US losing clout in Asia as regional tensions mount

Critics say Asian govts ignoring calls for calm by White House

WASHINGTON • For 21/2 years, US President Donald Trump has said he is finally doing in Asia what he asserts his predecessor, Mr Barack Obama, failed to achieve with a strategic pivot: strengthen American influence and rally partners to push back against China.

But as violence escalates and old animosities are rekindled across Asia, Washington has chosen inaction, and governments are ignoring the Trump administration's mild admonitions and calls for calm.

Whether it is the internal battles in India and Hong Kong or the rivalry between two Asian allies of the US, Japan and South Korea, Mr Trump and his advisers are staying on the sidelines.

The inability or unwillingness of Washington to help defuse the flashpoints is one of the clearest signs yet of the erosion of American power and global influence under Mr Trump, who has stuck to his "America First" idea of disengagement, analysts say.

Mr William Burns, a deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration and head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said: "Without the steady centripetal force of American diplomacy, disorder in Asia is spinning in all sorts of dangerous directions.

"The net result is not only increased risk of regional turbulence, but also long-term corrosion of American influence."

All US administrations have limited ability to steer events abroad. Foreign governments often ignore requests from the United States. And the emergence of China as an economic powerhouse and Russia as an anti-Western force means factors outside the Trump administration are contributing to the weakening of US power.

But critics say Mr Trump's policies - more focused on cutting US expenses abroad than on building ties - have sped that erosion and emboldened governments to ignore entreaties from Washington.

The inability or unwillingness of Washington to help defuse the flashpoints is one of the clearest signs yet of the erosion of American power and global influence under Mr Trump, who has stuck to his "America First" idea of disengagement, analysts say.

Indian troops are suppressing protests in the contested region of Kashmir after New Delhi ended the territory's autonomous status despite Mr Trump's offer last month to India and Pakistan to mediate the decades-old dispute.

South Korea announced on Monday that it was dropping Japan from a list of preferred trading partners, ramping up a conflict that jeopardises Washington's most important alliances in Asia. Mr Trump's top foreign policy officials had advised both nations to settle their differences, to no avail.

Meanwhile, North Korea, the biggest security threat in East Asia, has carried out five recent tests of short-range ballistic missiles or rocket systems - with no chastisement from Mr Trump.

Chinese officials this week said Hong Kong protesters were starting to show the first signs of "terrorism" - a sign that Beijing could order tougher measures to end the unrest, even after the Hong Kong police fired tear gas at crowds during the 10th weekend of protests.

Tweeting on Tuesday that the Chinese were moving troops to the border with Hong Kong, Mr Trump said: "Everyone should be calm and safe!"

Though Mr Trump has embraced a hands-off approach since he took office, some officials, including Mr Matthew Pottinger, the senior Asia director on the National Security Council, have worked to formulate a big-picture strategy on Asia, with the aim of bolstering the US' competition with China.

They have pledged to spend money on regional programmes as part of a "free and open Indo-Pacific" strategy, increased the rate of freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea and started a campaign to try to persuade nations to ban the use of communications technology from Huawei, the Chinese company.

But critics say Mr Trump weakens the US position through continual acts of self-sabotage, including abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade agreement that Mr Obama had forged to create a united front against China.

Mr Trump also lavishes praise on East Asia's authoritarian leaders - he said that he and Mr Kim Jong Un of North Korea "fell in love", and that he and China's President Xi Jinping "will always be friends".

Mr Trump and his top officials have so far failed to send any strong signals on the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests. On Aug 1, Mr Trump employed the language used by Communist Party officials when he said Hong Kong has had "riots for a long period of time".

"Somebody said that at some point they're going to want to stop that," he added. "But that's between Hong Kong and that's between China, because Hong Kong is a part of China."

Analysts said those comments would be interpreted by Chinese officials as a green light to take whatever action necessary to quell the protests.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2019, with the headline 'US losing clout in Asia as regional tensions mount'. Print Edition | Subscribe