The latest superpower dysfunctional spectacular, aka the US shutdown, has forced President Barack Obama to cancel an entire Asian trip. First the White House announced Obama was shutting down Malaysia and the Philippines – supposed stars of the “pivoting to Asia”. Then it was finally confirmed he was also shutting down the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) summit in Bali on Tuesday and the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and East Asia summit next Thursday in Brunei.
That leaves Chinese President Xi Jinping to bask, unrivalled, in center stage glow. As if any extra Stateside “help” was needed, and as if Xi was not already on a roll.
On Thursday, Xi became the first foreign leader ever to address the Indonesian parliament in Jakarta. He stressed that Beijing wanted by all means to boost trade with ASEAN to a whopping US\$1 trillion by 2020 – and establish a regional infrastructure bank.
His message, in a nutshell: China and “certain Southeast Asian countries” must solve their wrangling over territorial sovereignty and maritime rights “peacefully” – as in we will discuss that messy South China Sea situation (he made no direct reference to it in his speech) but don’t let that interfere with our doing serious business in trade and investment. Who is ASEAN to say no?
And then, after upstaging Obama in Indonesia (hefty tomes could be penned about that), and signing the requisite \$30 billion-plus deals (mostly in mining), Xi was off to Malaysia.
Compare Xi’s Indonesian triumph – complete with his glamorous wife Peng Liyuan wearing batik – to a recent visit by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who, for all practical purposes, wanted to convince the Indonesians to essentially encircle China. Elaborately polite as usual, the Indonesians brushed Abe aside. China is Indonesia’s biggest trading partner after Japan, and it’s bound to overtake Tokyo soon.
Beijing has already agreed to discuss a legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea with ASEAN. A working group met last month in Suzhou. Four of the 10-member ASEAN (but not Indonesia) are involved in the South China Sea dispute – which, predictably enough, is all about unexplored oil and gas wealth. The Philippines will keep accusing Beijing, as it did last month, of violating the – for the moment informal – Code of Conduct. Indonesia has volunteered as mediator. It won’t be a rose garden, but the fact is China and ASEAN are already talking.
Pivoting with myself
It’s a bit of a problem when you announce – with great fanfare, and at the Pentagon, of all places – a “pivoting to Asia” to enhance the role of “Asia Pacific to US prosperity and security”, and you cannot even pivot yourself to Asia for a few days to pitch it in person. In fact there’s no pivoting to being with – at least for now. The Obama administration has been focused not only on two immensely complex dossiers – Syria and Iran – but also trying to contain Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s dementia in Israel and the increasingly fearful and paranoid House of Saud.
So what would Obama have been up to in Asia? Well, in the Philippines he would have tried to clinch a deal for “greater flexibility” for the Pentagon to use military bases. To say that is “controversial” is a huge understatement.
And in Malaysia, Obama would have pushed harder for the already infamous Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – essentially a corporate racket that is a great deal for US multinationals but not exactly for Asian interests. TPP is the American answer to China boosting its already massive business ties all over Asia.
Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohammad has seen TPP – which excludes China – for what it is, and he’s absolutely not convinced TPP will allow Malaysia easier access to the American market.
So in the end it was left to Xi to stage yet another Southeast Asian triumph. Beijing may offer Kuala Lumpur a wealth of investment without pesky TPP-style interference on how the country runs its state-owned enterprises or how it dispenses government contracts. And on top of it, Xi got a personal shot at trying to get Malaysia on his side in negotiations about the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea.
Xi of course will be the star of the APEC summit in Bali. Then Premier Li Keqiang heads the Chinese team to the East Asia Summit in Brunei and extends his business trip further to Thailand and Vietnam.
Now compare this Chinese offensive, relentless as an accelerating Lamborghini Aventador, with the unstated but palpable perception, all across Southeast Asia, of the creaking Chevrolet that represents the US “pivoting”. A bet can be made that US Think Tankland once again will carp about the loss of American reliability or, better yet, “credibility” – even as it defends the future of the pivoting, justifying it not only as an American strategic decision but in the name of Southeast Asian interests.
That is nonsense. The top cheerleader of the US pivoting is Japan – and Japan is widely regarded, in different shades of gray all across Southeast Asia, as a US puppet. What is certain is that the Obama no-show only reinforces the predominant perception that current US foreign policy is an absolute mess. And that while the US does shutdowns, China does business.