By the time this article is off the press, the US would have concluded its election and a new President is elected. Despite the perception of being a waning superpower, the US remains the global leader, both in terms of the economy and the military. There is an expression that says, ‘when the US sneezes, the world gets cold.’ This time, it would be the other way around, as the new President may find herself or himself in unfamiliar South East Asian landscape, enough to give the US a cold and maybe even a headache.
The last year of the Obama administration was directed to its ‘Pivot to Asia.’ Fulfilling a campaign promise to get the US out of the quagmire in the never-ending wars of the Middle East, President Obama presided over the withdrawal of US troops from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and turning at the other side of the world. He hoped to re-establish prominence in Asia and counter the growing assertiveness of China and gradual chipping off of US influence in the region. Obama toured countries in the region and reassured its allies of its commitments. Among the agenda of the pivot is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade agreement offered to countries around the Pacific Rim, including Australia but with China excluded. It is estimated that 40% of global economic activities are within the Rim and creating the trade agreement will collectively benefit the countries who would be members.
The US is also intensifying its freedom-of -navigation initiatives in the South China Sea to thwart the designs of China who started an island-building spree on top of reefs and atolls in the area. Despite officially saying the islands will be used for civilian purposes, the real intention cannot be hidden – that of making the islands as stations of its naval forces. Restricting access to the South China Sea will mean choking the lifelines of South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. US is preventing the chokehold to happen, and the high stakes involved can escalate into a full blown military confrontation.
But the regional tension seemed invisible to the radar of presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Both are inward-looking, addressing domestic issues rather than concerning themselves with problems in other parts of the world. For Trump, the main battle cry is to ‘make America great again.’ His campaign has a strong anti-immigration rhetoric keeping away Muslims and Latinos out of the US. Bringing back US companies who set up businesses abroad is his means to create more employment in the country. Although his statements about China were somewhat confusing, confronting the emerging power is not in his priorities.
Clinton who was a Secretary of State in the Obama administration may have more outward tendencies with her grasp of various issues in different regions. It is surmised that she will strengthen the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) operationalized during the term of her husband Bill Clinton, but she wavered on TPP. Although she supported TPP while she was part of the Obama Cabinet, she distanced herself from the TPP in the later part of her campaign. As far as China is concerned, she is considered as a hawk and may confront Chinese assertiveness with the appropriate force.
Overall view is that unless there emerge an unmanageable conflagration in the region, it can be assumed that whoever wins, South East Asian concerns will be second fiddle to domestic issues in the US.
New realities in SEA
The diminishing influence of the US is fuelling the assertiveness of China in the region. It continuously poked Japan with incursions both in the sea and air. Japan’s silent re-arming is understandable as it prepare for an imminent engagement. Maritime incidents with Chinese ships ramming fishing boats in the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia were recorded.
The tense situation was heightened with the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in favor of the Philippines. However, China’s efforts at controlling opposition to its creeping territorial grabbing is bearing fruits with the election of a new leadership in the Philippines. President Rodrigo Duterte recently visited China and received trade and investment commitment to the tune of $13 billion. The president also declared that he is ‘separating’ from the US and aligning himself with China and Russia. Being an ally for 70 years, the present position makes the Philippines the weakest link in the US chain of containment islands stretching from Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines.
With Philippines added to the countries charmed by China, the ASEAN is now faced with an existential question. Can it continue as a regional grouping of country, or it will just bow with the wishes of China? ASEAN’s consensus decision –making process was exposed as a liability at the height of the South China Sea conflict in 2013 when China exerted its control over Cambodia to take out any mention of the conflict in its communiqué. Any statement or action of ASEAN today cannot be pursued without the nod of China because it can easily be vetoed by countries beholden to it.
The instability brought about by the passing of King Bhumibol of Thailand is another concern that shakes the region. The prolonged stay of Gen. Prayuth Chan O-cha and the delay in the transition to elected leadership further aggravates the situation in Thailand. The country is also tipping towards China as the US became concerned with its human rights record.
The Myanmar pivot
Myanmar is different. As the rest of the countries in the region gradually distanced itself from the US, it has gradually moved out of the China circle. Feeling the burden, the former military regime started steps to counter balance China. The move gained traction with the democratic space during the time of President Thein Sein and went full swing with the election of the new government. Under the leadership of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Htin Kyaw, it pursued strong economic ties with the West and worked towards the lifting of US sanctions.
As Myanmar sanctions were lifted, it is expected that more US companies will do trade with Myanmar. The general systems of preferences (GSP), to be launched this month, is expected to increase trade. Together with more foreign direct investment from US investors, Myanmar is back in the arms of the West. The Chinese specter remains a reality, but an effective counterbalance has been successfully installed.
Is Myanmar in the right track for moving close to the US while the rest are moving towards China? And how will the new president deal with the new realities in the region? If the new president engages China and confrontation becomes imminent, taking sides will be a hard choice for Myanmar. In the economic sphere it may be enjoying both worlds, but in a shooting war, it has to show its true color.
In the event the new US president decided to retreat back to its borders to fix domestic issues, we may see a different scenario as countries leaning to the US will be ‘orphaned’ and left to fend for themselves. The Myanmar and the rest of the region will have limited choices and may fall into the embrace of the dragon.