By Jaime J. Yambao
WHEN then President Barack Obama announced his Pivot to Asia policy, this writer in his first contribution to this column wondered how much of a pivot it would be given that US vital interests were involved in crises taking place in the Middle East and Europe.
There have been analysts who now blame the Pivot to Asia for the failure of the Obama administration to make a decent job of addressing those crises. It seems that appreciation of the Pivot, or non-appreciation of it, depends on where the analyst is coming from.
The problem with the Pivot was that it occurred somewhat late in the second term of the Obama administration. Aggravating the time factor was the virtual impossibility for the Obama administration to move anything on a fast track after both houses of Congress fell to Republican hands.
When the Obamas turned over the keys to the White House to the Trumps, the pillars of the Pivot had barely been set up and stood on shaky ground indeed. The Pivot, under its first pillar, sought to strengthen and expand US alliances in the Indo-Pacific region.
The US entered into enhancing defense cooperation agreements with the Philippines and Australia, providing for the rotational deployment of US forces in the latter’s military bases.
Had funds allowed it, the US might have permanently stationed its forces in the Philippines once again. In the Philippines at least, the project had barely left the planning stage when the Obama administration ended.
For the economic pillar of the Pivot, the Obama administration continued from the Bush administration the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to invigorate trade and economic relations among countries with coasts on the Pacific, excluding China.
While the TPP readily attracted the participation of many countries, the incipient trade organization was opposed by labor groups in the United States afraid that under its terms, US workers would lose jobs.
Consequently, candidates of the two major parties, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton both expressed opposition to the TPP treaty. It was no surprise that one of the first acts of Trump as president was to take the US out of the TPP.
The remaining parties to the TPP, however, continued the project, changing its name to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
President Joe Biden has expressed interest in negotiating the US rejoining the partnership, using the provisions of the renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement or Nafta, the US-Mexico-Canada agreement, protecting US workers’ jobs as a model.
The Philippines has not joined the partnership, reportedly concerned about its adverse effects on the country’s agricultural sector. The Philippines may do well to consider joining and following other Association of Southeast Asian (Asean) members Singapore and Vietnam once the US rejoins the TPP because the US market is still bigger than China.
The Asean countries together with dialogue partners, except the United States and India, have recently formed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership with China as the leading economy.
But Singapore and Vietnam, as mentioned, are also in the CPTPP. This may be a sign of the wariness of countries becoming overdependent on China. China has swamped or dumped their markets with cheap goods while China has not given the other countries the same access to its own market.
China is also notorious for weaponizing its imports from smaller countries. The Philippines, for instance, saw a huge cargo of bananas impounded by Chinese authorities and let to rot in the piers after incurring the displeasure of China.
But it is in the security area where the Biden administration’s pivoting to Asia is currently quite remarkable. While Biden stays at home to focus on the recovery of the American people and economy from the Covid-19 pandemic, his topmost officials are visiting Asian countries to reinforce existing alliances and cultivate new partnerships.
They include Vice President Kamala Harris herself, who with her Asian heritage may prove an effective weapon in gathering Asians to the US corner.
It may be altogether predictable that the Biden administration should pick up the Pivot to Asia where the Obama administration left off. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was one of the architects of the policy change in Obama’s time.
However, there could be higher expectations of the Pivot this time because the Biden administration is not only attending to it in the early part of its term. It is also pursuing it with greater vigor than ever because the cobwebs in the thinking of security strategists in the US (and in many other parts of the world) have been lifted and swept aside by the turn of circumstances, including Americans’ sense of intrinsic invincibility and illusions about China’s attachment to peaceful coexistence and a rules-based international order.
China’s chairman and president Xi Jinping has abandoned Deng’s “lying low and speaking softly” prescription and has laid bare his ambitions to make of China the planet’s Middle Kingdom to which the whole world is tributary and with himself as ruler, an Alexander or Hitler with Chinese characteristics.
There could be no mistaking at where China’s relentless pursuit of military (particularly naval) supremacy are directed.
The Chinese already boast of having the biggest navy in the world. Although Western analysts point out that this involves only a superiority in the number of smaller vessels and that in terms of tonnage and power, the US Navy remains superior, the Chinese navy today is capable of dominating the South and East China seas.
The Chinese navy still lack such huge vessels as aircraft carriers that will enable it to project its power outside the region. But with China dominating and controlling the South China Sea that is of inestimable importance to the global economy and security, the rest of the oceans and the world could be so severely disadvantaged that it might be vain to think of the future balancing of powers in waters outside of the South China Sea.
Besides, to everybody’s knowledge, China has set no limits to its naval expansion.
Analysts whose eyes are fixed on the bigger picture maintain that the balance of power between the US and China is in the former’s favor. They are referring to the fact that while China has only North Korea for an ally, the US has a much more wide-ranging network of allies and security partners.
China is virtually encircled by the network. US alliances are not limited to the Asian continent and regions.
As a result of the last NATO meeting which President Biden attended, the US, in effect, has brought NATO along in its Pivot to Asia that is motivated not just by the rise of Asia as the future of the world economy but also as the emergence of China as a threat to the rules-based international order.
China’s navy would be no match to the navy of the US plus those of its allies and partners,
Secretary of State Blinken a few weeks ago made a statement that reaffirmed US commitment to come to the Philippines’ defense under the Mutual Defense Treaty between the two countries, warning China again that an attack on Philippine Armed Forces in the South China Sea would trigger the Mutual Defense Treaty.
At the same time, Secretary Blinken reaffirmed the policy statement on the South China Sea made by his predecessor Mike Pompeo on July 13, 2020 aligning the US position on the PRC’s maritime claims in the South China Sea with the arbitral tribunal’s decision.
Nowhere in the statements by Pompeo and Blinken was there an iteration of the “traditional” neutrality of the US on the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
The arbitral tribunal found China’s claims in the South China Sea are without legal basis. They are illegal. The decision unanimously came from the foremost experts in the law of the sea in the world.
We wager that any international legal tribunal would rule that the arbitral tribunal’s decision is final. China’s claim that its position is backed by its own version of “international law” and by its own international law experts are symptomatic of mass brainwashing or lunacy.
In addition, the US must have realized that Chinese claims violate their and mankind’s right to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
The Pompeo statement reaffirmed by Blinken concludes: “The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire. America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign states to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law.
We stand with the international community in defense of freedom of the seas and respect for sovereignty and reject any push to impose ‘might makes right’ in the South China Sea and the wider region.”
Filipinos should not be bothered that in defending and asserting their territorial integrity, sovereignty and sovereign rights that theirs are solitary wills and voices and, on the contrary, with the support of the international community, should do so with courage and conviction.
Ambassador Jaime J. Yambao’s last posting was Pakistan, with concurrent accreditation to Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. He also served on an extraordinary and plenipotentiary capacity to Lao Peoples Democratic Republic, and France. On home duty after his tour of duty in France, he was appointed the Assistant Secretary for Europe at the Department of Foreign Affairs.
During the transition from President Ferdinand Marcos to Corazon Aquino, he acted as First Secretary and head of the political section of the Philippine Embassy in Washington DC. Jimmy was editor-in-chief of The Philippine Collegian of the University of the Philippines, 1967-68, and president of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines 1967. He presently chairs the prestigious Philippine Ambassadors Foundation Inc.