BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - United States President Donald Trump has asked Congress to boost military spending by US$54 billion (S$77 billion) from its current level of about US$600 billion. Meanwhile across the Pacific, China says it will increase its defence budget this year by 7 per cent, to US$147 billion. It should be obvious, regardless of whatever else these two countries do, that there are certain elements of connectivity.
While China's military spending is largely seen as expanding its forces, the US investment hike - less or roughly on a par with what Trump's predecessors achieved, contrary to the incumbent's self-aggrandising boasts - is primarily intended to upgrade ageing US air power.
Concern over military one-upmanship pales, however, in comparison to worries about Trump's failure thus far to make clear his intentions on foreign policy. To use Teddy Roosevelt's terminology, if armed might is still America's "big stick", Trump refuses to "speak softly", instead making continuous abrasive threats that erode and unbalance global relations. There can be no balance of power when no one knows which way the scales are tipping.
When the major powers restock their gunpowder, small countries near and far must be concerned. As matters stand, we could very well be witnessing the start of a US-China cold war, albeit of a different nature than that fought chiefly by America and the Soviet Union. Trump's military spending boost corresponds with a requested 37-per-cent cut in the State Department budget, which might suggest the US will be relying on military muscle to get its way in the world rather than diplomacy. The "soft power" of diplomacy that was a pillar of Barack Obama's foreign policy has no place in the new tough-guy president's repertoire.
China, on the other hand, continues to use all possible means to augment its power and presence across Asia and elsewhere. President Xi Jinping has been admirably restrained in the face of Trump's allegations that China is rigging the economic game and cheating other nations.
When Trump withdrew the US from the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, China calmly reaffirmed that free trade is beneficial to all participants and its commitment to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that includes the Asean. Beijing is negotiating with the countries with which it has territorial disputes in the South China Sea, alleviating tension that at one point looked like it might trigger armed conflict. A code of conduct for the South China Sea is in the works that would hopefully prevent any mishap - man-made or otherwise - from occurring in those contested waters.
The new US secretary of state Rex Tillerson said during his confirmation hearing that America would erect a blockade against China's access to the South China Sea and likened China's island-building programme there to Russia's seizure of Crimea. That Tillerson was confirmed does not make his remarks any less preposterous or confrontational. It merely fits the Trump pattern of speaking loud, abrasively and outrageously, heedless of the consequences.
For now, the countries of Asia struggle to anticipate where American foreign policy is headed. China has immense military and economic power on its side. Japan got an early start securing reassurances of its own from the White House. South Korea is distracted with its own presidential politics. Other nations in the region are groping in the dark.
Asean has asked for a meeting with Tillerson to find out what Trump's USA might offer and expect from Southeast Asia. Without clear policy direction from the source, other countries nurse misgivings and mistrust. If this situation were to prevail much longer, there could be serious long-term repercussions.
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