Siling Labuyo: Clash of Civilizations: China vs America
President Donald Trump has embarked on a 12-day, five Asian country tour that included visits to traditional allies (Japan, South Korea, Philippines), and Vietnam and China amidst a simmering special counsel investigation that has produced indictments of his former campaign manager and a foreign policy adviser. His tour will end on November 14 at the Asian Summit in Angeles City, Philippines. While the focus and rhetoric of Trump’s visit mostly centered on North Korea’s ambitious nuclear power pursuit, trade between the U.S. and these countries will be a hot topic too. Trump’s pivot to Asia is an effort to “Make America Great Again” by showing off its powerful military arsenal and highlight trade imbalances between these countries and America. It is noteworthy that one of the first official acts that Trump did since becoming president was pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) – a 12-nation trade agreement that former president Barack Obama cobbled together to show America’s relevance and leadership in Asia-Pacific. Trump found time to promote his golf courses and hotels during official speeches in between country stops while pursuing bilateral trade relationships but it seems these countries were not interested and were bent instead on reviving what is now TTP-11 and was meeting in Vietnam minus the U.S. The TTP aims to eliminate tariffs on industrial and farm products and to serve as a counterweight to China’s growing regional dominance but without America’s leadership hashing out an agreement could prove difficult. And with America in retreat and pursuing an isolationist posture, China’s President Xi is emboldened to fill the vacuum being created and seizing the opportunity to further its military and economic objectives in the region. The “fire and fury” that Trump bragged about months ago to rain on the rocket man was reduced to a toned down rhetoric despite positioning a powerful armada in the Korean Peninsula. Trump must be sensing that his friend Xi is not really going to impose a severe economic sanction on North Korea thus his belated announcement that he will be meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin to do a squeeze bunt for him. These strongmen must be ecstatic seeing America on its knees begging for help in dealing with a third world country whose belligerent leader is equally ecstatic for the world attention it has been getting courtesy of Trump. Why Trump believes that these strongmen will cause North Korea’s abrupt abandonment of its nuclear program show his lack of understanding of how foreign policy works. China’s tutelage of North Korea will continue because the thought of having a unified Korea under the U.S. mantle of protection is not and will never be acceptable. Besides, China really needs North Korea’s standing up to the bully while harassing neighboring South Korea and Japan. Russia on the other hand will not lift a finger unless Trump lifts the economic and targeted sanctions of Putin’s oligarch and his relatives under the Magnitsky Act named after crusading Sergei Magnitsky– a Russian oppositionist who exposed Russian corruption and was murdered while incarcerated in a Russian prison. Lifting the sanctions will not be easy for Trump given the veto-proof legislation of the Magnitsky Act that Congress passed and signed into law by President Obama. China will continue its course in the South China Sea despite the UNCLOS ruling favoring the Philippines and will continue its military build-up while the U.S. president is busy tweeting. For all intents and purposes, President Digong Duterte has already capitulated given his public subservience to China. As China grows richer and stronger it will be emboldened to keep further pushing the envelope in its effort to supplant the U.S. as the leader of a new world order devoid of the post-Cold War promise of peace and economic prosperity under a security umbrella of the world powers. The United Nations (UN) as an arbiter of such tranquility has shown to be ineffective and unable to arrest a plunge to global unrest. The United States has become the de facto leader given its powerful military and economic capabilities. But China over the years has slowly crept up in this role aided by favorable trade agreements and unchecked expansionist moves. Trump’s over commitment in Syria and Afghanistan will further hasten China’s supremacy but not necessarily result in direct confrontation between the two powers. China will be using proxies like North Korea to keep the U.S. pre-occupied while China continues its military and economic expansion in Africa, the last frontier. The U.S. is equally committed to expanding the war on terror in Africa and at some point; both country’s interest will intersect and collide. Consequently, we will see the rise of smaller powers like Germany and Japan as they up their military capabilities to make up for the U.S. lesser commitment. This is a rather strange development reminiscent of World War II but given the Russian threat in Europe and North Korea’s nuclear ambition has put these countries on edge. Russia’s getting bogged down in Syria is giving NATO the time to restock its military inventories by increasing their military spending in relation to their Gross Domestic Product and inching away from the U.S. security umbrella and a path towards more independent military posture. The asymmetrical nature of fighting terrorism will further create chaos in Europe as remnants and terror cells of the Islamic State (ISIS) continue with its terroristic acts against Western democracies. Ultra-right populism and economic morass in some parts of Europe, the continuing wars in the Middle East between Iraq and ISIS and now with the Kurds, warrying factions in Libya, escalating conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the descending chaos in Africa will provide plenty of opportunity for further competition between China and the U.S. as they capitalize on such turmoil. China has defied the UN ruling on the Spratly’s and will continue to flaunt its military might by deploying more military hardware in the occupied islands in South China Sea. The United States will protest and challenge the Chinese deployments through the Freedom of Navigation Doctrine but Xi and Trump being buddies now and Trump and Duterte continue to enjoy their mutual admiration for each other, China will march on to world dominance. The only quirk here is if President Trump is impeached after the midterm election in 2018. Overwhelming win by Democrats in this week’s election gives a ray of hope for America. A Pence presidency could restore some normalcy but he will likely not survive a run in 2020. President’s Xi and Putin know this and thus not paying too much attention to Trump’s tweets. They will stroke his ego to keep him in play long enough to cause damage to U.S. global reputation and while keeping America divided.