China’s as­ser­tion is turn­ing Asian geopol­i­tics even more con­tentious

The Asian su­per­power knows its ex­pan­sion and dom­i­nance in the region are cre­at­ing a back­lash

Hindustan Times (Ranchi) - - Comment - IAN BREM­MER

What­ever the cur­rent state of the US-China trade war, Asia’s geopol­i­tics are fast be­com­ing more con­tentious. Pres­i­dents Trump and Xi may have made some progress to­ward com­pro­mise at the re­cent G20 sum­mit in Buenos Aires, but both the sub­stance and tim­ing of next ac­tions re­main in doubt, and there’s a real risk that Trump, in need of a po­lit­i­cal win at home, will sim­ply de­clare vic­tory and walk away with­out re­solv­ing long-term sources of con­flict.

In the mean­time, Trump’s “Amer­ica First” for­eign pol­icy and his will­ing­ness to take trade ac­tion against US al­lies in the region even as he picks new fights with Bei­jing, have cre­ated more space for an in­creas­ingly am­bi­tious China to ex­pand its com­mer­cial and po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence.

Trump’s ex­plic­itly con­fronta­tional ap­proach to Bei­jing res­onates with many of China’s neigh­bours. Ja­pan, South Korea, Malaysia, and many oth­ers are con­cerned that China’s grow­ing eco­nomic clout is shift­ing the region’s bal­ance of power in ways that leave them vul­ner­a­ble. They have good rea­son to hope that Trump can force China to open more of its mar­kets to for­eign prod­ucts, cut back on sub­si­dies for Chi­nese com­pa­nies, and stop forc­ing the trans­fer—or steal­ing— of the in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty of for­eign firms.

But it’s im­pos­si­ble for these gov­ern­ments to con­sider Trump a re­li­able ally. Be­yond the prob­lem of US tar­iffs on their goods, his de­ci­sion to aban­don the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s com­mit­ment to join the Transpa­cific Part­ner­ship—an enor­mous trade deal that has moved for­ward with­out Washington—and his er­ratic state­ments on pol­icy all sig­nal they would be wise to hedge their bets on US in­ten­tions. It doesn’t help that in­ves­ti­ga­tions of his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign and ad­min­is­tra­tion are cer­tain to in­ten­sify in 2019, and that it’s not at all clear how the op­po­si­tion Democrats now think about trade.

In this en­vi­ron­ment, China will press ahead with its am­bi­tious ex­pan­sion, and while its in­vest­ment strat­egy, cen­tred on its Belt Road Ini­tia­tive (BRI), has global im­pli­ca­tions, Bei­jing’s fo­cus re­mains squarely on China’s dom­i­nance in Asia. Part of BRI’s pur­pose is to pull the region’s economies closer to China, while boost­ing Bei­jing’s strate­gic in­flu­ence in­side each coun­try. Sin­ga­pore, In­done­sia, Malaysia, Viet­nam, Pak­istan, Thai­land, Laos, and Myan­mar have all re­ceived sub­stan­tial Chi­nese in­vest­ment in re­cent months, and the US-China trade war has only in­creased China’s need to de­velop new mar­kets for its out­put and new producers to pro­vide the prod­ucts that China im­ports.

Chi­nese lead­ers are now well aware that this ex­pan­sion is cre­at­ing a back­lash in Asia, and else­where, as pol­i­cy­mak­ers and com­pa­nies in neigh­bour­ing coun­tries see threats em­bed­ded in Bei­jing’s plans. Ear­lier this year, Malaysian Prime Min­is­ter Mo­hammed Ma­hathir or­dered the can­cel­la­tion of three Chi­nese in­vest­ment projects in­side his coun­try and sus­pended a fourth over con­cerns they would leave his coun­try deeply in­debted. Chi­nese in­vest­ment has also be­come a source of de­bate in up­com­ing elec­tions in Thai­land and in In­done­sia, where a form of Is­lamist pop­ulism is fu­elling an­tiChi­nese anger.

In Pak­istan, we’ve seen a much more dra­matic re­cent state­ment of anger di­rected to­ward China. Last month, gun­men launched a deadly at­tack on the Chi­nese con­sulate in Karachi. The ap­par­ent mo­tive was Chi­nese in­vest­ment in a region of Pak­istan claimed by sep­a­ratists. China is a cru­cial large-scale in­vestor in Pak­istan’s econ­omy, par­tic­u­larly as the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion loosens tra­di­tional ties with Pak­istan’s gov­ern­ment. Yet, con­cerns in­side al­ready in­debted Pak­istan about what China will de­mand when Pak­istan can’t re­pay its Chi­nese lenders is on the rise. Call this China’s “debt-trap diplo­macy.” It’s a prob­lem more gov­ern­ments are now think­ing about.

Even in the Philip­pines, where Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte has ac­tively courted Chi­nese in­fra­struc­ture in­vest­ment, there is a back­lash against China’s grow­ing eco­nomic reach. Duterte has dropped his coun­try’s ter­ri­to­rial claims in the South China Sea, an area in which China’s mil­i­tary ex­pan­sion has drawn in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion, and has so far won lit­tle tan­gi­ble re­sults. to show for it. Duterte’s ri­vals are now ac­cus­ing him of sell­ing out the coun­try’s in­ter­ests. It’s an is­sue that will roil Philip­pine pol­i­tics long af­ter Duterte is gone.

Yet, de­spite the doubts and fears of China’s neigh­bours, its last­ing in­flu­ence is still Asia’s over­rid­ing re­al­ity. All these coun­tries need good re­la­tions with Bei­jing—to grow their economies, cre­ate jobs, and main­tain their po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity. They will man­age the risks and op­por­tu­ni­ties their re­la­tion­ships with China as best they can. What role the United States in­tends to play in Asia re­mains the cru­cial unan­swered ques­tion.

Ian Brem­mer is the pres­i­dent of Eura­sia Group and au­thor of Us vs Them: The Fail­ure of Glob­al­ism

The views ex­pressed are per­sonal

■ De­spite the doubts and fears of China’s neigh­bours, its last­ing in­flu­ence is still Asia’s over­rid­ing re­al­ity. All these coun­tries need good re­la­tions with Bei­jing—to bol­ster their economies, cre­ate jobs, and main­tain their po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity

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