While the United States has been locked in a bitter campaign between two contenders to the presidency and major policymaking is on hold, China has been busy trying to win friends and influence in its neighbourhood. It has had two striking successes with the leaders of the Philippines and Malaysia, each inclined to endear himself to Beijing for his own reasons.
The more dramatic visit was of the new Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, America’s traditional closest ally in the region. After earlier abusing President Barack Obama at regional gatherings with epithets hardly in the realm of polite conversation, he declared in China that he wanted “separation” from the US.
It is still far from clear whether he has thought through a new policy, but his invectives were full of venom against Washington DC tracing his own mixed ancestry to China, seeking the withdrawal of US troops stationed in his country and implying that he would abrogate a bunch of new agreements signed rather recently. What seems to have particularly annoyed him was criticism of his tough policy of eliminating drug addicts without often observing the rule of law.
Mr Duterte was, however, signalling a desire to draw closer to China because it was a neighbour. Ironically, the Philippines had won a major court battle at The Hague international tribunal on a plea by the preceding regime rubbishing most of China’s claims in the South China Sea. Mr Duterte, however, has gone soft on this verdict in the hope of building better relations with Beijing.
Although Washington has shown patience and tolerance over Mr Duterte’s extravagant and insulting rhetoric, the apparent change in Manila’s policy represents a major setback to the so-called US pivot to Asia. It is not clear, however, how far Mr Duterte will go in implementing the radical changes he has been proclaiming. In striking contrast to his rhetoric in China, he has toned down his proposals on his return home. Apart from the strategic implications of implementing his anti-American ideas, he cannot be ignorant that the US occupies very high popularity among Filipinos, a significant number of whom live in the US and send remittances home.
The second suitor China entertained recently was Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has had more than his share of problems, particularly over the losses incurred by the state company 1Malaysia Development Berhad being investigated in the US for embezzlement. China helped by buying 1MDB’s power assets, thus reducing its debt.
China is Malaysia’s largest trading partner and what has caused waves in Washington are a number of agreements signed in Beijing, including a wide-ranging cooperation deal jointly to develop coastal patrol vessels and on a high speed train between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. The US and Russia have been the traditional arms suppliers to Malaysia.
Although both these Southeast Asian countries might have their own reasons to overlook the severe reverse Beijing suffered at the hands of The Hague court, China has perhaps slowed down but not reversed its decision to transform hilly formations in the South China Sea into islands capable of hosting military assets. At the very least, the kind of support Washington expected from those directly affected by the Chinese grab of hilly formations in the South China Sea has not materialised.
Indeed, the next US President will have his or her hands full in making sense of Mr Obama’s pivot to Asia in the new circumstances of a two-way wooing of neighbouring states. The Obama policy of minimising commitments in the Middle East, except to tackle the so-called Islamic State through air attacks and minimal special forces, has still to bear fruit.
Beijing, in the meantime, is seeking to strengthen its own position by sprinkling economic favours tinged with an implied fear factor of a new powerful China capable of settling scores to the disadvantage of a far-off superpower.
With the Philippines wobbly and Malaysia guarding its China flank, Washington’s planners are now having to remain content with a loose coalition comprising Japan, Australia, Vietnam and India in taking on China’s new offensive to stamp its authority in the region. Here again, the Washington interregnum will prove to be a handicap.
In a sense, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was a highly successful grouping in knitting the nations together. Once China activated its diplomacy, Asean is in danger of becoming a toothless tiger in acting on major political issues concerning the region because it had bought the loyalty of countries such as Cambodia and Laos through major financial assistance. The negative votes of one member state nullify any proposal Beijing considers inimical to its interests.
In the new circumstances, perhaps Mr Obama’s pivot to Asia will have to be reconfigured. It is no longer a question of moving more military assets to the region in the shape of aircraft-carriers and other symbols of naval might. Rather, Washington is in an intense conflict with Beijing on winning regional friends and guaranteeing them of American protection from hostile moves by the dominant regional power.
Whoever wins the US presidency, the problems thrown up by China’s new muscular policy will not go away. Washington will have to work out a new calibrated policy taking account of Beijing’s legitimate interests while seeking to deny it the capacity to play mischief.
The Beijing power structure is in a particularly optimistic mood, President Xi Jinping having been crowned the “core” leader. While power seems to have been further centralised, the Chinese are averse to taking risks unless a major interest is involved.
What remains to be determined is how soon after the presidential election result the new President will get to the Asian theatre. If Hillary Clinton wins, the future will be more predictable in reorienting the pivot. In the case of Donald Trump’s victory, no one knows the answer. His rhetoric has been laced with so many extravagant proposals that the outcome remains unpredictable.