Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Joseph Chinyong Liow – Dean and Professor of Comparative and International Politics at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and author of the forthcoming book, Ambivalent Engagement: The United States and Regional Security in Southeast Asia After the Cold War (Brookings Institution Press 2017) – is the 83rd in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”
What is the “legacy” of the U.S. rebalance to Asia, and has it placed the Trump administration on stronger or weaker footing in Asia?
I think that on balance, the legacy has been positive. With the exception of China, regional states for the most part embraced the pivot and President Obama’s expressed desire to pay greater attention to Asia. For Southeast Asia, this was particularly pronounced during the second term of the Obama administration, where we witnessed a greater, more concerted effort at deepening American engagement with Southeast Asia. This was evident over a wide swathe of issues. On defense, it was especially pronounced in relations with the Philippines and Singapore with the signing of EDCA [Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreements], but also with Malaysia and Vietnam. While Singapore and Malaysia are not formal allies of the U.S., they have traditionally enjoyed strong relations which were deepened during the Obama administration in the defense realm, evidenced in their effort to encourage and support an American military presence in the region through, for instance, the hosting of rotational deployment of U.S. naval assets.
In the case of Vietnam, there is, of course, historical baggage involved, and it would be foolhardy to suggest that the experience of the war no longer has an impact on how Vietnam and the U.S. view each other. Yet at the same time, we should not over-exaggerate this impact. Indeed, the Vietnamese have always proven very adept at strategic balancing vis-à-vis major regional powers such as China, Russia (and the Soviet Union before it), the U.S., and India. It is through this prism that we see a slow convergence of American and Vietnamese strategic interests that underpinned improvements in relations during the Obama years. On the economic front, we know of course that the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership] was the signature vehicle of engagement in the region, and that it is now dead in the water. Perhaps the Obama administration can be faulted to a certain extent, for not making a greater push for the TPP when they were in power. I think in hindsight, the problem was that too much effort was spent reassuring the region of American commitment to regional trade – preaching to the converted, as it were – and too little on the more urgent and necessary task of convincing America itself of the wisdom, prudence, and benefits of U.S. involvement in the trade and economics story of the region. This, to my mind, was a large part of the reason why the agreement faltered.
And finally, we also cannot deny the strong legacy of diplomatic and political engagement left behind by the Obama administration. Under his leadership, the U.S joined the EAS [East Asia Summit], which required Washington’s accession to ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. We should not belittle the significance of this act, especially given the previous Bush administration’s unilateralist impulses. Obama visited nine out of ten Southeast Asian countries, and indeed would have visited all ten if the government shutdown in 2013 had not forced him to renege on a commitment to attend the EAS in Brunei. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton managed to visited all ten countries. Obama initiated the very-welcomed Sunnylands Summit with regional leaders. Apart from all this, there was the personal commitment of key individuals in the Obama administration to closer relations with Southeast Asia. These included Secretaries Clinton, Hagel, and Carter, and also others like Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell. There was however, one important caveat.
One could say that the pivot heightened expectations for the Trump administration, but in truth, the signs were already clear during the Trump campaign that it was questionable whether the same amount of energy and enthusiasm would be expended on East Asia policy, let alone policy toward Southeast Asia. As if to make a point, President Trump made the withdrawal of the U.S. from the TPP the subject of the first of his slew of executive orders. This has occasioned doubts and concern about American role and commitment to the evolving trade and economic architecture in the region. On China, the Trump administration has hinted that it will take an even more adversarial approach than the Obama administration, although there appears to have been some degree of restraint since he became president.
What is the impact of the new U.S. administration’s more assertive approach toward China on Southeast Asian nations?
While President Trump has voiced alarming views on China, the reality is that we should assess the new administration on its deeds and not just words. So, we will need to look beyond the tough talk of the presidential campaign. We have not, for instance, seen further escalation of tension over trade and currency issues with China. The Trump administration has yet to call out China as a currency manipulator despite saying they would do so on day one of the administration, and we have yet to see any major policy initiatives aimed at imposing heavy tariffs on Chinese exports. This leads me to believe that there probably is some serious discussion going on within the administration about how to deal with the economic challenge posed by China, and a realization that things are a bit more complicated and cannot be simply solved through the imposition of tariffs or the labeling of China as a currency manipulator. On this, I do hope that discretion proves the better part of valor in Washington, for while mercantilist and protectionist policies might be able to give China a bloody nose, Beijing is not going to take it lying down and it certainly has the wherewithal to hurt the U.S. economy just as bad, if not worse. The Trump administration needs to realize that the China of today is not the China of the 1990s.
The same can be said on South China Sea policy. While we have heard some unsettling views, such as Secretary Tillerson’s mention of denying China access to its artificial islands during his confirmation hearings, we have not seen any follow up policy or posture wise. Indeed, the State department moved very quickly to calm things down on that front.
So, what can the region do? Well, not all that much, to be absolutely serious about it! Regional states are undoubtedly concerned that any escalation as a consequence of a more assertive approach will put them in a difficult situation, caught between the two powers. At the same time, regional states are also aware that there is little that they can do to influence the trajectory of Sino-U.S. relations beyond efforts, whether individually or collectively via ASEAN and its various multilateral platforms, to engage both powers in order to impress upon them the importance of stability and value of interdependence, which both have a responsibility to uphold in the region. This is why deeper integration and stronger unity in ASEAN is integral to reinforcing the notion of ASEAN Centrality, which in turn can maximize the autonomy that regional states can exercises as they find their way in the shadow of major power rivalry.
Explain the stakes of the South China Sea if Washington and Beijing need to cooperate in mitigating Pyongyang’s provocations in North Korea.
These are, of course, two different sets of issues, and one would hope that the resolution of one is not contingent on the other; that Washington and Beijing can and do cooperate to manage Pyongyang in a way that does not depend on developments in the South China Sea, and vice-versa. But that is not the matter at hand. I believe the question posed is an attempt to speak to a view held in some quarters (in Southeast Asia but elsewhere as well) that Beijing and Washington might arrive at some sort of quid pro quo regarding these two issues, and in the process leaving Southeast Asia by the wayside. In keeping with this train of thought, this quid pro quo will presumably find expression in Washington’s disengagement on the South China Sea in exchange for more concerted Chinese efforts to rein in Pyongyang’s provocations. Needless to say, this view turns on the assumption that China has sufficient leverage over Pyongyang, and is prepared to wield that influence. I don’t think it is that straightforward. Indeed, many scholars and watchers of Korean Peninsula issues have argued the point that the situation is far more complicated than simply China being able to pressure North Korea into changing its behavior overnight, as President Trump had rather naively said. In fact, China is not going to be able to pressure North Korea any more than the U.S. could pressure Israel, say, on settlements. North Korea has its own sense of its interests and security concerns, however ill-informed and baseless they may be, and they will not surrender these simply because China asks them to. In fact, Chinese officials have themselves lamented how difficult it is to deal with the conspiratorial and independent-minded North Korean leadership.
North Korea poses a set of difficult problems for China. Pyongyang’s provocations have made the deployment of the THAAD [Terminal High Altitude Area Defense] system in China’s backyard a reality, and this is something Beijing opposes vehemently. Beijing is also seriously concerned about the environmental issues related to North Korean nuclear tests, which had previously caused problems at their border. Beijing will also be very careful not to do anything, either directly or indirectly, that foments social and political upheaval in North Korea. This would be out of concern that any mobilization of anti-regime forces in North Korea might have the effect of emboldening similar forces in China to challenge the legitimacy of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] regime. So all in all, China has to tread a fine line on North Korea policy, which makes the logic behind this question a bit less compelling.
Likewise, I think Beijing is going to approach the South China Sea issue very carefully for now, if only to get a better feel of what the stakes are for the Trump administration. Under the Obama administration, I believe Beijing was convinced that regardless of the “red lines” the U.S. may draw on South China Sea issues, they could count on minimal pushback. Yes, there were FONOPS [Freedom of Navigation Operations] which displeased Beijing, but FONOPS will very much be a norm in the South China Sea, and I think they will have little bearing on how issues develop. Beijing has yet to have a sense of how the Trump administration would respond. So in fact, there is an element of strategic ambiguity at play presently, which could work to the interest of the U.S. if Washington could play that hand to its advantage. But this would require the existence of strategic thinking and a strong decision-making apparatus, both of which are still absent in the Trump administration.
Assess current China-Singapore relations following China’s seizure of Singapore’s nine Terrex infantry carrier vehicles in Hong Kong en route from Taiwan in November 2016.
China and Singapore have traditionally had strong relations. Despite its size, Singapore is China’s largest investor. Singapore is also deeply involved in several major commercial projects with China, namely the Suzhou Industrial Park, the Tianjin Eco-city, and the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative. These bilateral pursuits however, have not prevented the occurrence of bilateral problems. Sino-Singapore ties hit a rough patch in mid-2016, after the Arbitral Tribunal rulings on the Philippine case against China’s South China Sea claims. Specifically, China took offense at Singapore’s endorsement of the rulings, which it did as part of its longstanding support for international law, a cornerstone foreign policy position for the island-state. In other words, it was as much a matter of national interest for Singapore to emphasize the rule of law as it was a matter of national interest for China to defend its claims in the South China Sea.
To some observers, the seizure of the Terrex vehicles can be considered the latest in a string of incidents since the Tribunal rulings that illustrated something of a downturn in bilateral relations. I think the lesson from these incidents is that it is important for both parties to realize and accept that their interests will not always be aligned, and this is actually all right, and indeed normal in international relations. No two countries will have interests that are perfectly aligned on every issue. In the case of Sino-Singapore relations, what is important nonetheless is for leaders not to lose sight of the larger picture, which portrays how bilateral relations have been built up over the years across a range of issues where interests have in fact converged far more than they have diverged.
What is Singapore’s longer-term strategic calculus if U.S. regional engagement remains ambivalent?
Singapore has always been unapologetic supporters of American engagement in the region. For the leadership of Singapore, the presence of the U.S. contributes to regional security, and hence is important for regional stability. To that end, Singapore has spared no effort to convince and persuade American leaders of that logic ever since the Vietnam war. Ultimately though, the United States must arrive at its own conclusions about whether it is in their interest to be engaged in the fastest growing economic region in the world not just militarily, but also economically, by way of active participation in the growing trade linkages that connect this region. As for Singapore, while it supports a continued U.S. presence in the region, it is not dependent on the U.S. Indeed, it cannot afford to be. Singapore’s approach to international affairs has always been to embrace open regionalism. This means that regardless of the U.S., Singapore will endeavor to strengthen its relations with all external major powers that are prepared to contribute to regional stability and economic growth. It is in this sense that Singapore supports a balance of power – balance in terms of all major powers being stakeholders in regional affairs, and not in the crude terms found in international relations theory, which conceives of states balancing against rising or threatening powers.