PERTH, Australia ― As the inauguration of Donald J. Trump approaches, a number of world leaders are making last minute moves, bracing for America’s new president and his unpredictable foreign policy methods before they’re fully solidified. Asia is no different. There is more going on in the region than Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson’s stray South China Sea comments. The looming possibility of an American retreat from the world and an escalating U.S.-China rivalry has nations busy, worried and watchful.
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has made it clear that he plans to prioritize American interests as head of state, which could leave a vacuum for China to fill in Asia. But before Trump makes good on his promises (if he does) and China’s President Xi Jinping follows through with the thoughts he offered at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week (if he does), regional players are complicating matters with both appeasement to Beijing and naval and weapons sales.
Vietnam is taking six more patrol boats from Japan and has indicated its intention of buying Indian missiles. At the same time, its top leader was in Beijing discussing peace and cooperation in the South China Sea as outgoing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made a last-ditch attempt to shore up U.S.-Vietnam ties while taking the odd side swipe at China.
The looming possibility of an American retreat from the world and an escalating U.S.-China rivalry has nations busy, worried and watchful.
What’s next? There are a few possibilities, all of them requiring significant strategic calculations within Asia. There is a possible move away from “One China” and a far more aggressive presence that would essentially try to stop China accessing its newly built islands, but there is also talk of an American retreat from the region and a scaling back of bases in South Korea and Japan.
The spotlight thus far, especially in American media, has been on the U.S.-China war of words. Donald Trump’s secretary of state pick, Rex Tillerson, made strong comments during his Senate confirmation hearing last week comparing China’s island building in the South China Sea to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. His remarks that China would not be “allowed” access to those islands had many in Southeast Asia wondering exactly what U.S. policy in the region would be.
The bellicose Global Times of China wrote, among many things in response, “If Trump’s diplomatic team shapes future Sino-U.S. ties as it is doing now, the two sides had better prepare for a military clash.” The paper is state-owned but not a direct government mouthpiece. Its excitable belligerence reflects a hawkish element, but its editorial policy values the sort of color that gets its editorials re-reported widely in the West.
Regardless, the Taiwan factor remains, with Chinese media also saying this week, “Beijing will have no choice but to take off the gloves.”
But beyond Trump and China, the region has been busy the past few weeks getting things in order before Inauguration Day:
1. Japan and Vietnam are building on already strong ties
“The upcoming visit by PM Shinzo Abe is a good start for an eventful year in bilateral relations,” read a tweet from Vietnam’s ambassador to Japan before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Hanoi visit. Eventful is rarely a superlative sought in diplomatic circles, and the prime minister seems to be hoping against anything too eventful even as he bolsters Vietnam’s naval capabilities, with six expensive new patrol boats. “We will strongly support Vietnam’s enhancing its maritime law enforcement capability,” he said. Abe’s skittishness across the region in an apparent attempt to counter China’s assertiveness was obvious, with some helpful checkbook diplomacy in Indonesia and the Philippines and a meeting with Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull in his recent four-nation visit.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership was also a focus of the visit and his meeting with Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc. Both are hoping the deal could still be salvaged in some form.
2. Vietnam is maintaining good relations with China and publicly discussing peace in the region they contest
Meanwhile, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong has just visited President Xi Jinping in Beijing, at the latter’s invitation. A Xinhua tweet suggested they enjoyed a “comradely tea chat.” International media have widely noted the two nations issued a joint communiqué saying they would “manage” their differences in the South China Sea.
The communiqué said the leaders opted to, “manage well their maritime difference, avoid actions that complicate the situation and escalate tensions, and safeguard the peace and stability of the South China Sea.”
This sort of rhetoric is not new ― both nations frequently favor cooperation ― but the promise to safeguard peace, and at such a high level, is promising. There is extensive bilateral engagement between the communist neighbors and that tool favored especially in communist nations, a steering committee, to oversee their bilateral cooperation. This is useful when managing disagreements.
3. Hanoi is also pushing Beijing’s buttons with other moves
In recent weeks Vietnam has also discussed missile sales with India to Beijing’s worry and irritation; its state-owned enterprise PetroVietnam has signed a deal with Vietnam’s Exxon Mobil branch for the gas development in Vietnam, (Tillerson, you may recall, was chairman of Exxon Mobil).
The Indian arms sales are significant in that they’re yet another brick in a growing and comprehensive defense partnership. It’s talk of selling the surface-to-air Akash missile system to Vietnam, an Indian-built system good at shooting down the kinds of airborne things China has been installing of late, that pushed a rebuttal in the Chinese media: China would not sit “with its arms crossed.” Previous Indian-Vietnamese cooperation has been sniffed at.
The Exxon Mobil deal is an important one as it will involve offshore gas exploration and will also irritate China. China has, according to reports from analysts, tried to intimidate Exxon Mobil into not investing in Vietnam. It is one area of U.S.-led cooperation faring better than some.
4. Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ gets its final act
On the heels of hawkish comments by his likely successor Tillerson, outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry visited Vietnam one last time to highlight the importance of their growing relationship and promise, despite a deeply doubtful TPP, that free trade mattered for both nations. Though he skipped mentioning China by name, he did refer to countries “big or small” (“big” usually means China in diplomatese) and that all should refrain from “provocative acts.” Mostly, he tried to underline the importance of the growing Vietnamese-American partnership and the mutual commitment to free and fair trade (bilateral trade now valued at $45 billion).
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc hopes the TPP has a last-ditch chance. But its loss has undermined trust in the U.S. at a difficult time. Phuc told Bloomberg last Friday, “I still believe the new administration of the United States will reconsider its perspective on the TPP and will also try to achieve a new generation agreement that will benefit all parties concerned.”
Donald Trump has not said much on Vietnam during his campaign. There were mentions of Vietnam doing too well out of trade with the U.S., to the latter’s detriment, but he has also said he looks forward to good cooperation in a phone call to Phuc last year.
Tillerson’s hawkishness is not exactly useful from Hanoi’s perspective. Vietnam welcomes stability, a rules-based order and an approach that will not antagonize China. An upset China may lash out and Vietnam is proximate. The reaction to the Philippines win last year in the Hague was, as I reported, muted. Chinese aggression is a problem for ties but also creates domestic issues like protests. China’s violation of Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone in April 2014 led to factories being trashed and workers killed. The factories were actually Taiwanese, but it didn’t stop China evacuating many of its citizens across the border with Cambodia.
At the same time Vietnam has been clear in its desire for a continued U.S. presence in the region, useful possibly to balance or counter Chinese aggression but not to provoke it.
The extremes of either option ― isolationist or expansionist ― will throw many Asian nations into a further scramble.
So what’s the future for Asia under Trump? Only time will tell ― and we’re mere days away from the unveiling of that reality. Guessing what the new administration will do is very imprecise science and professional predictors have been wrong about most of the domestic campaign. But the extremes of either option ― isolationist or expansionist ― will throw many Asian nations into a further scramble. Leaders and foreign ministers of nations with stakes in the game and a penchant for the rules-based order may just be getting their travel plans ready come Friday.