The United States’ regional hegemony in Asia is under threat like never before. For the first time in decades, both allies and rivals are openly questioning America’s staying power in the world’s most dynamic region.
Thus, the U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to the region comes at a critical juncture. During his two-weeks-long overseas trip, he will visit key allies of Japan, South Korea and the Philippines as well as a former enemy (Vietnam) and chief global rival (China).
The crisis in the Korean Peninsula is expected to dominate the American president’s exchanges with Northeast Asian allies, which are deeply perturbed by Pyongyang’s rapidly developing nuclear and ballistic missile program, as well as China, a key ally of North Korea.
Yet, there are serious doubts as to whether Trump can secure any major concessions from Beijing, which vociferously opposes any drastic measure against its troublesome ally. After all, China’s biggest concern is growing American military footprint on its doorsteps and a humanitarian crisis on its northeastern borders with North Korea. This is precisely why China has imposed de facto sanctions on South Korean companies in retaliation for Seoul’s decision to install THAAD missile defense systems on its soil.
Similar to the left-wing government in Seoul, Beijing is expected to counsel dialogue and gradual tightening of sanctions as opposed to Trump’s twitter wars and threats of a pre-emptive strike against Pyongyang – a proposal that has been roundly questioned by the Pentagon. As for Tokyo, the right-wing Shinzo Abe administration is intent on revamping Japan’s own defense and foreign policy amid growing uncertainty in the region.
The acute deluge of doubt over American leadership in Asia has been exacerbated by the country’s both absolute and relative decline in key dimensions of power. Both militarily and economically, China is rapidly chipping away at America’s long-held edge over its rivals.
Meanwhile, the toxic partisanship in Washington D.C., and the dramatic collapse in public confidence in American state institutions, hardly inspires confidence in the wherewithal of American presidents.
In many ways, President Donald Trump, who is confronting multiple scandals, particularly over alleged Russian electoral intervention in his behalf, is increasingly seen as the harbinger of a precipitous collapse in America’s global standing.
As one senior official from an allied nation told me earlier this year, “is this how superpowers commit suicide?” Under Trump, America is facing its greatest soft power disaster in recent memory, far outstripping the infamous days of George W. Bush in the aftermath of the Iraq War.
According to the latest Pew Research Center survey, global confidence in American global leadership suffered a dramatic setback, falling from average of 64 percent under former President Barack Obama to just around 22 percent today. The situation is particularly alarming among Asia’s most important allies in Asia.
Among allies, in particular, America’s prestige and influence has been on a precipitous decline. In South Korea and Japan, the United States suffered a 71 percent and 54 percent favorability-rating decline. Among emerging powers like Indonesia, the biggest nation in Southeast Asia and the world’s third largest democracy, America experienced a 41 percent decline.
In Vietnam, Trump will be facing a largely skeptical, if not hostile, crowd of regional leaders attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. Trump’s protectionist-isolationist “America First” foreign policy, and his decision to nix the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, has heavily alienated the region.
Countries like Vietnam, Japan, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia and Australia expended significant political capital to initiate reforms ahead of their anticipated accession to the TPP. Now, all of that is gone, and there is little hope that Trump will place any viable alternative initiative on the table.
In the Philippines, however, Trump will likely have a convivial hobnob with Filipino strongman Rodrigo Duterte, who has welcomed the former’s decision to set aside human rights concerns in American foreign policy priorities. This will likely provoke further anger at home, even among Trump’s Republican allies, who seek a tougher stance against Duterte’s bloody drug war, which has been condemned by human rights groups around the world.
Yet, there is little reason to believe that Trump’s reach out to Duterte will change the Philippines’ rapprochement with China, which has offered major economic incentives in exchange for cooperation in the South China Sea.
The Duterte administration is more than determined to diversify the country’s foreign policy away from Washington and towards other major powers such as China and Russia, which have offered full diplomatic support for his drug war, major trade and investment deals, and an ever-expanding cache of weaponries and military technology.
More controversially, Trump decided to skip the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Manila, refusing to stay few hours more in the Philippines to attend arguably the most high profile multilateral gathering in the region. All the while, China is charming the region with sturdy political leadership under President Xi Jinping and a wide array of economic initiatives, which are set to transform the global infrastructure landscape. We may have irrevocably entered a post-American world.
Richard Javad Heydarian, Assistant Professor in international affairs and political science, De La Salle University