THE rest of the world will have to fasten its seat belts while the current worrying clash of superpowers China and the United States plays itself out. Although the saga of the underwater drone ended peaceably earlier this week, the drama signalled that the competition between the two has entered a new era. With help from the ubiquitous social media, their diplomatic engagement is taking place in real time swiftly, unpredictably and amid considerable tension.
The inauguration of President Donald Trump on Jan 20 is expected to see US-China ties transformed into a guarded quasi-friendship requiring day-to-day reassessment. The stability that prevailed during the eight years of the Obama administration is unlikely to survive. Trump is given to knee-jerk reactions and ill-considered grandstanding for the sake of quick gain and publicity, as well as for his brash pursuit of the art of the deal, none of which bodes well for US’ relations with Beijing.
Still a month from taking office, Trump has already endangered his country’s long-standing recognition of the One China Policy by accepting a phone call from Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wan, a breach of protocol adopted after Washington formally recognised communist China in the early 1970s.
President Barack Obama immediately warned that any shift from this policy would have a serious impact on American dealings with Beijing, an important trading partner and backer of the US economy. Aiming to renegotiate extant overseas deals, Trump does not appear to care, and seems ready to test Chinese mettle on every issue.
China’s regional neighbours are aware that the nature of its relationship with the US increasingly depends on Beijing’s dealings with other countries, including the 10 nations of South-East Asia.
The attitude in the Philippines has radically changed. Whereas Manila traditionally regarded the US as the region’s military guardian, current President Rodrigo Duterte- taking umbrage at perceived American slights-has welcomed Chinese overtures. Thanks to Washington’s tendency to overreach in its authority, perceptions elsewhere are not so different.
Thus, its chief justification for wielding influence here to serve as a stopgap against China assertiveness is on the wane.
The Philippines’ abrupt refusal to be a pawn in either of the major powers games is admirable, even if it comes with risks. With sovereign territory in the South China Sea at stake, Duterte is taking a gamble in realigning with Beijing, but if those two countries can settle their differences amicably and equitably, it will have been worthwhile. The other South-East Asian claimants to maritime territories in dispute are sure to follow suit.
During the Trump presidency, more than at any time before, China has a golden opportunity to show the region and the world that it is rational and responsible in its overseas dealings. With goodwill and a commitment to peace and stability, it can take advantage of America’s loss of credibility over the election of a man who is ignorant of foreign affairs and absent in the spirit of international diplomacy. Patriotism and profit alone guide Trump, and nearly half the American electorate stands by him.
Also to be expected is a cautious realignment among the more developed Asian powers particularly Japan, India and South Korea which might pursue greater mutual cooperation as a safeguard against potential American error and affront under Trump.
No one will be surprised, meanwhile, if President Trump cosies up to Russia. While he and Vladimir Putin deny there is any special bond between them, evidence to the contrary has mounted. But using Russia as a foil against China would be detrimental to American financial and geopolitical interests. And, for Asia, while Russian investment is welcome and valued, Moscow has only a modicum of Beijing’s economic clout.
Sources: The Nation/Asia News Network
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