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Asia's Game of Thrones
As Duterte Pivots, Uncertainty Reigns in Asia

Earlier this week we discussed how Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s sudden pivot to China will have unpredictable follow-on effects throughout the Asia-Pacific. The Christian Science Monitor takes the pulse of a region that is unsure how to respond:

Analysts say Duterte’s aggressive push to distance the Philippines from the US has injected new uncertainties into a region already brimming with tension. China has been increasingly assertive in recent years in its claims of sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, constructing military facilities and artificial islands in the area. That has angered many of its neighbors, including Vietnam, Malaysia, and, until now, the Philippines. […]

But for now, amid the confusion over Duterte’s true intent as he woos China, other major powers in the Pacific are being forced to wait cautiously – and avoid exacerbating tensions by overreacting to the abrupt change in tone from the Philippines’ tough-talking new president.

Duterte has upended the balance in Asia, and it remains unclear where the chips will fall in his wake. The Philippine president has had a busy diplomatic schedule of late, with trips to Japan, Vietnam, Laos and Brunei, plus an upcoming visit to Malaysia. So far, these countries have largely adopted a “wait and see” approach toward Duterte, neither endorsing nor condemning his China policy, but the climate of uncertainty is not good news.

According to regional leaders, the United States shares some blame for the uncertainty in the region. Recently, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has been sounding the alarm bells about the consequences of the U.S. abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). That trade agreement was a cornerstone of Obama’s Asia policy, but its political future is in jeopardy due to an anti-trade backlash at home. If TPP dies, as Lee warns, American credibility in the region will take a hit:

Now, let’s say you cannot deliver on the TPP. After you have gotten Vietnam to join, after you have gotten Japan to join, after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made very difficult arrangements on agriculture, cars, sugar and dairy. Now you say, “I walk away, that I do not believe in this deal.” How can anybody believe in you anymore?

Washington must attend to these regional dynamics if it hopes to be a credible player in Asia. The problem is bigger than Duterte. Obama’s pivot to Asia was good policy in theory, but the follow-through has left something to be desired. Consider the current track record: one of Washington’s strongest Asian allies is led by an anti-American demagogue, China and the Philippines are working toward a mutual understanding on the South China Sea, Malaysia is leaning toward China, and the landmark Pacific trade deal supported by the U.S. languishes due to populism at home.

There is still a chance to right the ship, and a U.S. ratification of TPP (perhaps in the lame duck session) would be a good start. Regardless, the next administration will need to move swiftly to restore American credibility to the region.

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  • Andrew Allison

    It will take a LOT more than passage of TPP to restore American credibility, not just in Asia Pacific, but worldwide.

    • LarryD

      Obama has displayed weakness at every turn. An example of Dunning-Kruger effect, he can’t even recognize his incompetency. He has no skills in bargaining or negotiation, he must either dictate terms (“I won.”) or be taken to the cleaners (Iran).

    • JR

      These shipments of American LNG to Asia will probably calm a lot of waters. We have access to shale resources that nobody in the world has. This matters.

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