The pandemic has helped accelerate growing bipartisanship in Washington around a more hawkish approach to China. And successive administrations have stated, though hardly fully articulated or implemented, goals of shifting focus, particularly in defense, to counter China. Beijing’s unabated aggression, diplomatic stumbles, and poor early response to the emergence of the coronavirus would seem, then, to provide an opportune moment for the U.S. to assert itself, but American actions have gotten an uneven reception in the region.
When the U.S. sent ships to Malaysia to counter the presence of the Chinese survey vessel, Kuala Lumpur reacted with some hesitation, Shahriman Lockman, a senior analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia, told me. Some believe that the arrival of U.S. vessels inflamed the situation, leading to further escalation by Beijing. “They [the U.S.] don’t think about the potential calamity they might cause other people with all their good intentions,” Lockman said. That is not the only place the American military is less than welcome: This year, Duterte announced the termination of the U.S.-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement, a two-decade-old troop-rotation pact.
The time difference between the U.S. and most of Asia means that Trump’s unhinged outbursts often bookend the days. His rambling, falsehood-filled press conferences run into the Asian morning, and as evening rolls around, he begins firing off his trademark bellicose, difficult-to-decipher tweets. People are “pretty appalled at the lack of coherence in response from the United States and that is drowning out a lot of other facts,” Aaron Connelly, a research fellow on Southeast Asian political change and foreign policy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore, told me.
Pompeo said during a recent call with Southeast Asian leaders that Beijing had “moved to take advantage of the distraction” created by the pandemic. He also mentioned a recent report by the Washington-based Stimson Center that found Chinese dams on the Mekong River, which flows through numerous Southeast Asian countries, cause severe drought conditions downriver. But Pompeo’s attempts to force Southeast Asian leaders to make a choice between the U.S. and China fell flat. By framing the situation as a competition in which countries had to pick sides, the call “played really badly in Southeast Asia,” Connelly said. (Similarly, Poling described Pompeo’s form of diplomacy as a “bull in a China shop.”)
In Hong Kong, Chan, the prodemocracy lawmaker, told me that before she entered politics, she believed that mainland officials would honor their 1997 pledge to allow the city to operate with greater autonomy. The new legislation has made clear to her that this was certainly not the case, and that Beijing cares little about winning over Hong Kongers. “Even after 23 years,” she said, “they still can’t [win over] Hong Kong people.”
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