Even as many yearn for the days when America’s influence kept geopolitics stable in the region, this may go down in history as the year when Asia no longer stood to attention when a US president cleared his throat.
In the 1942 Hollywood classic Casablanca, Major Strasser of the Third Reich tells the French police prefect that his impression of saloon keeper Rick Blaine, the principal protagonist, is that he is just another blundering American.
Captain Louis Renault’s response is to caution that no one should underestimate American blundering.
“I was with them,” he says meaningfully to the arrogant German, “when they ‘blundered’ into Berlin in 1918.”
As the sun sets on another year in Asia, large sections of the continent will yearn for the days when America’s raw edge, whether stemming from Texan elan or Arkansas mojo, kept the geopolitical order stable in the region.
Instead, this might go down in history as the watershed year when Asia no longer stood to attention when an American president cleared his throat.
A steel-willed Chinese leader has risen above a shaky economy and the embarrassment of being all but declared an outlaw in the South China Sea to impose his will across a widening patch of Asian landscape.
Two events were most emblematic about America’s declining influence. The first was when Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose security is guaranteed by the United States under treaty, hurled personal abuses at President Barack Obama for criticising his war on drugs.
The other came at year end when China seized a US Navy unmanned underwater drone in the South China Sea in full sight of its owner, and returned the device at a time of its choosing along with a stern warning.
That incident was the second public insult Obama endured from China over the year. Earlier, after a contretemps between US and Chinese officials in Hangzhou Airport, he had to emerge “from the ass” of Air Force One, rather than the regular steel ladder, while on his farewell trip to Asia.
Beijing, clearly, has not forgiven Obama for his “pivot” to Asia that so unsettled it initially before it assessed the challenge as unconvincing wordplay.
American political scientist John Mearsheimer, who proposed the theory of offensive realism and believed that China’s growing power will bring it into conflict with the US, famously said that international politics has always been a “ruthless and dangerous business, and likely to remain that way”.
Obama is not a fan of that thinking. Too cerebral to look for a scrap and altogether too refined, he has unwittingly surrendered his nation’s swagger by appearing passive, if not weak-kneed, at crucial moments.
The pity is that his reluctance to lead came at a time when he should have been cresting a wave of global influence. The toxic economy he inherited from his predecessor has been nursed back to health through seven years of continuous expansion. There has been no major terrorist strike on the US under his watch and few departing presidents have retained such high approval ratings. At no time has his nation been so powerful militarily. As US Defence Secretary Ash Carter unfailingly told every Shangri-La Dialogue held here in the past three years, America has stunning new weapons at its disposal.
In hindsight, perhaps the early signal of Obama’s flagging will came in the summer of 2013 when Syria crossed the famous “red lines” laid down by Washington and he called off military strikes at the last minute. The Russians had brokered a deal to get Syria off the hook by getting it to surrender its chemical weapons.
The decision, probably not an incorrect one, nevertheless reverberated around the world, particularly in Asia. A world that was ambivalent about American power saw for the first time a president who was ambivalent about using it.
Likewise, at the Sunnylands summit held around the same time, Chinese President Xi Jinping had told Obama that China would not militarise the South China Sea islands it had grabbed. That promise would be broken a couple of years later but here, too, no punitive action followed. Then, after The Hague tribunal ruled unequivocally against China over its South China Sea claims, he did little to press Beijing to comply with the ruling.
Naturally, significant lessons were drawn. As Jaime FlorCruz, a Filipino journalist who has been based in Beijing for decades, put it, some of Duterte’s positions come from doubts that the US will actually come to his country’s support in the event of a clash over the South China Sea.
As the Philippines amply demonstrated, rising misgivings about America’s will to assert itself, combined with adroit Chinese diplomacy and sturdy resolve to last the course it has set for itself, have split Asean to Beijing’s advantage.
On the economic front, with US President-elect Donald Trump standing firmly against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the China-promoted Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is now the only big game in town. Many US allies, including Australia, Japan and South Korea, have expressed interest in joining RCEP. So, too, has India.
China is winning in other ways. Malaysia this year announced it is buying its first warships from China, while Bangladesh, which has close ties with India, took delivery of two Chinese submarines last month. Australia is reluctant to join Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea with others. Perhaps Duterte said it best when he announced in Beijing: “America has lost now. I have realigned myself in (China’s) ideological flow.”
Increasingly, it seems Japan and India are the only two powers to stand up to Chinese dominance over Asia.
As the world’s No. 2 economy, and the top trading partner to East and South-east Asian nations, China’s weight in regional affairs grows by the day. While its trade influence is heavy, it is by no means Asean’s top investor, least of all a provider of jobs or technology. The additional heft it has carved for itself, therefore, is directly proportional to America’s reluctance to punch to its weight.
It now remains to be seen what corrections, if any, Trump will make. With his unique personality, he, more than any of his immediate predecessors, has just that little bit of a blundering mien to radiate the menace and unpredictability required of the world’s sole superpower.
Clever and pointed as it was, the drone seizure in the South China Sea was a low-risk move by Beijing that signalled its disdain for Obama while also sending a warning to Trump at a time when he was not yet commander-in-chief. Beijing knows full well that if its navy attempts a similar manoeuvre after Jan 20, it might get a different response.