By Lara Climaco | FilAm Star Correspondent
Despite warming ties between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, the rivalry between the United States and China over supremacy in Southeast Asia will be the big focus as the incumbent American president makes his way to Manila.
Trump, along with 20 other heads of state and the United Nations secretary general, will be in the Philippines this week for the ASEAN and East Asia summits. He is on his first Asian tour, which analysts believe could be a turning point in the two superpowers’ standing in the region.
“Since President Trump came into office, the United States’ continued commitment to Southeast Asia has been a growing concern. Trump has signaled an indifference to the region by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and abandoning the re-balancing strategy of the Obama administration. Regional allies have questioned whether they can continue to rely on the United States for security assurances and economic leadership in Pacific. As uncertainty builds, Trump’s potential presence at three summits – Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, ASEAN, and East Asia – could serve as a litmus test of U.S. engagement in this region,” said Qi Lin, a Washington, D.C.-based analyst, in commentary published November 5 by Global Risk Insights.
“If long-time American allies in Southeast Asia band together with China, this will significantly alter the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific and reduce America’s strategic options. If the U.S. wishes to continue to carry its historical level of influence, it cannot afford to further isolate itself from its regional partners,” she added.
The White House has touted Trump’s Asian tour as his longest foreign trip so far and the longest trip to Asia by an American president in more than 25 years. The North Korean nuclear threat is at the top of his agenda. He will also promote “free, fair and reciprocal trade in the Indo-Pacific region” especially during the China leg of the tour.
“Following South Korea, President Trump will venture to China where he and President Xi Jinping will discuss ways to continue to apply pressure on North Korea. During the State Visit, President Trump will also stress the unsustainability of China’s unfair trade practices that have produced a massive trade deficit, and the President will re-affirm his determination to defend America’s economic interests,” according to a blog entry on whitehouse.gov for November 3.
In an earlier press briefing at the White House, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster mentioned that Trump would highlight respect for freedom of navigation and overflight, the rule of law, sovereignty, freedom from coercion and private enterprise and open markets during his meetings.
“He looks forward to working with partners across the Indo-Pacific region to ensure that governments do not unfairly subsidize their industries, discriminate against foreign business, or restrict foreign investment. This will help increase trade, reduce unsustainable deficits and promote prosperity for the American people and the people of the Indo-Pacific region,” he said.
Trump is also expected to take up counter-terrorism strategy during the special gala celebration dinner for the 50th anniversary of ASEAN on November 12. He will go over America’s three counter-terrorism pillars against trans-national terrorist organizations such as the ISIS. The key elements are to deny terrorists safe havens and support bases, cut off their funding and discredit their wicked ideology.
Analysis published by the East Asia Forum suggests that ASEAN member-states are becoming financially vulnerable to China, and this should prompt the U.S. to come up with a better strategy in Southeast Asia.
“As Beijing further expands its political influence through projects like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), expect economic leveraging to be a persistent feature of China’s strategy. Rather than pursue a narrow approach to the region, the U.S. must develop a multi-dimensional strategy that reinforces regional economic security, provides for autonomous decision-making and reduces financial dependence on China,” wrote Jacob Merkle, a research intern associated with American think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.
He warned that U.S. influence would diminish should it fail to improve its economic presence in the region.
The Diplomat, an international current affairs magazine, was more ominous. “Will November 2017 mark the moment the U.S. ceded leadership in the Asia-Pacific region to China because Trump lacks the experience and conceptual ability to think strategically rather than transactionally?” it pointed out in an article written by Carl Thayer.
Trump is slated to hold bilateral meetings with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, India’s Narendra Modi and Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull while in Manila.