kurds – what are the ASEANs to make of US retreat from military resistance to Iran? One minute “locked and loaded”, the next leaving the Saudis on their own with the president’s attention jerked back to the trench warfare in his own capital.
Exactly two years ago the US began to invoke the Indo-Pacific as an organising principle for US foreign policy. But if the Yanks can’t deliver their president or top diplomat to Asia’s annual forum then talk of the Indo-Pacific might be as ephemeral as other US foreign policy constructs, like Condoleezza Rice’s attempt at democracy promotion in the Middle East (abandoned when Hamas won an election in Gaza) or Obama’s rebalance to Asia (expiring when there was no pivot out of the Middle East, and when Trump dumped the Trans-Pacific Partnership).
Policy papers on the Indo-Pacific rhapsodise about open economies trading their way to higher growth. But the rhetoric stutters to a halt as Trump makes the US the world’s chief protectionist, hitting Asia with new tariffs and leaving to China the leadership of the new Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
Doubting US regional resolve, Japan last year launched rapprochement with China. President Xi is slated to visit in March, which confirms a resumption of normal exchanges and the setting aside of maritime territorial disputes.
The relationship of two US allies, South Korea and Japan, is now at rock bottom: boycotts, military provocations, an end to intelligence sharing. What’s striking is the absence of any initiative from Trump to nudge them to reconciliation, the kind of diplomacy that Obama or Clinton would have relished.
At the other end of the Indo-Pacific arc, Pakistan and India are fiercely at odds over Indian policies in Kashmir. US attention to their hostility is less than under any of the past three presidents.
It’s hardly an Indo-Pacific falling in line behind US leadership to contain China, and a long way from an Asian NATO in the making. ASEAN officials in any case are working on their own Indo-Pacific document without the geo-strategic character of Washington’s.
Trump “doesn’t know much about Asia”, snaps its longest serving leader, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. He and the Thais are fighting off hostile trade moves from the US entirely at odds with Washington rhetoric about “a free and open Indo-Pacific”.
We may be headed for a time when no single power will dominate Asia the way the US once did. But it’s hard to resist Paul Keating’s simple realism: no non-Asian power will.
If alliance romantics in Australia imagine a triumphant return to the region with a change of president they might take a closer look at the foreign policies of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. There is hostility to China aplenty but no hint of the resources required to challenge its rise. Both promise to cut, not increase, military spending. The trillions slated for free health care and college tuition would seem to guarantee that.
Bob Carr is the longest-serving premier of NSW and former foreign minister of Australia. He is Industry Professor of Climate and Business at the University of Technology Sydney.
This article was published by Australian Financial Review on the 8th of November 2019.