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High passions over Asia: the United States is ceding ground to China

Since his election as President, Donald Trump has spoiled relations with many of America’s allies. He has excelled all of his predecessors at setting people against himself (read America). In contrast, the Chinese are gaining more and more ground in Asia-Pacific and beyond and are actively using investments, loans and huge infrastructure projects for remodeling the planet into one big China.

America is no longer in the lead

While the Americans were quarreling with both old and new rivals, the Chinese were enlarging their influence zones. So, very soon we may see the end of the American age and the start of an era of Chinese hegemony.

Trump’s midnight Twitter revelations, his scrappy foreign policy, his passion for changing assistants and advisors, his hatred for Islam and free trade have shattered the world’s confidence in America and its belief in its global leadership. According to a poll held by Pew Research in 37 countries, over the last year, the global image of America has dropped by 42%. In Indonesia it dropped by 41%, in the Philippines by 35%, in Vietnam by 13% despite those nations’ growing concern about China’s expansion in Asia.

In Japan and South Korea (the United States’ key allies in Asia), Barack Obama enjoyed respective ratings of 78% and 88%, which is not the case with Trump, who is supported by just 24% of the Japanese and the 17% of the South Koreans.

There is no weapon against OBOR

China’s policy is simple: wherever America offers criticism and threats, it offers investments and hopes. In Asia, this policy is especially effective.

According to polls, political elites in Southeast Asia give preference to China. They believe that the Americans are not very much interested in the region and are not very trustworthy. And what is more important, they seem to be afraid of China, who generally reacts with sanctions to their attempts to get closer to America. This is true not only for America’s new partners, Vietnam and Malaysia, but also for its old friends, Singapore and Australia.

It seems that America is losing Asia to China. Obama’s strategic turn towards Pacific has proved to be weaker than Jinping’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. The May 2017 conference made it clear how huge that project was. Before the conference, the Chinese decided to change the name to less ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, but that name did not live for long. The decision did not mean that the Chinese were hesitant about the project. It was just a flexible move: less specific and binding formulas give them bigger room for maneuver.

Over 1,200 delegates from 110 countries, including the heads of over 30 states, were familiarized with China’s plan to connect three continents with trade routes. The initiative involves as many as 65 nations and is worth almost $1 trillion. And this is not China’s only economic weapon in its fight for Asia. In 2015, the Chinese established Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIB, AIIB). The United States refused to join it unlike many of its allies, like Canada, Belgium and Ireland. Now that bank involves over 70 countries.

In 2014, BRICS set up a New Development Bank (NDB), where China also plays the first violin. Currently, the Chinese are working on the concept of RCEP - Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership – a treaty that will comprise ten ASEAN members, including Australia, New Zealand, China, India, Japan and South Korea. In other words, it will cover almost half of the global population and almost one third of the global GDP. This project involves too many different nations to be realizable, but the fact is that Asia and Oceania are discussing it and the United States is not in.

This all makes people believe that the Chinese era is inevitable.

Woody Allen’s doctrine

Senator John McCain believes that the United States can regain its influence in Asia by improving its military infrastructure, buying more arms and strengthening its allies. He offers a five-year Asian-Pacific Stability Initiative worth $7.5 billion. But growing military expenses will hardly be able to revive American sway in Asia. In economics things are even worse as for the time being the Americans are not as strong economically as the Chinese are. Trump has not only seceded from Asia-Pacific Partnership but may even terminate the trade agreement with South Korea.

Today China is applying Japan’s policy of the WWII times – Asia for Asians. Under Obama, it seemed that the fight for Asia will be fierce but when Trump announced his America First policy, China was happy.

The Chinese are very purposeful, disciplined and rich with both money and people. They are very attentive to any changes in the world and are always there to fill the gaps left by the Americans.

Following Woody Allen’s “Showing Up Is 80 Percent of Life” theory, U.S. experts advised their presidents to regularly attend Asia-Pacific summits. They were sure that that would convince their Asian partners that America was interested in their affairs and firm in its wish to remain the leading power in the region.

Trump has proved that this theory is not working. His 12-day visit to Asia in Nov 2017 was all but fruitful. Some experts even say that the United States’ positions in Asia would have been stronger had Trump stayed at home.

America’s problems in Asia are much deeper than the factor of Trump. It only alternative to China’s drive in Asia is to change the name of Pacific to Indo-Pacific and to admit that Pacific as such has been lost.

Rex Tillerson’s plan to turn Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) into a Trans-Pacific NATO and a counterbalance to China. Today Quad comprises India, Japan and Australia.

Most experts doubt that the Americans will be able to convince their partners to openly challenge China. They will hardly wish to sacrifice their contacts with the Chinese to some abstract regional security and specific American interests. This is one more proof of China’s prevalence in Asia. Some 10-20 years, you would hardly imagine Japan or Australia saying no to the United States.

Enemy of my enemy…

India is Washington’s priority in Quad. India has quite complicated relations with China, so, the Americans’ wish to gain it over is quite logical.

India and China try to observe the five principles of peaceful coexistence stipulated by the Panchsheel Agreement of 1954, but after the Sino-Indian war of 1962, they have often failed to do it, which was proved by the border standoff in Doklam last year.

According to National Interest, Sino-Indian relations are asymmetric. Unlike the Chinese, the Indians watch almost every move of their rivals and seek to outrun them wherever possible. This is very much like Sino-American relations: the Chinese seek to excel the Americans just like the Indians seek to excel the Chinese.

More and more Indians go to study in China: in 2016, there were 18,717 Indians studying in China against fewer than 2,000 Chinese studying in India.

Over the last decades, China has invested tens of billions of US dollars in Africa and Latin America, while India’s share in their foreign direct investments is just 0.5%. Both India and China are members of BRICS and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Recently India and Pakistan joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

India and China are strategic rivals, especially in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. The Indians are annoyed to see that the Chinese are good friends with their key enemy, Pakistan. One of the key reasons why they have refused to join OBOR is the Sino-Pakistani Economic Corridor, a road running via the disputed territory of Kashmir. This problem may be solved by the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar economic corridor.

The Chinese also have claims against the Indians. They are displeased with the Indians’ strategic ties with the United States and Japan, their advances to the Lama and their active interference in the disputes for the South China Sea.

China is rushing to South Asia

India was shocked when China decided to open its first military base abroad – in Djibouti. The Indians are worried to see the Chinese surrounding them with different partnerships – with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal.

A pro-Chinese government is due to come into power in Nepal in Jan 2018. This does not mean that the Nepalese will cut their ties with India. Those ties are very strong: lots of Nepalese people have jobs in India and as much as 60% of Nepal’s imports are Indian goods.

The Indians are worried to see Myanmar also drifting away to China. During her visit to China in Dec 2017, the 1st state counsellor of that country Aung San Suu Kyi accepted Xi Jinping’s offer to create a Sino-Burmese economic corridor. Today China is almost the only nation that is ready to help the Burmese, who are facing international isolation because of persecuting the Rohingya people. China needs Myanmar as a country giving it access to the Indian Ocean.

But there too the Chinese have a stronghold: on Nov 29, 2017, the Parliament of the Maldives approved a 1,000-page free trade agreement with China. The Chinese have a similar agreement with Pakistan and are about to sign one with Sri Lanka.

So, India’s fears are not groundless. China has a wide choice of potential venues for military bases and all of them are near India. The top of the list are Hambatota, a port in Sri Lanka, and the Pakistani port of Gwadar. In late 2017, Hambatota was given to China on a 99-year lease - one more port given to China against debts, after the Greek port of Piraeus, China’s key stronghold in Europe, and the Australian port of Darwin, where the United States has a military base with almost 1,000 sea-soldiers. The Sri Lankans “sold” Hambatota for $1.1 billion. Djibouti will get $20 million a year for the base. For Piraeus, the Chinese paid $436 million, for Darwin just 506 million Australian dollars or $388 million.

India is not waiting to find itself in a Chinese circle. On Nov 22, 2017, its Prime Minister Narendra Modi complimented the Indian air force for the successful testing of a new BrahMos rocket in the Bay of Bengal. But even this rocket will not make the Indians a match to the Chinese. The Chinese economy is five times bigger than the Indian one. The Indians do not have enough resources for temping neighbors over to their side.

First step towards global dominance

Hegemony in Asia is China’s first step towards global leadership as the Chinese are not yet able to challenge the Americans on the global scale.

As regards the Asian nations, they have three tasks to solve: to preserve their sovereignty, not to vex China and not to let the Americans lose their influence in their region. In order to solve the third task, they need either to enhance their military strength or to build new security partnerships. For example, Japan is actively strengthening its army so as either to support the Americans in case of a conflict with China or to be able to act independently. One more way for Japan to resist China is to improve its relations with Russia and to conclude security agreements with India and Vietnam.

The general opinion in Southeast Asia is that the winner of 2017 there was China. The Chinese have managed to cause split in ASEAN and to turn it into a shield against its strategic rivals, first of all, against America.

Jinping’s goal is bigger influence on closest neighbors. Some four years ago, China’s key rivals in Southeast Asia were Vietnam and the Philippines. Malaysia is China’s partner, Cambodia and Laos are its vassals. For the Southeast Asians China as a locomotive of development and even the Americans’ allies, Thailand and the Philippines share this opinion.

During the last APEC summit, Jinping spoke about globalization, while during the ASEAN summit in Manila, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang mentioned specific investment projects. Trump cut his visit to Manila to 24 hours, while Li stayed there for several days to discuss multibillion infrastructure projects with Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte.

And Duterte must have been impressed as for the first time since 2013, the last ASEAN summit, where the Filipino president was Chairman-in-Office, did not mention China’s efforts to build artificial islands in the South China Sea. Nor did Duterte mention the Hague Tribunal’s July 2016 verdict to support the Philippines in its complaint against China’s ambitions in the South China Sea.

Who is better?

The Sino-American fight for Asia will continue. The Americans will gradually lose their military prevalence. Asia-Pacific will be maneuvering between the two superpowers in an attempt to make best of their rivalry: they will not rush to break up their ties with America and will try to build closer contacts with China.

Japan will also be fighting for Asia and will use India as a partner. The Japanese even have an alternative to OBOR – a Japanese-Indian economic corridor.

China’s biggest trump in the game for Asia is Russia. Russia has vast territories in Asia and quite ambitious interests in the Middle and Far East and Central Asia. The Russians are trying to regain their foothold in Southeast Asia. Each country would dream of having such an ally. Today Russia is on China’s side. Russia needs China no less than China needs Russia. But the Russians should remember that the Chinese care for their own interests only. In any case, Sino-Russian partnership has better perspectives than Sino-American relations have. Russia’s Far East and Siberia may serve as a ground for a good partnership even though the sides have certain contradictions here.

Today it is hard to say who is better as global leader – China or America. China’s opponents claim that China does not respect human rights, supports repressive regimes, kindles territorial disputes and pressures small nations. But the key counterargument of China’s supporters is that unlike America, China uses soft rather than military force.

Sergey Manukov

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