China's influence in Asia to deepen with Donald Trump's retreat

Chinese newspapers showing US President Donald Trump at a newsstand in Shanghai, China on Jan 21, 2017.
Chinese newspapers showing US President Donald Trump at a newsstand in Shanghai, China on Jan 21, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING - A protectionist United States that is less engaged in East Asia could lead to the growth of Chinese influence in the region, analysts have said in response to US President Donald Trump's inaugural speech.

Mr Trump in his speech on Friday (Jan 20) made clear he would pursue an "America-first" policy on trade to bring jobs back to the US and the White House website said the US will withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact, one of the largest in the region, bringing together 12 nations.

He also said the US would "re-inforce old alliances and form new ones and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism", signalling a focus on counter-terrorism.

And while Mr Trump did not mention China by name, the Chinese believe they can expect pressure from the US both on trade and geopolitics.

"Trade friction between a Trump-led US and China is highly probable" given that Mr Trump meant to overturn current US trade and economic policies to revitalise the US economy, said the Chinese Communist Party-linked Global Times in an editorial.

It added that China could expect pressure from the US in geopolitics too.

A US that is protectionist and distracted by security issues in other parts of the world "will definitely create some impression in the minds of local elites in East Asia that the US is not as reliable as it used to be", said Associate Professor Li Mingjiang of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

"You can (then) see the growth of Chinese influence. Some countries will decide to be engaged with China and you can see the very gradual transformation of regional security alignments and regional security landscape slightly in the favour of China," he added.

In addition, the US withdrawal from the TPP - and its likely trade disputes not just with China but other countries in the region - means it is unlikely to take the leading role in shaping the economic integration of the region, giving China more opportunity to do so.

"It will certainly make China look more important for regional integration, cooperation and regional infrastructure development," said Assoc Prof Li, adding: "In the coming years, China may have the opportunity to further expand its economic influence in the region."

This would in turn increase China's strategic influence in the region.

"In today's Asia, economics, strategic influence and security relationships are inseparable. If the economic future of regional countries rests more and more with China, it will help increase China's strategic clout in the region," he said.

He pointed out that this has already been seen in the case of the South China Sea.

"In the past years, China was able to prevent a unified Asean because of the importance of China's economic ties with some Asean member states."

To counter China's growing influence, Professor Tosh Minohara from Kobe University suggested a "coalition of concerned nations" in the region that could hold dialogues including on security issues. This coalition could include Japan, India, Vietnam, Australia and Singapore, he added.

Indeed, he expected that the US under Mr Trump would want Japan to do more operationally, including participating in freedom of navigation operations, which the US has been doing in the South China Sea to challenge what it sees as China's excessive claims in the vital waterway.

If the US were to retreat from the region, then Japan would have to play a bigger leadership role in the region, he added.

"If Japan does nothing, then China will dominate the region," he said.

He added that although the TPP in the present form is dead, the other nations could use negotiate a "TPP 2.0" without the US but including India.

It would seem China-Japan rivalry, already growing in recent months, could increase further.

In the years ahead, the Asian region is likely to be more uncertain with the new Trump administration.

"We will see a more unstable and uncertain East Asia...it will be a roller coaster ride and we will have to brace ourselves for the worst," said Prof Minohara.

suinoi@sph.com.sg