The Debate | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

Why Trump’s Anti-China Policy Falls on Deaf Ears in Southeast Asia

No Southeast Asian nation has been willing to support the Trump administration’s hostile and ideological position on China.

By Dino Patti Djalal for
Why Trump’s Anti-China Policy Falls on Deaf Ears in Southeast Asia

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo departs Joint Base Andrews en route to Doha, Qatar, to attend the opening ceremony of Afghanistan peace negotiations on September 12, 2020.

Credit: Flickr/GPA Photo Archive

In recent months, the world has witnessed a curious development in U.S. foreign policy: the emergence of a very hawkish, hostile and confrontational policy toward China.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has given a series of speeches attacking China. His speeches present some new themes: they aim specifically at the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), they frame China as an ideological threat (constantly referring to “Communist China,” not just China) and they adopt a blanket (rather than a la carte) attack against China: on the coronavirus, trade, investment, technology, TikTok, the World Health Organization, the South China Sea, Chinese companies and students, democracy, human rights, climate change – the list goes on. It seems that for  the Trump administration, it has become a taboo to say anything remotely positive about China. Indeed, as Pompeo stated, “securing our freedom from the CCP is the mission of our time and America is in a perfect position to lead.”

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, at Munich Security Conference this year, also calls China “the biggest threat to world order,” and affirmed that Washington’s principal security concern had shifted from Russia to China.

During his speech at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly last month, President Donald Trump came out throwing punches at Beijing. Trump spent one-third of his 7-minute speech attacking China explicitly – on the “China virus,” trade and the environment – and spent only 34 seconds on the most pressing challenge facing the world: COVID-19. It was the wrong message, to the wrong audience, at the wrong time. By contrast, it was noticed that China’s President Xi Jinping, who spoke at the same podium, did not attack the U.S.

Clearly, the Trump administration has taken China bashing to a whole new level and expects other countries to follow suit.

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I don’t know about the rest of the world, but in Southeast Asia, the Trump administration’s anti-China advocacy is not likely to find a receptive audience. Indeed, a number of government officials that I have spoken to in Southeast Asia have indicated that the Trump administration is out of touch with the diplomatic reality on the ground. Southeast Asians, true to their culture, are of course too polite to say this to the Americans and tend to respond with a smirk on their face. But it should be noticed that no Southeast Asian government has responded to – let alone applauded – the Trump administration’s call to oppose or isolate China.

There are several reasons why. First, they are just not interested in what they see as a fight which does not connect with their real-time interest. First and foremost in their mind now is the war against COVID-19, especially in terms of minimizing human casualties, surviving the economic recession and dealing with social and political impacts. Everything is now seen from the prism of COVID-19. Nothing else matters. To start picking a fight with China is the last thing in the mind of Southeast Asian leaders.

Secondly, a number of Southeast Asian governments see China as a solution provider to their COVID-19 crisis. Xi has called for COVID-19 vaccines to be the “global public good”; the Trump administration has not. In Indonesia, China has been the first country to promise a COVID-19 vaccine, and has made a deal to secure 40 million doses to be available in early 2021, just at the same the vaccine will be provided for Chinese citizens. This is a deal involving state-owned companies of both countries but facilitated by the two governments. In contrast, thus far, no U.S. company has made a vaccine deal with Indonesia, and it is very likely that the first batch of U.S. vaccines will be made available mostly (or only) for American citizens.

Thirdly, Southeast Asian governments pragmatically see China as an important remedy for their economic predicament. They look around the region, and China comes out as one of the very few countries in the region – indeed, the world – whose GDP growth had gone up, between the first and second quarters of 2020, from minus 6.8 percent to plus 3.2 percent. They also see that China has been able to get COVID-19 under control, meaning that its positive economic projection is likely to hold. More importantly, the Chinese government has continued to reassure Southeast Asians that their pre-COVID-19 economic programs would continue, including the restructuring policy to boost imports to the tune of $10 trillion in the coming years. This is enormously critical for countries in the region whose economies are increasingly reliant on exports.

Southeast Asian countries, who decades ago ignored poverty-stricken China, have now accepted China as an important part of their economic future. China has become a major player in the region for trade, investment, finance, infrastructure, green energy, education, and tourism. Southeast Asia’s trade with China – around $650 billion dollars annually – is almost double its trade with the U.S. Southeast Asians understand that with economic engagement comes some measure of political influence, but they also experienced the same thing with the U.S., and they (or some of them) know how to handle it.

To expect Southeast Asian governments to commit to a blanket opposition to China under these circumstances is totally unrealistic.

Fourth, the Trump administration’s call for democracies around the world to launch ideological battle against China would also irk Southeast Asians. If there is anything that is clear, it is that China has de-ideologized its foreign policy since the 1980s. No one seriously believes that China’s political intention is to turn Southeast Asian nations to communism. Indeed, China’s strategic intention is no longer about spreading communism (as was the case up to the late 1970s), but rather about strategic acceptance, economic engagement and political influence.

Also, Southeast Asian governments are just not interested in meddling with China’s political system. The simple reality is that Southeast Asian governments do not have the intention, will, interest and resources to do so. If they can happily embrace communist Vietnam and Laos within their own region, they can also accept China being what it is. Interestingly, the main street perception in Southeast Asia is that it is the U.S. that is more interventionist than China.

The fifth reason has to do with this: all Southeast Asian countries, except Timor-Leste, belong to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). To expect them to collectively oppose China would be to undermine the principle of “ASEAN Centrality” – the notion that ASEAN can embrace and be accepted by all the major powers and other players in the region and thus play a central role in bringing everyone to the table. If ASEAN assumes the role of an anti-China bloc, ASEAN would immediately lose its prized “centrality.” In some ways therefore, the Trump administration, in urging Southeast Asians to oppose China, is acting inconsistent with Washington’s professed support for “ASEAN Centrality.”

This is not to say that Southeast Asia’s relations with China are problem-free. Differences do exist between them — on the South China Sea, illegal fishing, Chinese labor and other issues. China’s relations with Southeast Asian countries have had its share of ups and downs and can occasionally be volatile. Some degree of mistrust still exists. But over the years, Southeast Asian governments have learned to engage China in a complex yet growing multi-dimensional relationship in which these differences can be managed.

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There is still much room for the U.S. to develop strategic space in the region. Many Southeast Asian countries have gone through re-alignments and may continue to do so. Indonesia, after a period of troubled relations due to the disastrous East Timor referendum, realigned with the U.S. following 9/11, with a focus on cooperation against terrorism. The U.S. can still expect some realignments with some Southeast Asian countries to occur, but these realignments should not be based on a common front against China.

The fact that the Trump administration’s anti-China advocacy is ignored in Southeast Asia gives food for thought for the next U.S. administration. I believe that in the past four years, despite its formidable strategic supremacy, the political credibility (America is seen as such a big mess) and economic relevance of the U.S. has been in relative decline in Southeast Asia.

After next month’s presidential elections, the U.S. will need to change its strategic messaging to the region: it should project itself as a benign, unselfish superpower supportive of the development needs of the countries in the region. It should be less patronizing, and less judgmental — though the latter would be impossible given the political culture in Washington, D.C. It should project confidence rather than insecurity. It should ease up on this presently obsessive ideological crusade. It should focus more on soft power than hard power. It should reaffirm that Washington prizes Southeast Asian countries on their own merit and not in terms of their utility in U.S. strategic competition with China. And it should not go around scolding countries that want to build good relations with China.

In the post-World War II period, the world urged Southeast Asian nations – beset by revolutions, war, proxy war, separatism, territorial disputes, division and mistrust – to get along. After an arduous process, Southeast Asians finally got things fixed: the entire region now is a solid community where peace, cooperation and progress prevail.

Today, Southeast Asians want to get along with the U.S. and China, but they also want the U.S. and China to get along, at least in their region. Is that too much to ask ?

Dr. Dino Patti Djalal is chairman of Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI). He is also a former Deputy Foreign Minister of Indonesia and a former Indonesian ambassador to the United States.