Will America’s Asian Allies Pivot to China?

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Will America’s Asian Allies Pivot to China?

After the U.S.’s unsuccessful pivot to counter China, many of America’s allies feel forced to reorient themselves alongside Beijing.
From the May 2017 Trumpet Print Edition

It was slightly overcast in Canberra, Australia, when United States President Barack Obama entered Parliament. As he made his way through the chamber, hands extended toward him from all directions, eager to shake the president’s hand. After a warm introduction from Australia’s prime minister, Mr. Obama walked to the lectern. In some ways, the prepared remarks waiting for him there were like those of any other speech. In other ways, they were an absolutely tectonic shift.

This was the speech in which Obama announced his administration’s “pivot to Asia.” The Nov. 17, 2011, speech signaled that the Bush-era focus on the Middle East and Europe was over. The shift meant nothing less than taking the resources, political power, financial leverage, military projection and economic mass of a continent-wide superpower, and diverting the bulk of it to interaction with Asian powers.

With the pivot, President Obama aimed to revive U.S. influence in the vital Asia-Pacific region. And by boosting cooperation with America’s Asian allies and partners, the shift sought to contain and engage China. The plan included the Trans-Pacific Partnership (tpp), a free trade deal that would link the U.S. with several Asia-Pacific countries, and reduce China’s leverage over participating nations.

In terms of diplomatic shuttling, wire transfers, cable traffic, consulate staffings, bills of lading, naval planning, troop deployments, merchant tonnage, port construction, and customs volume, there could hardly have been a greater long-term structural transformation than the “pivot to Asia.”

Slowly, yet inexorably, we were all about to feel the Earth move under our feet.

Except it didn’t. Within a few months, it was clear that the pivot was not pivoting. The plan was failing to curb Chinese aggression—in fact, it provoked more of it. As China bullied America’s partners in the region, the Obama administration took little action to counter it. As years passed, it appeared to many of America’s Asian partners that there either was no pivot, or that part of the pivot involved America appeasing China.

In late 2016, Americans elected a new president, who then followed through on his promise to kill the Trans-Pacific Partnership. To many Asian nations, this was the final blow to their relationship with America. They began to panic. Unsure about the direction and commitment of America, and unable to ignore Beijing’s growing power and intensifying resolve to use its power, these nations that have been aligned with the U.S. for decades are now changing course: They are pivoting to China.

The Philippines

For decades, the Philippines has been one of America’s most loyal allies. Since 1951, a bilateral agreement for mutual defense has bound the two nations, making the Philippines one of just two American treaty allies in Southeast Asia. The alliance has been of immense benefit to the Philippines: America has provided the nation with hundreds of millions of dollars for military aid, development assistance, humanitarian assistance and storm relief. The alliance has also made the Philippines a pillar of U.S. foreign policy in the region.

But last June, a new Philippine president came to power in Manila who seems to have little affection for America: Rodrigo Duterte. After seeing the Obama administration fail to counter China as it bullied the Philippines in the South China Sea, Duterte wasted no time once he entered office. He immediately reached out—not to America, but to China.

After members of the Obama administration criticized human rights violations in Duterte’s anti-drug campaign within the Philippines, Duterte lashed out by insulting President Obama personally. He also said the U.S. military should prepare to get out of the Philippines. Duterte also told his government that back when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, America “wasn’t able to do anything.” In light of this, he referred to the Philippines defense treaty with the U.S., and asked his officials: “Do you really think we need it?”

While visiting Beijing, Duterte ramped up the rhetoric to a new extreme, announcing his country’s “separation” from the U.S. and realignment with China. “America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself [with China’s] ideological flow,” he said. “And maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way.”

Later, under pressure from the top brass in the Philippines military, Duterte softened some of his anti-U.S. statements, saying he only wanted a more independent foreign policy so he could build a closer relationship with China. But despite the partial backtracking in words, Duterte’s actions have made clear that he is willing to sacrifice the relationship between the Philippines and America in order to strengthen his country’s relationship with China.

Duterte also canceled some joint Philippine-U.S. patrols monitoring Chinese vessels near Philippine territorial waters, canceled some joint exercises with the American military, announced that the Philippines would start buying weapons from China, and signed an assortment of deals with Beijing worth tens of billions of dollars.

Meanwhile, Duterte gave Chinese President Xi Jinping a gift when an international court at The Hague judged in favor of the Philippines in a South China Sea territorial dispute. Duterte simply declined to acknowledge the decision. China asserts sovereignty over 80 percent of the vast South China Sea, parts of which are also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. Since 2012, Chinese island-building and vessel movement in this disputed region have pushed into Philippine territory, posing a major challenge to the rules-based global order, and leading to the high-profile 2016 court case at The Hague. The court ruled that the maritime territories in question lawfully belong not to China, but to the Philippines. Duterte’s decision to basically ignore the ruling equated to the deepest kowtowing the Philippines can render toward the Chinese. Duterte ignoring the legal challenge against China, not to mention China’s massive military buildup in the sea, may give Beijing the chance it needs to declare an Air Defense Identification Zone over the South China Sea, basically establishing the area as a Chinese zone.

In a particularly strange act of obsequiousness, Duterte also told Chinese officials that he would be happy to share any oil that the Philippines finds in the disputed region with Beijing.

These moves demonstrate that even if Mr. Duterte is unable to accomplish an immediate and total “separation” from the U.S., he is eager to drastically reduce Manila’s reliance on America. They show that he is determined to align with China at the expense of the U.S.

After Donald Trump replaced Barack Obama as president of the United States, some hoped that Duterte would reverse direction and strengthen the relationship with America. President Trump has not criticized the human rights violations of Mr. Duterte’s drug war as the Obama administration had so infuriated him by doing. But there is no indication of an improvement in the U.S.-Philippines relationship. In fact, 10 days into Mr. Trump’s presidency, Duterte asked the U.S. to no longer store weapons in Philippine facilities under the existing defense pact, saying he does not want the Philippines to become entangled in any fighting that erupts between China and the U.S.

A willing treaty ally would not speak of potential violence between its ally and an enemy as something from which it is detached.

In February 2017, Duterte continued the “separation” from America by refusing to assign an ambassador to the United States. “No ambassador will go there,” he said. “I don’t feel like sending one.”

These are not the words or actions of a willing treaty ally.

Days after Mr. Duterte’s alarming statements about seeking “separation” from America, the leader of another staunch American partner nation expressed the same sentiments.

Malaysia

On the eve of a historic visit to Beijing in November, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said he would work to “elevate the relationship between” China and Malaysia. He praised the way Beijing has “created benefits not just for the people of [China and Malaysia] but also for regional stability and harmony.”

The assertion is not grounded in reality. It was apparently designed to flatter the Chinese leadership, a government that Najib justifiably fears, especially as he sees the U.S. “pivot to Asia” has actually become a U.S. retreat from Asia.

In Beijing the next day, Najib signed a deal to buy Chinese naval patrol vessels in Malaysia’s first ever major defense deal with China.

Najib then warned “former colonial powers” (America and Britain) against “lectur[ing] countries they once exploited on how to conduct their own internal affairs today.” Malaysians have long held a favorable view toward the United States, and have had a thriving diplomatic relationship with Washington, so the sudden shift alarmed American leadership.

Richard Heydarian, a specialist in Asian geopolitical affairs, said the realignments of the Philippines and Malaysia are worrying because they happened so abruptly: “This is a dramatic turn of events, since not only are the Philippines and Malaysia considered as staunch strategic partners of the West, but they have also been caught in bitter territorial disputes with China, which has rapidly expanded its footprint across the South China Sea” (Al Jazeera, Nov. 8, 2016).

These countries should be angry at China for its bullying, Heydarian says. But they apparently have calculated that it is now too late for that. It is time to instead give the bully their lunch money.

Heydarian also said that more defections to China may follow: “Put together, Najib’s and Duterte’s back-to-back visits to Beijing have provoked panic in some Western capitals, with observers causally warning about a wave of defections among traditional Western partners now pivoting to China.”

This feared “wave of defections” gathered major momentum in late December when officials in another American-friendly Asian nation made a landmark announcement.

Thailand

In 1954, the U.S. and Thailand signed the Manila Pact of the former Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. This pact and two later agreements welded Washington and Bangkok together as official treaty allies. For decades, the alliance was unshakable.

But in 2014, Thailand’s Royal Armed Forces launched a coup d’état that overthrew the country’s government and established a junta to rule in its place. The military officers who took power repealed parts of the constitution, dissolved parliament, declared martial law and set a nationwide curfew. They outlawed political gatherings, arrested numerous anti-coup activists, and took control over Thai media.

Washington froze security and defense aid to Thailand and said relations can return to normal only after human rights violations end and democracy is restored.

But China makes no such demands. In stark contrast to America’s sermonizing about human rights abuses and suppression of democracy, China is utterly unconcerned about such issues. In late 2016, the air forces of China and Thailand held their first ever joint exercises. In December 2016, a group of Thai officials traveled to Beijing and were won over to China. They announced that Thailand would develop a major joint military production facility with China. In early January, Thailand said it would buy a sizable quantity of VT-4 tanks from China, and would consult with China on Thailand’s joint investments in tanks and other heavy weaponry. Thailand has also selected China for a multibillion-dollar contract to build its first submarines. Bangkok and Beijing have also taken milestone steps to collaborate on military training, personnel exchanges and antiterrorism cooperation.

It is possible that U.S.-Thai relations will warm again after Thailand has elections that the junta has promised will take place in 2018. But by that time, Beijing’s tightening grip may leave little room for the U.S. to wriggle back into Thailand.

Vietnam

As recently as 2014, it seemed that Vietnam’s fear of Chinese aggression was intense enough to keep it firmly in the U.S.’s corner. That summer, China’s state-owned oil company illegally positioned an oil rig in the waters of Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. The move sparked tensions culminating in Vietnamese and Chinese fishing vessels ramming each other. The U.S. pounced on the opportunity to strongly condemn China and to back Vietnam’s pro-Western government by funding upgrades to the nation’s military.

The Diplomat said the spike in tensions meant China-Vietnam relations had “passed the point of no return.”

But in January 2016, the situation began to drastically change. Vietnam held its 12th National Congress, which saw the pro-Western leadership replaced by a pro-China faction headed by Nguyen Phu Trong. As the new head of Vietnam’s politburo, Trong wasted no time in strengthening Vietnam’s relationship with China, at the expense of its relationship with America.

Vietnam’s reorientation was on full display in January when Trong visited Beijing for four days. President Xi staged a state-level welcoming ceremony for him. The trip resulted in a joint communiqué stressing both nations’ commitment to bolstering their strategic cooperation. The Diplomat admitted that time had proved its earlier “point of no return” statement wrong and said Trong’s visit “underscored a major shift in Sino-Vietnamese bilateral relations” (January 25).

The trip showed that Vietnam “seems to anticipate certain obstacles to its partnership with Washington under President Trump,” the Diplomat said, “particularly now that he has withdrawn the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (tpp).”

Forbes Asia analyst Ralph Jennings said the leadership transition in America is not likely to improve U.S.-Vietnam relations, but only to further strain them. “Compared to the still new U.S. administration, China feels comfortably predictable,” he wrote. “It’s got unwavering one-party rule like Vietnam” (February 20).

Three Trends in One

There is evidence of the same trend happening, to varying degrees, in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.

At first glance, this may appear to be driven by the smaller Asian nations’ increasing fondness for China. This may factor into the calculus of Duterte and some others to a small degree. But these course changes are happening mostly because Asian nations are acutely aware of America’s decline and China’s rise. Their desire for self-preservation prompts them to realign accordingly.

In a strategy report released in December, Ross Babbage, senior fellow at U.S. think tank Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, explained: “In effect, Beijing is pressuring regional countries into an arrangement that mirrors the contract struck with its own people: economic benefits in exchange for political compliance, with a big stick lurking in the background threatening retaliation for aberrant behavior. … Significant damage is being done to U.S. and allied credibility. In the absence of major changes in allied policy, much of Southeast Asia will likely shift into Beijing’s orbit.”

These nations see China’s big stick hovering in the background, and also see that the U.S. can no longer be relied upon to protect them from it. So they are making a calculated realignment: If you can’t beat them, join them.

It is possible that Mr. Trump could prioritize recovering U.S. leadership in the region. He could attempt major changes to demonstrate U.S. military superiority to discourage further Chinese adventurism and to win back the confidence of America’s allies. But the damage has been done. Such an attempt would accomplish little.

This development highlights three prophetically significant trends: The decline of American power, the coming together of the “kings of the east,” and the rise of China’s might.

Herbert W. Armstrong forecast the deterioration of America’s power decades ago. Just after America’s failed invasion of Cuba in 1961, Mr. Armstrong pinned the blame not on the U.S. military, or even on the Kennedy administration, but on the American people: “Unless or until the United States as a whole repents and returns to what has become a hollow slogan on its dollars: ‘In God we trust,’ the United States of America has won its last war! … [T]he God America has deserted gave it its most humiliating defeat! What does the Cuban debacle mean? It means, Mr. and Mrs. United States, that the handwriting is on your wall!” (Plain Truth, October 1961).

Mr. Armstrong knew that America’s power was crumbling and that the nation was headed for collapse. He made these statements with confidence because they were based on biblical prophecy. The Bible includes a startlingly specific and recognizable forecast for the descendants of Israel, which include America. God said that if the nation rejected His law, “I will break the pride of your power” (Leviticus 26:19).

In the decades since Mr. Armstrong penned those words, the people of America have calcified their rejection of God’s law. They have only intensified their disdain for it. In the time since, America has inserted itself into dozens of military altercations. And each of the halfhearted campaigns has drained a little bit more of the country’s pride in its power.

On Oct. 1, 2012, Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry said America’s flat-footed reaction to the Benghazi massacre the month before meant that the Leviticus 26:19 prophecy had then been fully fulfilled. He said: “It’s no longer God saying, ‘I will break the pride of your power.’ It’s now God has broken it! I’ve never seen America in such a low as this!”

Most Americans may not accept that the United States’ will to use its power is broken, but America’s Asian partners can see it clearly. As a result, these Asian states are rallying around China. This too was prophesied to happen.

Revelation 9:16 speaks of an Eastern army comprised of a jaw-dropping 200 million soldiers. Revelation 16:12 calls this huge force the “kings of the east,” with the plural kings signaling that this will be a multinational force, a bloc of multiple Asian nations. Ezekiel 38 provides many more details about this Asian military bloc, including the fact that it will be led by Russia, with China in a number two position.

The Asian nations rallying behind China today are laying the foundation for the “kings of the east” prophecy to be fulfilled. They are the “kings of the east” coalescing into the Asian bloc.

The third trend being fulfilled is what the Bible calls “the times of the Gentiles.” Jesus Christ Himself used this term (Luke 21:24). The context shows that these “times” will occur after a shift in global power takes place, pushing power away from America and Britain and toward two main power blocs: one led by Germany, and the other led by Russia and China. For this prophesied time to occur, there has to be a shift of power to China. This is what we are seeing as Asian nations pull away from America, and tilt suddenly toward China.

Bible prophecies show that these trends will lead to a time of unparalleled global conflict and suffering (Matthew 24:21). Knowing about that impending war and suffering makes it sobering to watch the decline of America, and the rise of a bloc bent on destroying the global order. But it is vital to know that these sobering trends are closely connected to the most hope-filled and radiant future imaginable. The Bible makes clear that just after all the devastation occurs, the most awesome and wonderful event in the history of the universe will come to pass: the return of Jesus Christ.

The trends underway in Asia right now show that Jesus Christ will very soon return to usher in an age of peace and prosperity for the peoples of China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, the U.S. and all countries! Of this future time of global peace, Isaiah 2:4 says: “[N]ation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Knowing how near that bright future is can give us the proper perspective and fill us with hope and optimism.