America vs China: How Asia can win
SO, who’s ahead in Asia’s geopolitical main event between America and China?
With the top superpower and the rising one jousting for regional support, no prizes for guessing that Asian nations, especially those in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), are getting buttered up with aid and trade, mostly from Beijing, and defense goodies, mainly from Washington.
Just see how President Rodrigo Duterte is wangling favor after favor from China, Japan and America. Much as his critics claim he has capitulated to Beijing’s territorial violations, he has in fact obtained far greater aid from China, Japan and Russia than any other Philippine leader.
And if it finally transpires, the impending return of the Balangiga bells, seized by America’s conquering troops after their heinous massacre of Filipinos over a century ago, would be another unprecedented superpower concession obtained by Duterte’s independent foreign policy.
And now that visiting President Xi Jinping has agreed with Duterte to elevate the China-Philippines relations to “strategic cooperation,” expect Japan and maybe the United States to also press for some upgrading of ties, sweetened by more offers of assistance, investment and other goodies.
Multiply this scenario in varying degrees across Asean and that’s, pretty much, the story of the regional rivalry between China and the United States in recent years all the way to last week’s Asean summit meetings in Singapore and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.
While media understandably focused on the verbal jousts in APEC between Xi and US Vice President Mike Pence, what really counted were not the phrases but the faces and the finances.
That is, who showed up to press the flesh with Asian leaders and what the US and China brought with them to spice the hi’s and hello’s.
In these two all-important markers, the winner by miles was China. With US President Donald Trump staying home, Pence is, well, trumped by Xi, especially in Asian eyes valuing formal titles.
So it was at the 2013 Asean and APEC summits, when then President Barack Obama was a no-show, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton subbing. Plainly face time is of the essence in a region that goes overboard on saving face.
It’s the economy, stupid
Now, it might still have been a draw for Washington if billionaire Trump let money do the talking, with Pence offering big bucks to match Xi’s zillions. But instead of cash and commerce, Pence talked tough on trade, and delivered unsolicited advice on Chinese loans.
It’s no secret that APEC remains keen for even more open markets, despite Trump’s about-face two years ago from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade and investment accord the US had erstwhile championed.
TPP signatories are trying to salvage it, sans Uncle Sam. And Asia-Pacific nations are working hard to get the Beijing-led Regional Cooperation Economic Program signed by next year.
So, APEC and Asean were hardly in any mood for Pence’s trade war rhetoric and threats, which already undercut growth, exports, stock markets and currencies across Asia over the past year.
Also sure to have lead-ballooned was his warning on borrowing too much from China. How can the US tell that to Asean countries with far lower debt, budget and trade deficit levels than America, and have been extra careful with foreign loans and trade balances since the 1997 Asian financial crisis?
The good news for Asia is that the US is gearing up to offer more cash for the region’s growth. Last month Trump created the US International Development Finance Corp. to provide $60 billion in loans, credit guarantees, and investment insurance to American companies investing in developing nations.
Bottom line: The charm race in Asean among America, China and Japan looks set to escalate. Beneficiary countries need to read the fine print and counter any disadvantageous terms and moves by aid givers. But that’s a far better problem than having little assistance on offer.
Asia wants peace in the seas
Uncle Sam predictably warned of Chinese military deployment, including the so-called “wall of SAMs,” or surface-to-air missiles, deployed by the People’s Liberation Army and capable of striking anywhere in the South China Sea.
For sure, Asean is concerned about the reported installation of PLA anti-ship and anti-aircraft armaments in the disputed Spratlys islands. And there may even be some support for the US and its allies challenging China’s territorial claims with freedom of navigation operations, including US Navy sailings near Chinese-reclaimed islands.
But President Duterte encountered no loud challenges in Asia when he said that China had possession of the South China Sea, and criticized naval activity challenging the Chinese.
What Duterte presumably meant is that short of a full-scale war, which no nation wants, it is near-impossible to stop Chinese moves in the South China Sea. And fonops by the US and its allies only escalate regional tensions without budging the Chinese.
Two US naval moves may signal that Washington could be opting to avoid more confrontations in the South China Sea like the near-collision between US and Chinese naval vessels last month.
The much-hyped US naval exercise this month, said to be larger than usual, was held in the Philippine Sea west of the archipelago. And Beijing seemed to accept the joint American-Australian plan to build a naval base on Papua New Guinea.
With the Philippines not implementing the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement which the US sought for its plan to move 60 percent of its naval assets to Asia, Duterte’s view of South China Sea military match-ups seems to hold for now.
That leaves China and Asean to sort out maritime security matters, mainly through the long-awaited Code of Conduct now being negotiated, while the US and its allies beef up defense west of the Philippines.
If this reduces tension and militarization on the high seas, especially if Beijing forges a code that truly advances peace, that’s another plus for Asia.