January 15, 2017 6:00 pm JST
Thitinan Pongsudhirak

A Sino-American showdown in Southeast Asia?

Trump's tough talk heightens regional tensions between superpowers

From his election campaign to the eve of his inauguration, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's initial isolationist leanings have morphed into a knee-jerk foreign policy conducted under an "America First" geostrategic mantra.

Ushering in the most controversial presidential transition in recent memory, Trump has ominously contributed to ongoing tectonic power shifts in the global geopolitical landscape. While his partial embrace of Russia under President Vladimir Putin will spawn myriad challenges for the European Union's dealings with the Kremlin and will also likely have repercussions in the remaking of the Middle East, Trump's tough talk on China will guarantee heightened tensions in Asia from the Korean peninsula and the Taiwan Strait to the South China Sea.
 
As China pushes back and tests America's mettle under the Trump administration, both Northeast and Southeast Asia will need to see a more assertive policy conducted by such key regional middle-power U.S. allies as Japan and Australia. If they or the U.S. fail to conduct a credible display of force and a willingness to use it, the smaller states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will have little choice but to accommodate China and eke out the best possible deals with Beijing because of their lack of leverage.
 
China's consistent and predictable resolve to test America's commitment to the region has been conspicuous during the past decade of geopolitical rivalry. While U.S. President Barack Obama was proclaiming his "rebalance" strategy toward Asia, China was taking over Scarborough Shoal in April 2012 and later proceeded to seize, build and militarize a string of nearby artificial islands as ASEAN claimant states protested in vain. In response, China shrewdly kept ASEAN off balance by pitting Beijing's non-claimant allies, such as Cambodia, against the claimant states led by the Philippines.
 
The Philippines countered by taking the case to an international arbitral tribunal under the United Nations-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration, and won an overwhelming victory in July 2016 that denied China's historical claims. But China ignored the landmark ruling, while the Obama administration reacted with perfunctory statements about international law compliance even though the U.S. has not ratified the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
 
Sensing Obama's "rebalance" rhetoric was hollow, China stuck to its creeping conquest of the South China Sea, while newly elected Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte changed his country's geopolitical playbook and openly courted Beijing. In fact, Duterte's maneuver paralleled Southeast Asia's overall appeasement of China.

Thailand, a U.S. treaty ally like the Philippines, sought support from Beijing after a military coup in May 2014, while Brunei, Cambodia and Laos have tilted toward China throughout the Obama presidency. Duterte's kowtowing to Beijing resulted in a multibillion loan and aid package while gaining Filipino fishermen access to Scarborough Shoal. Then, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak took his turn and came back from Beijing with a comparable sum of infrastructure and investment pledges.
 
China's winning strategy

China has been gaining ground in Southeast Asia by picking off ASEAN member states one by one. No Southeast Asian state can afford to stand up to Beijing on its own. The only way that Duterte's gamble and Southeast Asia's concessions could be seen to be justifiable is if China were to reciprocate by agreeing to a credible and comprehensive Code of Conduct on the South China Sea.

But much could change under the new U.S. president. Trump's early posturing suggests overall U.S. policy on Asia will differ starkly from Obama's. His appointment of former military generals and civilian hawks to his administration and his tough stance on leveling the playing field in terms of trade and investment when it comes to China indicates a more aggressive policy than Obama's lofty talk.

But whether Trump follows up his tough words with muscle or not, Southeast Asia is likely to become an arena of increased geopolitical tension. It is a sure bet that China will increasingly resist any U.S. encroachment as it tries to create a new status quo by occupying land features in the South China Sea.

If the Trump administration matches its rhetoric with military action beyond the current freedom-of-navigation operational patrols, while restoring alliance ties that were weakened by the Obama administration's human rights and democracy agenda, then Beijing will take notice. China will likely only back down in the South China Sea and elsewhere in the Pacific if the cost of its belligerence becomes unacceptable. To exact such a cost would require a regional U.S. military build-up and deployment, which would need to overcome affordability concerns and isolationist sentiments in Washington.
 
The clear alternative for ASEAN is for Japan and Australia to fill the gap where the U.S. falls short. Such a complementary role includes joint naval exercises, military personnel exchanges and information-sharing. These countries should also provide "soft power" outreach in terms of capacity-building and people-to-people exchanges.

Japan and Australia are already doing much of this. They just need to turn up the volume by another notch or two. The U.S. can assume a new role of sometimes being the first among equals instead of always trying to take the lead in support of allies. A Trump administration that places a priority on common interests instead of values will likely result in improved U.S. ties with Thailand and the Philippines.

Japan must sustain its already robust economic tempo in mainland Southeast Asia, which is falling under China's domination, by offering more development projects and sub-regional cooperation along the Mekong River. This would increase the costs for China in maintaining its activities in the South China Sea, forcing Beijing to divert more resources to the Mekong region in order to maintain its dominance there. 
 
No ASEAN state is likely to turn away from a U.S. administration with a realistic game plan for regional rebalancing because no Southeast Asian country wants to see a China looming over its neighborhood if it has a chance to hedge its bets. All ASEAN states would be receptive to a more engaged Japan that has already invested more in Southeast Asia over the past several decades than any other major power. Southeast Asia may have increasingly fallen under the sway of China, but the regional states can - and want to -- regain their footing if and when regional conditions change.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches international relations and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

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