HONG KONG - China’s chief official newspaper, the People’s Daily, is gloating over the discomfort Washington finds itself in after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte visited China and publicly said that he was leaving the United States, followed two weeks later by Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, who also tightened relations with China, including signing security agreements.
On Nov. 3, the paper published in its online edition a commentary headlined “State spokesman struggles with facts: As the U.S. pivots to Asia, the region turns to China.”
It focused on a U.S. State Department press briefing on Nov. 1, in which the spokesman, John Kirby, was asked about the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific. Kirby made two points. “First, he said that the rebalance is not about China,” the commentary reported. “Second, he argued against the idea that countries are turning away from the U.S. and turning to China, saying that the idea ‘is just not borne out by the facts.” ‘
“But,” the commentary asserted, “the rebalance is about China, and the idea that more and more countries are turning away from the U.S. and turning to China is completely borne out by the facts.”
The commentary pointed out that last year, the U.S. put out a Fact Sheet titled “Advancing the Rebalance to Asia and the Pacific” in which it listed “a stronger treaty alliance with the Philippines and a deeper partnership with Malaysia as two important accomplishments.”
“One year later,” it declared, “both countries have moved closer to China. For example, Philippines President Duterte’s first non-ASEAN state visit was to China and the two sides have worked hard to warm relations. This does not mean that the U.S. is out, but it does mean China is in.”
It then cited the visit to China by Najib, who “signed numerous agreements with China, including security agreements.” Without claiming total victory, the commentary said, “The U.S. may still be relevant, but so is China.”
Interestingly, this was also Kirby’s theme. While he rejected the idea “that there’s some sort of landslide movement towards China and away from the United States,” he also asserted that “we have nothing to fear from the peaceful, productive rise of China, and we have nothing to fear from nations establishing better and warmer and more productive relationships with China.”
Asked specifically about the agreements Malaysia had signed with China, Kirby replied in part: “Everywhere we go in the Asia Pacific region, it’s reiterated time and time again how important foreign leaders there view American presence, American economic assistance and participation in trade, as well as American leadership. So we don’t view it, again, as a binary sort of equation, and we don’t view it as a zero-sum game. The whole idea of the rebalance is to foster the kind of dialogue that you’re starting to see happening. And so again, we welcome this.”
For years, the countries of Southeast Asia have been confronted with a situation where they are torn between relying on China for their economic well-being and on the U.S. for their security. Now, it seems, some of them think that they can rely on China for their security as well. Since China is the one with whom they have conflicting maritime claims, it is difficult to see how this will work out in practice.
In the wake of the Duterte visit, China has allowed Filipino fishermen to return to Scarborough Shoal. Asked about this, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson responded that the Chinese side continued to exercise “normal jurisdiction” over the area and “the situation there is and will remain unchanged.” However, “proper arrangements” have been made in view of the improvement of relations following Duterte’s visit.
This means that China continues to reject Manila’s territorial claim and it will continue to control the shoal as part of its territory. However, if the Philippines behaves itself, China will allow it to fish there. Otherwise, the fishermen can be barred at any time.
Similar treatment will no doubt be meted out to Malaysia and other claimant countries.
Non-claimant countries like Singapore are expected to fall in line. China intends to control virtually the entire South China Sea, and if other countries cooperate, they can reap economic benefits. Otherwise, they will feel China’s might, economic and military.
At this point, the U.S. seems unsure how to proceed. Saying it approves of other countries’ improved relations with China is putting the best face on a bad situation. However, if Southeast Asian countries choose to make their peace with China, there is little that Washington can do.
Frank Ching is a veteran journalist who focuses on Hong Kong, China and Taiwan. He became one of the first U.S. newspaper reporters to be based in China following the establishment of Sino-American relations when he opened The Wall Street Journal’s bureau in Beijing in 1979. Twitter: @FrankChing1