IT IS already being described as the moment when America’s “pivot” to Asia was seen to have gone awry. Not the shock when Rodrigo Duterte, the new president of the Philippines, an American ally, caused titters by calling Barack Obama the “son of a whore”—but when he called a few days later for an end to American military assistance, including joint patrols in the South China Sea. “China is now in power,” he declared, “and they have military superiority in the region.”
China is chuffed. The Philippines, after all, had brought a landmark case against China’s activities in the South China Sea to an international tribunal at The Hague. In July the tribunal rubbished China’s territorial claims and criticised its construction of artificial islands. Outraged, China swore to ignore the ruling. America insisted it must be binding. Its interest in the South China Sea, it has always said, is in upholding international law. So imagine its embarrassment now. The vindicated plaintiff appears to be saying to China, “Go ahead, help yourself.”
The intention of the pivot was to reassure America’s allies in the region. Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of American forces across Asia and the Pacific, boasted last week that, in terms of American military hardware, “Everything that’s new and cool is coming to the region.” That includes the first of the Zumwalt class of destroyer, with looks straight out of “Star Trek” and a captain by the name of James Kirk. Yet although America has boosted its strength in the Pacific, its defence budget is severely constrained. Chinese military spending, meanwhile, has been growing by 10% a year, much of it on naval, satellite and cyberspace programmes designed to deny America access to the airspace and seas around China in any conflict, and to undermine America’s commitments to its Asian allies.
America still has the world’s strongest armed forces, and even the most fearsome military presence in East Asia. Yet the alchemy of power involves more than iron force, as Admiral Harris underlined by stressing another vital aspect of the pivot: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-country free-trade pact foundering in Congress. In August the prime minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, called TPP’s ratification “a litmus test” of American credibility in Asia. With both presidential candidates opposed to TPP, and Mr Obama’s chances of pushing it through the lame-duck Congress looking ragged, it is a test America will probably fail.
And yet it is still too early to call time on the pivot and declare China the next Asian hegemon. China remains far less adept as an alchemist of power—though not for want of trying. Its diplomacy towards its neighbours is full of “mutual respect”, “win-win” relationships and “common destiny”. President Xi Jinping makes much of his “One Belt, One Road” initiative to create infrastructure tying Eurasia closer to China by land and sea. Meanwhile China lavishes aid and state-led investment on smaller countries in South, Central and South-East Asia.
China’s munificent approach towards its periphery, as Evelyn Goh of the Australian National University points out, is supposed to make it harder for countries drawn into China’s economic embrace to maintain a system of regional security with America at the core. Some already see a new order asserting itself, with China again at the celestial heart of things, and neighbouring states orbiting like planets around it. Mr Duterte’s own pivot would seem to be a case in point.
It all sounds very benign, especially since China’s courtship emphasises a shared approach to development. That, in turn, rests on continuity in neighbouring states, reinforcing political elites and their existing priorities. Who would argue with that?
Well, for a start, anyone who opposes the prevailing political order in the courted countries. China’s close involvement with the ruling elites in such places only adds to local resentment. In 2011 widespread animosity, even within the regime, led the head of Myanmar’s military government, Thein Sein, to halt construction of a huge dam being built by Chinese state companies. The weakened junta subsequently ceded much of its power to Aung San Suu Kyi, who now heads an elected government, further diminishing China’s influence. An own goal, in other words.
In Sri Lanka last year the surprise electoral defeat of the strongman president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, happened in part because his family had openly courted Chinese investment and benefited from it. The defeat put China on the back foot and opened the way for Indian re-engagement with the island. Tiny Laos is increasingly unhappy at being a Chinese client state, with locals chafing at Chinese loggers and plantations. The closed, communist country gave Mr Obama a hearty welcome earlier this month.
Next door in Cambodia, the flagrant cronyism from which key Chinese businessmen profit may prompt a backlash as soon as the ageing and thuggish ruler, Hun Sen, is seen to be ailing. Even in the Philippines, a provocation in the South China Sea, such as the start of construction on the Scarborough Shoal, from which China dislodged the Philippine navy four years ago, might cause Mr Duterte to tack back to the United States. Ordinary Filipinos, after all, are wildly pro-American.
Losing sight, losing its cool