Vice chair, Board of Trustees, CSIS Foundation
To a certain extent, China has tried to adjust to United States President Donald Trump’s offensive, but at the same time it is preparing to take the necessary counteractions on tariffs. In the end, China and the US have to find a modus vivendi to avoid the danger of a clash between them. If various confrontations occur in both security and trade matters, frictions may continue on end. Taiwan as the “core” security issue for China is likely the most sensitive issue between those two big powers.
The US’ 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) now closely resembles a mid-19th century presidential policy, according to an article published by Dov S. Zakheim in the July-August 2018 edition of the National Interest. In the NSS, Trump identified security priorities, confirmed the importance of America’s alliances and defined both Russia and China as major threats to US and allied interests, but its implementation has been very mixed.
He increased defense expenditure as needed and significantly increased funding for the European Deterrence Initiative to deter any Russian encroachment into the Baltic countries and to reassure vulnerable East European allies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and to modernize American strategic forces. He managed to improve relations with key allies like France, Japan, South Korea and Great Britain. But he also has not always acted in accordance with expectations, as in the following cases:
• In the Middle East, he was talking about a withdrawal from Syria, which would leave the region exposed to others to fill in the gap, including Russia and Iran, possibly opening up a wider regional war;
• He is committed to a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and Palestine acceptable to both, but his complete support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem may create more trouble in the Middle East in the medium and long term;
• His walking away from the Iran deal rattled allies (except Netanyahu and the Sunni Gulf states), and infuriated Iran. This will bring about a new crisis with Iran and key European allies;
• Support for the Saudis’ and Emirates’ operation in Yemen’s civil war is damaging the US image in the region.
All of these damage the US’ longstanding position in the Middle East as the indispensable power every country has to deal with. Since Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown much more acumen in the Middle East, it will be Russia that everybody is going to turn to. Once out or sidelined, it will be much more difficult for the US to intervene or reassert itself in the Middle East.
Chinese President Xi Jinping also showed that China has been consolidated with his initiative on the vast Belt and Road Initiative, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as well as other institutions; and higher defense expenditure has promoted China’s influence in Asia.
In addition, Xi has a lot to do with the developments on the Korean Peninsula and with getting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to make a deal with Trump. By leaving the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Trump has given China the opportunity to dominate East Asia in the future.
With the newfound understanding that China’s relations with its neighbors in East Asia are most important, China has given much attention to the region, including Southeast Asia/ASEAN. That is why China agreed with ASEAN to quicken the process of finishing the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea. So far, the preamble that contains the COC main framework has been agreed upon, and that will open the way for China and ASEAN to finalize it in the next few years.
How should ASEAN as a middle power adjust to those circumstances full of new challenges and problems? ASEAN should get its act together and consolidate its capacity building efforts and operational capacity.
Decision-making should be made more effective, with the leaders cooperating more closely and frequently than before. Some basic decisions may be agreed upon by consensus, but others not necessarily so. ASEAN should consolidate its many meetings to be more effective and useful.
Last but not least, civil society organizations and think tanks of ASEAN should be more active in assisting and supporting the respective governments for that purpose.
A few of the many things that should be done is for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership to be concluded by the end of 2018, and ASEAN’s idea on the Indo-Pacific grounded in the East Asia Summit should be the other important joint effort.
The writer is the vice chair of the Board of Trustees at the CSIS (Centre for Strategic International Studies) Foundation in Jakarta.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.