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Politics

A Sino-American showdown in Southeast Asia?

Trump's tough talk heightens regional tensions between superpowers

| China

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.

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