Editor’s note: Although they dislike Xi Jinping’s hectoring, they have qualms about Donald Trump, too.
WHAT DO YOU buy the Asian defence minister who has everything? How about a “beautiful” photo-book of North Korean ships illegally transferring oil at sea? Patrick Shanahan, America’s acting defence secretary, presented the collection of grainy aerial shots to his Chinese counterpart, General Wei Fenghe, at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual gathering of military bigwigs in Singapore from May 31st to June 2nd.
It was an emollient gesture in fractious times. When Banyan asked Mr Shanahan what he planned to say to General Wei in private, the answer was not a tirade about Huawei or the South China Sea. Instead Mr Shanahan said he was “excited” to explore areas of co-operation. North Korean sanctions-busting—which often occurs in Chinese waters—was top of the list. Such collaboration would show that America and China could “compete in a constructive way”.
On June 1st the Pentagon published its plans for that competition in an Indo-Pacific strategy. At its heart was the idea of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP), a nebulous concept conceived by Japan and enthusiastically taken up by the Trump administration. In essence, FOIP is a rules-based rejoinder to China’s vision of spheres of influence, gunboat diplomacy and murky loans. “No one nation can or should dominate the Indo-Pacific,” said the Pentagon in its report.
Mr Shanahan’s notion of responsible competition—in contrast to the no-holds-barred clash of civilisations favoured by some of his head-banging colleagues—is laudable. It is also savvy. Asian states are likelier to sign up to FOIP if they are persuaded that America is not spoiling for a fight. But on both counts—stabilising the relationship with China, while rallying partners to push back against it—America has an uphill task.
Start with the olive branches. General Wei did not so much ignore them as snap them into pieces. “Arise, all those who do not want be enslaved,” he thundered in his speech on June 2nd, quoting China’s national anthem. “Let us build the new Great Wall with our flesh and blood.” He warned that China’s army was “not afraid of sacrifice” and that “we make no promise to renounce the use of force” against Taiwan.
One might think that such bluster would send Asians rushing to sign up to FOIP and into America’s arms. In some cases, it has. Narendra Modi will deepen defence ties with America in his second term. Japan is beefing up its armed forces and sending its navy into the South China Sea. Officials from America, Australia, India and Japan—the “Quad”—now confer routinely, most recently on May 31st.
All pay lip service to the idea that the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), a club of ten mostly smaller powers, should be at the core of FOIP. The problem is that not all in ASEAN are sold on the idea. For one thing, many are unconvinced that America will truly stick around, as the costs of any war with China grow over time. So why risk China’s ire? “The Chinese coast guard is bigger than Malaysia’s warships,” lamented Malaysia’s defence minister.
Mr Shanahan did his best to assuage these concerns. He pointed out that the Indo-Pacific was America’s “priority theatre”, with four times as many American forces as any other American military command. America’s freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea were also growing more routine: unusually, there were two in May alone.
But muscle is only half of it. The larger issue is that Donald Trump’s unpredictably incendiary foreign policy sits uneasily with the principles of FOIP. Tensions with Iran are pulling America’s attention back to the Middle East. The compulsive resort to tariffs undercuts a rules-based trading order. Mr Trump’s lack of interest in human rights hardly furthers freedom. And to many in Asia, America’s war on Huawei or its sanctions against buyers of Russian arms or Iranian oil look an awful lot like China’s “toolkit of coercion”, as Mr Shanahan put it.
That is unfair. An Asian order sculpted by China would be more capricious and suffocating than anything Mr Trump could devise. General Wei’s brazen defence of the Tiananmen Square massacre—he called it a “correct policy” that gave China the stability to grow richer—was a reminder of the ideological stakes. Australia, India and Japan are on board. Singapore and Vietnam’s sympathies are clear. But most ASEAN countries hate the idea of taking sides, despite widespread misgivings about China’s intentions. Mr Shanahan reckons they will eventually come round. “I think they’re building up their confidence,” he says.
Credits| The Economist