US presidential debate suggests Asia rebalance under threat
WASHINGTON • Anyone looking for reassurances about America's continued commitment to Asia at the first US presidential debate would have found little cheer.
Even taking into account the low expectations that either Mr Donald Trump or Mrs Hillary Clinton would spend much time on foreign policy, what actually emerged was still discouraging.
Of the few occasions that Asia got a mention in the 90-minute forum, nearly all were in reference to how the United States needed to stop letting China take advantage of it. Mr Trump accused Beijing of currency manipulation and of not doing enough to stem North Korea's nuclear ambitions, while both candidates raised concerns about China as a cyber threat.
The Republican nominee also reiterated his previous, largely false, claim that Japan and South Korea are getting a free ride from the US in terms of defence.
"They do not pay us. But they should be paying us, because we are providing tremendous service and we're losing a fortune," he said. "We can't defend Japan, a behemoth selling us cars by the million."
Unsurprisingly, both candidates jostled to hammer the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade deal, the agreement that is supposed to become the linchpin of the US pivot.
And with such forceful public denunciations, it is now probably safe to assume that the deal will die if it doesn't get through Congress during the final months of President Barack Obama's tenure.
If the domestic pressures sound like a serious threat to the Asia rebalance, foreign policy experts in the US say there is still reason to be hopeful that American leaders will stay the course in the region once the distortionary effect of the election fades.
What keeps them up at night, however, is the external efforts to chip away at the pillars of that US policy. In the past year, as the US has had its head turned by presidential politics, the Asia rebalance has gradually started to look like a failure.
FIVE THREATS TO THE REBALANCE
One reason experts are optimistic that US support for engagement in Asia will likely survive the nativist election is that the logic for doing so is unassailable. Asia will be the most important region in the world in the coming decades and the US needs to be a player there. The maintenance of the rebalance also doesn't require the sort of military expenditure that US involvement in other regions demands.
It is a relatively low-cost, high-return, logical policy that continues to enjoy the support of the political mainstream of both sides. But that logic might not hold as strongly if the efforts of the Obama administration start looking fruitless. A future president might be discouraged from investing in the policy if he or she sees the bid to maintain influence in Asia as a futile effort.
In a 2014 essay, Rand Corporation China expert Scott Harold listed five developments that could do just that - roll back and undermine the rebalance.
The first and second are a withdrawal of US assets in the region, either because of a military threat from China or North Korea or a request from one of its allies because of problems in the bilateral relationship.
The third is the US implicitly or explicitly ceding leadership in the region to China. The fourth is a collapse of the TPP, and the fifth a failure to retain sufficient defence resource commitments to support the rebalance.
While most of those threats seemed unlikely before, they don't any more. At least three of them - a collapse of the TPP, the ceding of regional leadership and a souring of ties with an ally - have become very real possibilities.
On the TPP, if Congress ratifies the agreement before the year is up, then the rebalance will have a strong economic pillar in place. If it doesn't happen, then, even in the best-case scenarios on all other fronts, the next president inherits a significantly weakened Asia policy.
Which outcome we will see in December now relies heavily on Mr Obama's persuasive power. At a time when politics has rendered such agreements persona non grata, the President has been waging a lonely solo battle to advocate for it.
On the bright side, Mr Obama currently has high approval ratings and has political capital to spend.
Yet pessimists might point to the sheer unpredictability of Congress and the level of influence the President still has with lawmakers. Three months before the end of his eight years in office, lawmakers decided to override his veto for the first time. (Mr Obama had vetoed a Bill that allowed families of Sept 11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia, but Congress overwhelmingly voted to overturn that veto.)
On the matter of regional leadership, the developments in East and South-east Asia in the past few months are of great concern in Washington.
Slowly but surely, some US friends and allies have started hedging their bets, as Beijing simultaneously flexes its muscles. The most obvious recent example is the Philippines.
Here, in one small archipelago, all the administration's Asia rebalance fears are coming true: there has been an apparent shifting of allegiances to China and even a request regarding the withdrawal of US assets.
There was no question the election of maverick Rodrigo Duterte as president raised the blood pressure in Washington earlier this year, but few could have predicted how rough it would have been on bilateral ties.
A low point came last month when Mr Obama abruptly called off a meeting with the Philippine leader because of a crude insult. Later, Mr Duterte appeared to first ask for US special forces to be withdrawn from Mindanao and then declared an end to future US-Philippine military exercises.
"I am serving notice now to the Americans, this will be the last military exercise," he said, casting the longstanding alliance into uncertainty in what was an apparent move to appease China. There was some backtracking by officials later but it is clear Manila is now tilting towards Beijing and Mr Duterte has even signalled he is open to some sort of deal on the South China Sea issue with Beijing.
Elsewhere, Vietnam is trying to cultivate ties with India and Russia , in apparent concern about the strength of the US in the region. This while Washington tries to shore up military cooperation.
And as US influence wanes, China's leverage grows.
Beijing's divide-and-conquer approach on Asean and the South China Sea, for instance, has been remarkably effective in creating cracks in the South-east Asian grouping. Though Asean has been able to put up a united front since failing to produce a joint communique at a foreign ministers' summit in 2012, fissures reappeared again this year - due to strategic pressure from China.
In April, China announced that it had reached a four-point consensus with Brunei, Cambodia and Laos over the South China Sea. One of the points included treating the issue as one only between claimant countries and "not an issue between China and Asean as a whole".
Then in June, Asean foreign ministers worked on a joint statement expressing concerns about developments in the South China Sea - but the statement was never issued officially, reportedly due to pressure China exerted on member states like Laos.
It remains to be seen how much more Beijing is willing to press the South China Sea issue in the coming months as Washington becomes increasingly distracted.
All that raises the question of what will be left of the Asia rebalance when the next president comes into the Oval Office.
Ties with Japan, India, Singapore and Myanmar will likely be strong points, but when it comes to the impact on the overall clout and credibility in the Pacific, there is a possibility the next president won't have very much to work with.
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