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Foreign Policy

Changing Alignments in Southeast Asia

Dec 14 , 2016
  • Sajjad Ashraf

    Adjunct Professor, National University of Singapore

President-elect Donald Trump’s announcement that the United States will quit the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) the day he enters office kills the stillborn deal. The 12-nation trade agreement, negotiated during President Barak Obama’s term, specifically excluded China. And without its anchor – the U.S. – the TPP has lost its meaning, says Shinzo Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister.

April this year, when U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter visited India and the Philippines, revealing new military agreements, it was evident that the U.S. had decided to lean on military power to counter China’s growing presence in the Southeast Asian region. Following The Hague ruling over the South China Sea (SCS), China appeared cornered. As the U.S. retched up rhetoric against China, China kept its proverbial cool.
In December, Southeast Asia appears to be a different world. China has scored significant diplomatic success in building relationships with states that seemingly held anti-China positions over the SCS with explicit U.S. support.
The American wish to make the Philippines the bulwark in its campaign to confront China and resist its claims over the SCS has clearly misfired for now. More and more countries now realize that the world is not an American hemisphere where they are expected to kowtow the American diktat. The new Philippines government under President Rodrigo Duterte is doing exactly the opposite of U.S. expectations, and in understanding of geopolitical realities, has decided to peacefully resolve its disputes with China.  
There is no danger of Chinese dominance over the Philippines, says Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasey Jr., adding that experience under the “white big brother” [the U.S.] has produced a national resolve never to allow “any other nation to bully us.”  
Badly in need of development funds, which the U.S. cannot provide, Mr. Duterte stunned the world by announcing during his first overseas visit to China in October that it is “time to say good bye” to America. He halted joint military exercises—joint patrols with the U.S. in the disputed South China Sea—and asked the American military advisors to withdraw from the troubled Mindanao region. Mr. Duterte returned from China with $9 billion in soft loans. The sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal, the subject of initial rancor, was left at the back burner and the Philippines fishermen have since returned there to fish for their livelihood.
Malaysia’s embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak, stung by U.S. accusations of money laundering from the state company 1MBD, followed Mr. Duterte to China within a fortnight, advising former colonial powers to stop lecturing the younger states.  
Malaysia and China announced during Prime Minister Razak’s visit that their navies would henceforth cooperate more in the SCS where both have competing claims. He agreed to buy naval vessels from China in a “landmark” defense deal. Najib has reportedly agreed with the Chinese Prime Minister that the settlement of the South China Sea issue should be reached through bilateral dialogue.
He, too, returned home with Chinese investment commitments of $34 billion. China is also widely expected to win the high speed Kuala Lumpur-Singapore rail contract.
Thailand, which is a treaty ally of the U.S., has also seen its relations with the U.S. suffer over U.S. lecturing on human rights. And now, since the 2014 military takeover, Thailand has announced plans to buy Chinese submarines and has already undertaken joint military exercises with them.
With the majority of ASEAN states opting for a dialogue with China over the SCS, the U.S. policy of China containment through regional states is unraveling.
Back home before Mr. Trump’s TPP announcement, the Obama administration, in the face of Congressional opposition, had abandoned attempts to seek its ratification from the outgoing Congress.
The U.S. abandonment of the TPP, billed to anchor the U.S.’s Asia-Pacific strategy, will dent the American prestige and will erode confidence of the states who still offer partnership to the U.S. in the hope to seek a balance against China’s rise.
China has the money, the reason, and additionally has a vision in the shape of One Belt One Road (OBOR) through which China hopes to connect scores of countries in Asia, Europe and Africa in a shared economic relationship. The OBOR concept and its arteries like "maritime silk road" have caught the imagination of policymakers in the region.
Smaller states now realize that China provides money and economic engagement, which they need for uplifting their societies. The U.S. tends to force a choice of “either you are with us or against us” on their interlocutors. These smaller states welcome American know-how but do not want to be a proxy for the U.S. in opposition to China. The U.S. needs to appreciate that the neighboring regional states must accommodate a big neighbor’s (China) interests without which there cannot be regional peace. With a weakening U.S. and ascending China next door, they are opting for mutually beneficial relations with China.
For the countries of Southeast Asia who joined this U.S. led pact, it is a moment of reflection over their policy choices, making them seek accommodation with a more certain China rather than a wavering U.S. 
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