Living in a post-American Asia

The East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers Meeting in the Philippines next week occurs almost exactly a year and a month after the decision of the South China Sea Arbitration Tribunal rejecting China’s claims to the waterway. And yet diplomatic murmurings suggest that none of the rival claimants will so much as mention it. Evidence is mounting that with each passing month of the Trump presidency, the willingness of south-east Asian countries to resist China’s demands wilts further. As America’s Asia policy has gone missing, our Asian neighbours have little will to stand up for rules and norms that are being challenged by China.

There is no US Asia policy under Trump and it is unlikely one will emerge. For Trump, having a clear strategy is a bad idea because it makes you predictable and able to be exploited. But unlike in the business world, clearly articulated foreign policy doctrines are important because they provide reassurance to your allies and partners. This seems lost on the Donald.

Trump looks at Asia with different eyes than every American President since Theodore Roosevelt. Where his predecessors all saw Asia as essential to American prosperity, Trump thinks Asia is exploiting America’s generosity. For the 45th president, liberal internationalism isn’t a core American value; it’s a conspiracy peddled by other countries to free ride on the US.

Trump’s approach to Asia is therefore to avoid being bound by unspoken rules, grand strategy or transcendent ideals; it is to deal with issues as they arise and get the best deal for America. A country’s place in US foreign policy is determined by its impact on America’s balance sheet. Everything is on the table in the service of improving the balance sheet in America’s favour: steel tariffs; arms sales to Taiwan; mooted meetings with the North Korean dictator. And as Beijing has discovered in recent weeks, any country believed not to be living up to its side of the bargain can expect some pretty robust US counter-moves.

Enduring principles

To Asian eyes, Trump’s approach to the region is confusing since it seems at the same time familiar and utterly alien to the long-established principles of American strategy in Asia. US policy in Asia since the end of the 19th century has been based around four enduring principles. First, that US business must have commercial access to Asian markets on conditions favourable to the American business model. This principle animated the US “Open Door” policy towards China in 1899 as much as it animated the Trans-Pacific Partnership under Obama.

Second, Washington cared more about stability than principle. Dictators were tolerated in Asia as they never would have been in Europe – as long as they were predictable and favoured US-facing economic development. Third, American commitments had to be cost-effective in terms of personnel, money and the guarantees given to allies. Fourth, US power was much more about commanding the commons – the greenback, the US Navy, US technologies, and American investment – than putting troops and bases in theatre.

What’s hard to fathom in Asian capitals is that Trump seems consistent with principles one (commercial access) and three (cost effectiveness) but to have jettisoned any American commitment to ensuring Asia’s stability or dependable rules and institutions. We should not underestimate the magnitude of this shift for the strategic orientation of our region.

As the rise of China has driven a power transition in Asia over the last two decades, American resolve and predictability has been the gyroscope around which every regional country has managed the changing order. Whether or not allied to the US, smaller countries in the region have drawn strategic confidence from knowing that the world’s most powerful country was determined to stay in the region and stand up for the status quo. America’s wealth, strength and leadership gave small countries space to look to their own independent interests and invest in the regional bodies seeking to keep the transition peaceful.

China in uncompromising mood

No Asian leader believes this is the case any more. Appeals for Washington’s support are likely to vanish into the chaos of the White House or worse, to be regarded as a sign of willingness to concede a better deal to the US. In the blink of an eye, south-east Asia’s sense of strategic autonomy and sense of agency in helping shape the region’s power transition has gone. China knows this and senses that the time is right to be even more uncompromising.

Amid this sudden turn for the worse, Australia stands with no strategy for how to respond. Continuing to insist that countries uphold “the rules based order” is doubly pointless, since it will not resonate with China or Trump’s America. Doubling down on the US alliance will not bring the old, predictable US policy back. Australian foreign policy needs to find a new framework fast – one that simultaneously convinces China and the United States to moderate their expectations, encourages India, Japan and Indonesia to play enduring stabilising roles in the region, and emboldens smaller south-east Asian countries that they can and must play a role in finding a new, multipolar stability for the region. Let’s hope that’s what we get in the new foreign policy White Paper.

 

Source: afr

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