President Donald Trump, in a tweet not long after the announcement that he would meet with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping this week, has predicted a “very difficult meeting” and said the U.S. will no longer put up with what he called “massive trade deficits and job losses” to Beijing.
China’s trade surplus with the U.S. is indeed huge. But this is a far more complicated relationship than the administration seems to think. Tariffs or other penalties on China are going to hurt American consumers and American companies. Much of China’s exports are re-exports comprising components delivered – by U.S. companies – to China for assembly. If the value of those components is subtracted from China’s exports, the U.S. trade deficit would fall by half.
And, as much as the president would like to project an image of U.S. strength to Xi, the U.S. faces the severest threat since World War II to its military and diplomatic ascendency in Asia. Trump will meet an adversary who is sure of himself, asserting China’s strength in a way unseen since the Ming Dynasty. Well before the new administration came into office, the U.S. has found no effective answer to China’s fortification of islet specks in the South China Sea, which give substance to Beijing’s claim to sovereignty over almost the entire ocean up to the doorsteps of the littoral nations.
But beyond that, other problems have intruded, some of them caused by what have been the U.S.’s staunchest allies. The Philippines’ thuggish president, the 71-year-old Rodrigo Duterte, remains what he was – a regional mayor who elevated onto the international stage by dint of his vow to execute drug dealers, which he has done unmercifully, and who so far has betrayed little understanding of international law or relations.
Duterte has discarded a United Nations ruling that the Philippines has exclusive sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea. Lately, Duterte triggered an almost incomprehensible diplomatic gaffe, giving China permission to explore a resource-rich area within the Philippines’ claimed exclusive economic zone about 200 miles east of the island of Luzon – without telling either his departments of Foreign Affairs or Defense that he had done so.
As with the ruling in The Hague, Duterte and his administration have veered between tough talk against the Chinese, defending Philippine sovereignty and offering to give it away. That has caused major problems for other countries that have looked to the U.S. to help counter China’s expansionist urges. But other allies appear to simply be folding.
Malaysia, which once surreptitiously allowed U.S. troops to train in its jungles, is wavering. Its prime minister, Najib Razak, the focus of a U.S. investigation into the theft of billions from a state-owned investment fund, has responded by moving his country’s foreign policy closer to China and away from the country that may want to prosecute him.
Thailand, under U.S. criticism because of a draconian military coup in 2014, has responded by appearing to veer toward China, inking important agreements to develop a key rail project and arranging for the purchase by China of billions of dollars in agricultural products. Cambodia has consistently taken China’s side in Association of Southeast Asian Nations deliberations.
Counteracting China’s burgeoning influence in its own backyard seems almost imaginably difficult, given Beijing’s growing expertise and experience in international affairs. The new, untried and woefully inexperienced regime was on display during U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent trip to Beijing. Despite Tillerson’s earlier rocket-rattling over Beijing’s South China Sea installations – offering during Congressional testimony to use U.S. power to blockade them – the language he used during his inaugural visit to China was seized upon gleefully by the hardline Global Times, a state-owned publication, as having capitulated to Beijing in endorsing the idea that China and the U.S. are equal in the region, something no previous administration has done. Tillerson later had to clarify that there would be no change in U.S. policy.
The Trump administration, faced with a newly formidable adversary in Beijing, with a North Korea eager for any adventurism to keep the pot boiling, with more allies looking north instead of across the Pacific, has its work cut out. It won’t be helped by inexperience and a 31 percent cut in the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development budgets.
John Berthelsen recently retired as editor of the Hong Kong-based Asia Sentinel, a regional news site covering 23 countries across Asia. He now divides his time between Sacramento and Asia, and can be contacted at jberthelsen@ asiasentinel.com.