Earlier this week US President Barack Obama cancelled his historic visits to Malaysia and the Philippines but made good on his promise to attend regional leadership meetings in the coming days where key trade agreements and hard power deals are likely be negotiated and fortified. However, domestic pressures over the budget crisis and government shutdown in Washington have caused the President to scrap his trip entirely.
Will Obama’s absence be a game-changer for regional relations and the US’s strategic pivot to the Asia Pacific? Will Tea Party-infused political brinkmanship in the US offer Chinese president Xi Jinping, also attending the summits, a golden opportunity to expand China’s regional footprint?
Obama’s strategic “pivot” and return to the Asia Pacific, by and large, has utilized Southeast Asian states as a springboard in developing a program of political and economic laurels that open up Southeast Asian markets for foreign direct investment and international trade. From a 1,000 foot view, the US pivot looks similar to China’s foreign policy to Southeast Asia, thus the US’s program both complements and competes with China’s regional rise. It is important to remember that due to its proximity to Southeast Asia and its fast-tracked economic expansion, China’s investment and trade volumes with Southeast Asia will always exceed that of the United States. However another hard reality is that US power in Southeast Asia, both soft and hard, will always eclipse that of China’s. It will take major restructuring in the US (for the worse) and in China (for the better) to reverse this relationship. Despite the best efforts of the Tea Party in the US and potentially of an equally challenging New Left movement down the road, the status quo in terms of the channels that express US military, economic, and cultural power in Southeast Asia are unlikely to weaken. For China, we are uncertain of Xi Jinping’s economic reform platform likely to unfold at year’s end, but we can be assured that his platform will focus on strengthening China’s domestic economy first, with foreign policy and other considerations taking a backseat.
In terms of soft power choices between China and the US, the consistent preference of Southeast Asians is to side with the US or at the very least, against China. Wealthy Southeast Asians, like the Chinese, send their children to top US universities for robust skilling; Southeast Asians, like Americans, go to China to learn Mandarin. Middle income consumers in Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia refuse to purchase Chinese made smart phones (and their apps and operating systems), those who have the means to purchase cars in Laos choose Japanese Toyotas or refurbished Korean used cars, and with the Chinese mainland’s crowding out of the Hong Kong and Taiwan entertainment industries, no one in Southeast Asia listens to new music or watches new films coming out of China. Continue reading