Monday, January 23, 2017

Out Of The Poaching Pan

Fears are growing that US policy will shift from Too Little Too Late to Too Much Too Soon

It didn’t have to be this way. One obvious opportunity for a different approach was China’s invitation for the United States to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The United States refused to participate and even objected to the U.K. joining the AIIB. As Leland Lazarus explained for The Diplomat, this decision was an enormous error. If the United States had pursued the Trans-Pacific Partnership by publicly emphasizing it hoped China would one day join while also joining the AIIB, the entire perception of any pivot in Beijing would have been radically different. Instead of appearing to be a strategy to undermine China it would simply appear to be an effort to take full advantage of the economic opportunities presented by Asia’s dynamic economic growth. Instead, the United States chose a path that heightened military tensions and missed out on economic opportunities.

The relevance to Australia of this uncertain world, exacerbated if not created by the Obama Administration, is that the probability of some wider and more intense conflict that may involve Australia is as high as it has been since 1945, and probably higher. The US still possesses military power sufficient to resolve conflict with any one of the four listed nations, but our major ally’s military dominance of the world has gone, and will take years to regain. 
Australia cannot ignore the probability that if for any reason conflict occurs between the US and any one of the four, another will see opportunity in simultaneously taking military action. Or a formal or informal opportunistic alliance may occur between two or more of the four (there are signs of it already) to at least reduce US military effectiveness and the world order this has built.

Here is where we have to watch Mr Trump and his Asia policy team. If they want to play hardball against China, Southeast Asia will suffer as an arena of great-power rivalry and confrontation. But while this scenario is alarming, it provides more leverage to the Asean states more than if Washington was to talk tough and turn up empty, which would essentially cede the region to China. Moreover, Mr Trump's relative embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin plays into this mix. Mr Trump may instigate a tectonic shift among the major powers if he courts Mr Putin in a realignment at China's expense. Either way, Asean should brace for more tension.

It is hard to predict how the spat between Beijing and a Trump administration may spiral. Indeed, the incoming team is without a grand strategy—especially if it chooses to do away with the pivot to Asia. 
In fact, Trump has shown little inclination to preserve US interests in the region. His disagreement with China is not over stability, but supposedly stolen American jobs. If Trump is simply seeking better economic terms with China and is willing to use allies as bargaining chips, the South China Sea could become a Chinese lake sooner than expected.

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