United States President Donald Trump’s focus on North Korea is playing into Chinese hands and, by default, further weakening the US position in a Southeast Asia increasingly subject to Chinese carrots and sticks.
Trump’s “war” on the North makes little sense either at a time when the South seems about to elect as president Moon Jae-in from the Democratic party aiming for some dialogue with Pyongyang. Many in the South were already unhappy with Trump’s demand they pay for the Thad missile system, about which they have reservations anyway.
The US pressure on China to “do something” about Pyongyang’s nuclear development may appear a sign of strength. It has the beneficial side effects of justifying the missile shields in South Korea and strengthening the resolve of Japan to build its own defenses.
But it ignores the more fundamental fact that a nationalistic, nuclear Korea is now more a problem for China than for the United States. For Pyongyang and the Kim regime, the bomb is simply effective deterrence. They want survival, not the instant annihilation they would court by any first moves.
Now it is China that has to live with the ever-nationalistic (on both sides) Koreans, a nuclear and stubborn North and a rich South angered by Beijing’s crude boycotts of Korean tourism and consumer goods.
ASEAN’s zero influence in the matter
The supposed master of the Art of the Deal is now proposing to trade genuine US economic interests in terms of China market access etc for some notional reduction in the North Korean “threat.”
For sure, Beijing pressure may push the North to stop nuclear and missile tests for the time being. But so what? The nuke deterrent will still be there.
As for South Korea, it can live with the status quo as it has done for two decades and is more worried about the US attempting to “take out” the North, sparking Pyongyang retaliation, than it is about Kim Jong Un making a first move.
Trump is compounding this error by contacting Southeast Asian leaders to join his campaign against Pyongyang. The ASEAN 10 have zero influence in this matter and have not looked to be involved.
At their recent summit in Manila they expressed “concern” about the situation without suggesting any action on their part.
What concerns the majority of them is the South China Sea and the massive strides made by China over the past year, partly as a result of the Trump-led retreat from the region signaled by abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
The TPP was a flawed but symbolically important agreement in which several Asian allies had invested political capital. Now Trump is rubbing salt into the wounds by inviting President Duterte to Washington.
This is not just the Duterte who has been supportive of thousands of extra-judicial killings of supposed drug suspects. It is the Duterte who has repeatedly trashed US policies in Asia and repeatedly kowtowed to China over its activities in the South China Sea.
He has effectively thrown away the Philippines’ hugely important victory over China at the Court of Arbitration, a victory which also benefits Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.
Duterte has been bought by the promise of billions of dollars of Chinese infrastructure investment, which may or may not materialize.
Southeast Asia worried
The ASEAN summit in Manila at the end of April saw Duterte again do China’s bidding by remaining silent over its continued expansionist maritime moves.
The 123 paragraphs of platitudes issued at the summit’s conclusion underlined that the group now has been neutered by China and has no significant political role.
The Vietnamese are furious at the Philippines’ cowardly retreat in the face of China. Singapore and Indonesia are keeping their own counsel.
However, both countries are clearly worried about how U.S. neglect and Chinese pressures have so drastically reversed the balance in the region since the days of Obama, Aquino and the July 2016 Court of Arbitration ruling.
Trump’s lack of knowledge of the region
Meanwhile China’s partial bail-out of Malaysia’s scandal-hit 1MDB investment fund has ensured that Prime Minister Najib Razak keeps silent about China’s claims to Malaysian islands and waters.
Rewarding the cowardly Duterte with a Washington invite send yet another message to the region’s leaders: that the United States either does not care about or, in the Trump era, is simply ignorant of, the region’s issues.
If any ASEAN leaders were worth an invite now, it should be Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, an upholder of pluralism and democracy and trying hard to protect the nation’s huge maritime boundaries. Or Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who has been steadfast in the face of Chinese pressures. But no. A clueless Trump again sends all the wrong messages.
This is reprinted from The Globalist. Philip Bowring is a founder and consultant editor of Asia Sentinel.