Sat, Jun 09, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Asia sees China and US as threats to rules-based order

Faith in US Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ reassurances is increasingly not enough in the face of trade tariffs

By Marc Champion  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Kevin Sheu

For many US allies, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis is the last of the so-called grownups in the room in US President Donald Trump’s administration. So, at Asia’s main annual security forum he got a warm reception for his firm defense of the rules-based order the US helped to build after World War II.

However, Mattis’ reassurance is increasingly not enough. The US — as much as China — is seen as a threat to that system, undermining the very solutions the retired US Marine Corps general offered to counter Beijing’s rule-breaking in the South China Sea.

On Sunday, tiny Singapore, one of the US’ most like-minded partners in the region, drew a direct equivalence between the US and China.

Singaporean Minister of Defense Ng Eng Hen (黃永宏) marked the two global powers as nations that “are in fact changing the rules of the international order.”

The US administration’s “America First” policy of imposing trade tariffs on national security grounds was “but one manifestation” of an attempt to revisit the “status quo,” in potential breach of WTO principles, Ng told the Singapore security gathering known as the Shangri-La Dialogue.

The US under Trump has been a frequent critic of the WTO, calling it outdated and too slow to resolve disputes.

With disruption already under way, the real question, Ng told reporters after his speech, was this: “Can countries, including China and US, especially China and US, agree on one rule-based order, which [Chinese] President Xi Jinping [習近平] said he supports?”

The challenges presented by China’s rising power and territorial assertiveness predate Trump, as do the solutions Mattis had to offer, but faith in those solutions is fading.

The US strategy Mattis laid out in Singapore has been rebranded to refer to the Indo-Pacific rather than the Asia-Pacific. Yet it was little different from the one his predecessor Ash Carter offered: Conduct freedom of navigation operations to show the international community’s refusal to accept Chinese territorial claims, while maintaining alliance unity — specifically with ASEAN.

In time, China’s misdeeds would generate enough pushback and isolation that it would reconsider its actions, Mattis said on Saturday last week in a question-and-answer session.

Still, while the Pentagon recently excluded China from this year’s multinational Rim of the Pacific naval exercise, Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) has dismissed the Indo-Pacific strategy as “sea foam,” set to quickly disappear.

Some analysts agree.

“Nothing has changed except each year it’s worse,” said Francois Heisbourg, a former diplomat and adviser to the French defense ministry, who now chairs the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the London-based think tank that organizes the Shangri-La conference.

“The effect is that the Chinese are getting what they want, while the Americans insist on giving gifts to the opposition,” he said, referring to the Trump administration’s decision to impose trade tariffs on allies such as Japan, and to abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement designed to set the region’s trade rules on US terms.

Some analysts say attitudes toward China are hardening. The potential costs of accepting burdensome loans under the Belt and Road Initiative are sinking in, alongside China’s tactics in the South China Sea and its political meddling abroad, Canadian Maritime Forces Pacific special adviser James Boutilier said.

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