TOM PLATE WRITES – International relations gets advertised and promoted by international-relations theorists as it were insanely complicated. But simply saying so doesn’t make it so. Sometimes it is all quite simple, and not in the least insane.
For those who live in a neighborhood of nations with those allegedly complicated inter-relations, their point of view can be stated without complication. All they ask is that every nation play nice and avoid war, especially nuclear. No need for a PowerPoint presentation or a fancy Ph D.
And no clearer example of the ‘complex-is-the-new-simple’ dynamic can be found than in Asia. For decades, the planet’s most populous region has moved forward on the operational premise that war is the enemy, which of course it is, and that it is a huge impediment to region-wide prosperity, which it is. This sensible view has yielded spectacular results. The overall winner of the non-regional-war epoch was the region itself. Singaporean went from nowhere to Switzerland east; China went from history’s loser to history’s winner. Japan, for all its economic languor, still tops Germany economically. South Korea is where? – like the world’s 10th largest economy, depending on the rating system. So what’s the problem?
Perhaps any surfeit of success inevitably harvests outcrops of irritation, envy and distrust. Perceived slights become interpreted as policy shifts, if not threats. Resurgent China, now unmistakably the most boisterous elephant in the Asian jungle, is making so much noise tramping around that hardly anyone can sleep at night. But this is what any elephant on the move will do – smaller animals must take cover. The result is an Asia that can seem aggravated and agitated and unsteady.
Consider Singapore, one of the best upsurge stories of the second half of the 20th century. Under its late founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, this over-achieving city-state managed to gain phenomenal economic traction while annoying as few Asian neighbors as possible (Malaysia being of course a lost cause). On the diplomatic front this took quite a balancing act: While cozying up to the United States, even hosting a U.S. naval logistics facility on its sovereign territory, and playing nice with Taiwan, Singapore somehow kept China from doubting its genetic Chinese loyalties and throwing it into its diplomatic doghouse.
But with Lee Kuan Yew gone (and his legendary relationship with Deng Xiaoping all but ancient history), Beijing has been giving his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, a hard time. Is past tranquility gone with the wind? Returning military vehicles from Taiwan are held up during transshipment at a Hong Kong port, pushing Singapore’s diplomatic corps into frenzied behind the scenes action to get them released. Worse yet, Hsien Loong is not invited to a high-profile economic conference in Beijing. Singapore downplays the snub but obviously it was no oversight – on something of this nature, Beijing doesn’t do oversights. What does it mean? Whatever it is, at a minimum it is unnerving.
And who will be next to poke the biggest elephant in the Asian jungle? Enter the Philippines, which got a new warning of retaliatory military action from Beijing if it cannot reel in its pushy shoal fishermen. This is puzzling. After all, has anyone on the planet (with the arguable exception of Cambodia) puckered up to President Xi Jinping more embarrassingly than President Rodrigo Dutarte?
For reasons just or not, Japan always annoys China, and of course the other way too; but through some miracle they have not come to blows. Tokyo is no Manila, and does not have in its character a genetic propensity to back off. Recent Japanese-Chinese diplomacy has sought to calm waters; but, still, some sort of storm never seems too far off from the gathering. The Japanese accept the grim reality of the Chinese military buildup, especially naval, because it’s staring them in the face. But this hands Prime Minister Abe Shinzo strong talking points in dialogues with his putatively pacifist-leaning public. He wants serially to loosen the strings of the American-imposed Constitution that restricts Japan’s deployment of “self-defense forces.” So the role of the U.S. remains key to the balance, and the Chinese leadership knows it, and bitterly resents it.
Into this contracting maelstrom comes our astonishingly unprepared new American president, now traveling abroad in the Middle East. Besieged by the American media, aides under investigations, attacked constantly by the Democratic minority in Congress, and doubted even by Republican allies in the majority, Donald J. Trump is still the top decision-maker in the U.S. foreign-policy balancing machine. Is his head too scrambled to make cleared-headed decisions? Do the Chinese worry that they are dealing with a ‘madman’ president? Thoughtful Americans such as Victor Cha and Michael Green point out that the Chinese as well as the North Koreans are known to wax extremely antsy in the face of unpredictability from rivals, adversaries or even allies who normally evidence predictability and reliability.
They could not be more right. But there is a good side to unpredictability when it yields the unexpectedly smart decision. In a swing away from the old normal, President Trump, who brainlessly attacked “China, China China” during his campaign, had ordered the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii to stand down for the time being from major pushy naval forays into South China Sea waters. These excursions, perceived as provocative by Beijing, are officially called FONOPs, for U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations. But what for one country might seem like operational freedom, for another might seem like intrusive surveillance. Earlier this month, Trump was hit with a letter from U.S. senators supporting more FONOPs. But the president has warmly invited Beijing to help with the problem of North Korea, which over the weekend test-launched yet another missile into the Sea of Japan. Maybe fewer FONOPs would be a prescription for a more stable and peaceful Asian neighborhood.
Columnist and Loyola Marymount University Prof. Tom Plate, Asia Media founder, is author of the ‘Giants of Asia’ series. Next book: ‘Yo-Yo Diplomacy: An American Columnist Tackles the Ups-and-Downs Between China and the U.S.’ from Marshall Cavendish Asia