By some assessments, Donald Trump – aka the destroyer of America’s bilateral alliances in Asia – has torpedoed Washington’s position in the region, leaving in his wake waves of reputation damage and mistrust.
But it’s worthwhile recalling the supposed region-wide esteem in which the United States was held before Trump took office.
In early 2013, I spoke at a symposium in Tokyo about the South China Sea. Another speaker described the People’s Republic of China’s recent seizure of Scarborough Shoal in Philippine maritime territory. The senior Philippine military officer sitting next to me said quietly – and despairingly – to himself, “There was nothing we could do.”
What he did not say, but no doubt was thinking, was: There was plenty the US could have done but hadn’t.
The Chinese occupied Scarborough Shoal despite having promised Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell that they would withdraw their ships. Then Washington explained to Manila how the US-Philippine Defense Treaty, which the Filipinos thought applied to the situation, really didn’t apply.
And then the Americans encouraged the Philippines to sue China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration. After the court ruled overwhelmingly in the Philippines’ favor, the Barack Obama administration did absolutely nothing.
In fact, Obama’s national security advisor and the chief of naval operations visited Beijing soon afterward and refrained from even mentioning the PCA ruling, in hopes the Chinese would appreciate the gesture. They didn’t.
In 2016, ahead of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting that both would attend, reporters asked Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte what message he wanted to send to Obama.
Proclaiming, in Duterte-speak, that he would not accept a lecture from Obama about his deadly war on drug suspects, Duterte said, “You must be respectful. Do not just throw away questions and statements. Son of a whore, I will curse you in that forum.”
Duterte moved his country closer to the People’s Republic of China. And it wasn’t just the Philippines.
There was also Thailand – one of America’s oldest treaty allies and strongest friends in the region. In 2014, as is its wont, the Thai military staged its umpteenth coup.
The Obama administration went out of its way to humiliate the Thai regime. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Danny Russel even traveled to Bangkok and gratuitously and repeatedly insulted the Thais.