In recent months, the world has witnessed a curious development in U.S. foreign policy: the emergence of a very hawkish, hostile and confrontational policy toward China.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has given a series of speeches attacking China. His speeches present some new themes: they aim specifically at the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), they frame China as an ideological threat (constantly referring to “Communist China,” not just China) and they adopt a blanket (rather than a la carte) attack against China: on the coronavirus, trade, investment, technology, TikTok, the World Health Organization, the South China Sea, Chinese companies and students, democracy, human rights, climate change – the list goes on. It seems that for the Trump administration, it has become a taboo to say anything remotely positive about China. Indeed, as Pompeo stated, “securing our freedom from the CCP is the mission of our time and America is in a perfect position to lead.”
U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, at Munich Security Conference this year, also calls China “the biggest threat to world order,” and affirmed that Washington’s principal security concern had shifted from Russia to China.
During his speech at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly last month, President Donald Trump came out throwing punches at Beijing. Trump spent one-third of his 7-minute speech attacking China explicitly – on the “China virus,” trade and the environment – and spent only 34 seconds on the most pressing challenge facing the world: COVID-19. It was the wrong message, to the wrong audience, at the wrong time. By contrast, it was noticed that China’s President Xi Jinping, who spoke at the same podium, did not attack the U.S.
Clearly, the Trump administration has taken China bashing to a whole new level and expects other countries to follow suit.
I don’t know about the rest of the world, but in Southeast Asia, the Trump administration’s anti-China advocacy is not likely to find a receptive audience. Indeed, a number of government officials that I have spoken to in Southeast Asia have indicated that the Trump administration is out of touch with the diplomatic reality on the ground. Southeast Asians, true to their culture, are of course too polite to say this to the Americans and tend to respond with a smirk on their face. But it should be noticed that no Southeast Asian government has responded to – let alone applauded – the Trump administration’s call to oppose or isolate China.
There are several reasons why. First, they are just not interested in what they see as a fight which does not connect with their real-time interest. First and foremost in their mind now is the war against COVID-19,…