As America’s attention remains riveted on the daily shenanigans in the West Wing, continuing turmoil in the Middle East, and Europe’s growing dysfunction, worrisome developments are taking place in the Asian Pacific as well.
Last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping quietly transformed himself into an emperor — or, as he refers to his position, president for life. Xi, who believes it is his destiny to restore China to all of its ancient glory, is now the most powerful Sino-leader since Mao Zedong.
The world is witnessing China’s rejection of democracy in favor of autocracy. Unfortunately for the world, as happens all too often with dictators, Xi’s power-wielding is likely to grow ever more heavy-handed, both domestically and internationally.
The Chinese citizenry will no doubt see a more rigid insistence on adhering to the principles of the Communist Party. Xi has already cracked down on independence-leaning attitudes in both Hong Kong and Taiwan. He has declared that both places will be a part of China’s “great rejuvenation.” The freedom-loving Taiwanese have so far shrugged off the communists’ threats.
It’s becoming crystal clear that Xi wants to globally transform China’s stature in the world and perhaps even unseat the United States as the world’s premier economic, political, and military power. As he grows more entrenched and comfortable in his dictatorship, Xi is working hard to spread Chinese might across the planet.
Beijing has announced it is raising its defense budget by 8.1 percent in 2018. Its military spending this year will grow to $1.11 trillion yuan — about $175 billion. And the People’s Liberation Army is on the move.
Last year, China opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti, Africa — right next door to the American base located there. It has also established a “research facility” near the Arctic Circle, purportedly to study the pretty Northern Lights. But neighboring countries are uneasy about Beijing’s real intentions.
Closer to its mainland, China continues to lay claim to as much as 90 percent of the South China Sea — blatantly ignoring a 2016 ruling by the international court in The Hague that those assertions are nonsense. The sea is a vital route for free trade in the Asian Pacific — more than $5 trillion in goods are shipped over its waters every year.
Beijing persists in the build-up of small islands located throughout the sea. Satellite photos show military bases have been built and equipment moved to several atolls.
And, the Chinese are strong-arming smaller nations in the region such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Taiwan, all of whom have counterclaims over many of the islands.
It’s noteworthy that on March 6, the USS Carl Vinson pulled into port in DaNang, Vietnam. It’s the first time in more than 40 years a U.S. aircraft carrier has visited that nation. Upon the ship’s arrival, the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam told Vietnamese officials, “We have gone from former enemies to close partners.”
Beijing wasn’t particularly pleased but dismissed the visit, noting that Vietnam would be unlikely to side with the U.S. in a military conflict against China. But, warned one Chinese official, “The day that a U.S. Navy vessel arrives in Kaohsiung (Taiwan’s deepwater port), is the day that our People’s Liberation Army unifies Taiwan with military force.”
The United States continues to assert that the South China Sea is an open waterway, and regularly sails naval warships through what it claims is international territory. China, of course, has accused Washington of entering its territorial waters. Beijing has called the moves “serious political and military provocation.”
And now, Australia has drawn Chinese ire with Canberra’s stand on the issue. Although not located on the South Asian Sea, Australia has stood with the United States on contesting China’s claims.
The government in Beijing is not happy with the Australians. In an angry op/ed column published on New Year’s Eve, a Chinese commentator warned the Aussies that continued “interference” in the region could “seriously impact Australian economic development.”
A senior Chinese official bluntly suggested Australia mind its own business. “Australia is not a party directly concerned in the South China Sea issue, and it has made clear many times that it does not take sides. We hope the Australian side will honor its commitment and stop making irresponsible remarks,” he warned.
Australian officials are torn between the desire to remain allies with the U.S. and risk further Chinese wrath or to embrace a more Sino-friendly foreign policy. While America is thousands of miles and an ocean away, China is right in its neighborhood.
India, too, is feeling the red heat. The world’s two most populated nations are neighbors. They have the same trading partners and spheres of influence. Growing Chinese power threatens India’s ability to expand. Beijing is often openly hostile toward India and doesn’t hesitate to use military and economic strength to bully New Dehli.
All of which makes one wonder just how benevolent Beijing’s intentions are in the Asian Pacific. And, what’s Washington doing to ensure it wins this geopolitical rivalry?
In a recent Bloomberg View article — “What Happens When China Eclipses the U.S. in Asia?” — Hugh White, a professor at the Australia National University in Canberra, claims the “U.S. strategic position is eroding so quickly that even sharing the region with China isn’t really a valid option any longer. America’s allies in Southeast Asia and Australia say they don’t want to choose between the U.S. and China, but underneath those platitudes, nobody in the region wants to make an enemy of Beijing. All the more so because officials increasingly doubt the U.S. will be there in the end.”
In 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump told reporters that he wasn’t an isolationist but he was for “America First” because he “likes the sound of it.” Maybe this policy has worked well domestically, but as foreign policy, it leaves much to be desired.
Trump needs to reassure Pacific nations that the U.S. is still a reliable strategic partner. While our economy may be flush now, the United States won’t remain prosperous for long if we come in dead last in the eyes of our allies.