“To what extent does historical change depend on the actions of a handful of unusual individuals … as opposed to large-scale, long-term, impersonal forces?” Princeton University professor David Bell aptly asked in a timely essay, which is relevant to understanding seismic changes in international politics. In recent months, two key figures have shaken up the geopolitical landscape in Asia. First came the Philippines’ tough-talking President Rodrigo Duterte, who promised to radically recast his country’s foreign policy in favor of greater independence from America and diplomatic engagement with China. In a radical departure from his predecessor, Benigno Aquino Jr., he effectively tossed aside the Philippines’ landmark arbitration case against China in the South China Sea. In pursuit of a more “independent” foreign policy, he also progressively downgraded the Southeast Asian country’s military cooperation with the United States and reduced American naval access to Philippine bases.
When Washington, DC was perturbed by human-rights concerns and began to criticize Duterte’s campaign against illegal drugs, Duterte made the unprecedented move of lashing back at top American officials, including President Barack Obama. He even went so far as to threaten a total severance of bilateral relations with his country’s sole treaty ally. Meanwhile, the Duterte administration doubled down on developing military cooperation with China and Russia, both of which had offered advanced weaponry for the Philippine National Police as well as the armed forces of the Philippines. Almost singlehandedly, Duterte undermined the Obama administration’s ability to mobilize regional support against China, as other South China Sea claimant states also began to lurch into Beijing’s embrace.
The advent of the Donald Trump administration in America, however, represents another major shock to the Asian order—albeit on a far larger and more consequential scale. Undoubtedly, the new American leadership represents both opportunities and challenges for the region. Notwithstanding the merits of an American foreign policy that is sensitive to domestic economic exigencies, the new American government will have to remain engaged, in both economic and geostrategic terms. After all, Asia is the center of global economic gravity and hosts Asia’s new battlefields.
The New Abnormal
President Trump’s neo-isolationist and protectionist posturing, particularly his decision to scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement shortly after entering office, not only puts into question America’s commitment to the principles of free trade in the region, but has also raised the specter of trade wars among the world’s biggest economies. More recently, the American president has threatened to impose a whopping 35 percent tariff on trading nations accused of shortchanging the United States.
He has not only gone on an offensive against China, the chief global revisionist power, but also America’s most important ally in Asia, Japan, branding both Asian powerhouses as “currency manipulators.” Even America’s immediate neighbors, Canada and Mexico, have been put on notice, as the Trump administration considers renegotiating, if not totally scrapping, the North American Free Trade Agreement. Amid growing domestic concerns over the impact of globalization on American workers, this is surely good domestic politics.
But any assault on the principle as well as substance of free-trade agreements risks undermining American primacy, particularly in the trade- and investment-hungry Asia. Strategically, it undermines America’s ability to put a dent on China’s rising economic influence in the region, as Beijing expands and consolidates its wide network of free-trade arrangements with almost all major economies in the Asia-Pacific theatre. With TPP out of the picture, China is more vociferously pushing ahead with alternative trading agreements, which will solidify its economic grip on regional economies.
In particular, China is eager to finalize the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership as well as a free-trade area for the Asia-Pacific agreements. To underscore the centrality of free trade in the region, key American allies, such as Australia and New Zealand, have pushed for a “TPP minus one” initiative, with Canberra going so far as to invite China to join the formerly American-led trade initiative.
The Sheriff is Back
As one senior official from a key American ally recently shared in a closed-door discussion, “This is probably how superpowers [referring to America] commit suicide.” Australians, in particular, are still hoping that the Trump administration will rejoin the pan-regional free trading initiatives at a later time. There is profound anxiety among allies over the prospect of American economic-diplomatic disengagement.
While there is almost unanimous opposition to a more insular and economically disengaged America, many regional states are not entirely pessimistic vis-à-vis Trump’s defense policy in Asia. If anything, my recent conversations with current and former senior defense officials in Japan and Australia suggest that there is a great sense of optimism in the air. As one former admiral put it, “Now the Chinese are beginning to take America seriously again, proceeding with greater caution than before.” Many see Trump’s tough talk against China as a potential blessing in disguise, though there are still legitimate concerns over a dangerous escalation between the two superpowers.
Nowadays, there is a near consensus among defense experts that the Obama administration was too cautious and reticent in dealing with China, particularly in the South China Sea. In fact, as a former senior Pentagon official admitted, “We were caught flat-footed by the speed and scale of China’s reclamation activities” in the Spratly chain of islands. As far as America’s defense policy in Asia is concerned, there is a great anticipation of a “status quo plus” scenario, whereby the Trump administration will ramp up its predecessor’s naval presence and military countermeasures in flashpoints from the South to the East China Sea, as well as the Korean Peninsula.
Defense Secretary James Mattis’s recent trip to Asia, where he visited the key allies of Seoul and Tokyo, was a largely successful “reassurance” maneuver. Such efforts should continue unabated, backed up by concrete commitments on the ground. Hardly any prominent expert or policymaker thinks, so far, that America will militarily disengage from the region. In fact, even the Duterte administration is beginning to reset military relations with the Pentagon, which is set to expand its access to Philippine bases. Most joint military exercises, with the exception of Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training and Philippines-U.S. Amphibious Landing Exercise, will continue as usual. In short, there is a high chance that Philippine-U.S. defense relations could inch closer to status quo ante and expand further in the future, if and when China decides to aggressively push the envelope in the South China Sea.
In fact, Duterte himself has encouraged America to “lead the way and stop” China’s reclamation activities in the disputed waters. He has also warned China against “siphoning off” Philippine resources in the area, lest he take a radically different approach. Overall, among allies and strategic partners, there is cautious optimism over Trump’s defense policy in Asia. But military engagement alone won’t do it. It is imperative for the new American government to also put economic carrots on the table, and build on the impressive breadth of the Obama administration’s diplomatic interaction with regional states and institutions.
Richard Javad Heydarian Note: This article is based on conversations between the author and senior officials and experts in Japan and Australia between January 30 and February 4.