Between China and the US
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Between China and the US


SINGAPORE – January 15, 2019

2018 was difficult and surprising. For the first time in many decades, the dominant model of world governance has cracked. And 2019 should be an amazing year, as we see which direction the world will move in the face of the destruction of the monopoly model.  In addition, the contours of the new model will be formed. Perhaps, it is not yet fully formed but the first steps will be made in 2019.  This is particularly evident in the Asia Pacific region.

The progressive decline of the US and the parallel strengthening of China had a great impact on the entire planet, especially in South-East Asia. The existing international security architecture, created and led by the US for decades, is under increasing pressure from China. Back in the days of Barack Obama, the US announced the "Reliance on Asia" program, but despite the strengthening of naval patrols and other forms of military presence in the region, the US remains concerned about the loss of its influence in the region. The unpredictability of Donald Trump's foreign policy does not contribute to the disappearance of these fears.

In the South China Sea, China, despite the predominantly hostile attitude of the international community, was able to expand its holdings and convince opposing countries to discuss the existing problem outside the generally accepted international laws, that is, UNCLOS (the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea).

China did something similar in the history of the Diaoyu Islands, announcing the identification zone of air defense, which the international community largely recognized by joining it. The US continues to send its military aircraft into this zone without warning, but the airlines clearly adhere to China's requirements.

Between China and the US

In this context, the position taken by the President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte on the ASEAN summit is indicative. During his speech he said that the United States and its allies needed to accept the fact that “China is already in possession (of the South China Sea)”. Rodrigo Duterte also called on the US to stop its military drills and vessel movements aimed at provoking a response from Beijing. According to his statements, it would be better for all the disputes in this region to be resolved by ASEAN members and China without involving the USA and its allies. In addition, Rodrigo Duterte stopped using the term the “West Philippine Sea” (the name used for the South China Sea in Manila up until then).

Another anti-American sentiment was expressed, surprisingly, by the veteran of regional politics and the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Bin Mohamad. He told Washington to stop sending “warships” to the South China Sea and to instead use small patrol boats to avoid sparking conflicts. In response, Mike Pence later stated that Washington would continue to exercise its lawful right to sail ships and fly planes in any regions in the US national interests. And the South China Sea, according to his statements, cannot belong to anyone.

The fact that the US influence in Southeast Asia continues to diminish is readily apparent to Americans, despite their bellicose rhetoric. They can see that they are not in control of key processes shaping the current state of affairs in Southeast Asia. For example, they have no influence on a South China Sea Code of Conduct, being prepared by Beijing and ASEAN member-states. This crucial document will determine the code of conduct during disputes and include means of resolving them. The possibility that China will be able to convince its partners and neighbors (and it does have a lot of leverage at its disposal) to include a clause in the Code of Conduct requiring any military drills, conducted with countries located outside of the region, to be approved ahead of time by the nations with direct access to the South China Sea is especially unpleasant for Americans. And if concerns are voiced by any of these countries, the military exercises will not be allowed. In this manner, China will have a legal basis for blocking naval exercises conducted by the USA, Japan and other nations in the South China Sea. This will noticeably strengthen its position in the region and bring it closer to its long-cherished goal to oust the United States (and especially its military) from the region.

Another Chinese project, which the USA is not a part of and has no influence on, has the same aim--the creation of the largest trade bloc there, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). New life was breathed into this initiative after the United States pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Both Prime Ministers of China and Singapore jointly announced that an agreement on this partnership would be signed the following year. It is expected that, aside from ASEAN member-states, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea will become part of it.

It is extremely important that, today, not only China but also Indonesia (the biggest nation in terms of land area and size of economy among Southeast Asian countries) is playing an active role as the RCEP organizer. Indonesians explain their stance to support this initiative simply and logically. An editorial in the newspaper the Jakarta Post reported that China, the largest economy in the region, was on the rise, and it was committed to finalizing the agreement on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that year, which would strengthen the ASEAN partnership.

When the new trade bloc is established, it will comprise 16 nations, including the ten ASEAN member-states as well as China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. “The trade agreement will account for 50 percent of the world’s population and 30 percent of the world’s gross domestic product.” The newspaper points out that for ASEAN members and China “cooperation is the wisest choice” despite unresolved problems. For ASEAN, China is no longer a critical threat, in spite of its economic might. ASEAN member-states have the necessary leverage to act as a counter-weight to their giant neighbor. One Indonesian scientist once joked that ASEAN had mastered the skills of a tamer in order to conduct negotiations with other countries.

The region has realized that the US does not want clashes with China on issues that are not considered a challenge to the main interests of Americans in the region. This behavior undermined the willingness of States, including US allies, to argue with China. And China continues to increase its influence in these countries. It's funny that the US trade confrontation with China does not help to change this situation. On the one hand, the US-China conflict should provide more space for small countries to maneuver between the two great powers. But given the US’s withdrawal from the TRANS-Pacific Partnership and the revision of all multilateral trade agreements with their participation, the region's dependence on Chinese influence can only increase, while US support will decrease.

Author: USA Really