US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken cut short his tour of Southeast Asia due to concerns over COVID-19, the New York Times would report. The aborted trip comes at a time when the US finds itself struggling for relevance in a region it had once held considerably more sway over. This most recent turn for the worse from America’s perspective is owed not only to the rise of China, but also the rise of Asia as a whole.
The trip was Blinken’s first visit to the region since US President Joe Biden took office. The tour likely wouldn’t have accomplished much even if it wasn’t cut short. Washington’s agenda in the region has become increasingly transparent in terms of its self-serving and malignant nature.
Perhaps lost on many still consuming Western media is the fact that the trip was organized more as an effort by Washington to thwart China rather than any sort of genuine effort to boost constructive and mutually beneficial ties with the actual nations of Southeast Asia. Much of what Washington seeks to accomplish versus China will, by design, be done at Southeast Asia’s expense.
Protecting the “Rules-Based Order” Means Protecting US Hegemony
American media outlet CNBC in its article, “Blinken’s trip aims to boost US ties with Southeast Asia amid rising tensions with China, says expert,” would note Secretary Blinken’s reasoning behind the trip, claiming:
“Let me be clear: the goal of defending the rules-based order is not to keep any country down. Rather, it’s to protect the right of all countries to choose their own path, free from coercion and intimidation, ” said Blinken, who will also visit Malaysia and Thailand this week.
“It’s not about a contest between a US-centric region or a China-centric region – the Indo-Pacific is its own region,” he added.
The Secretary of State also criticized China’s aggression in the South China Sea, noting it threatened more than $3 trillion in annual trade and is a cause of growing concern.
In terms of an actual “rules based order,” the United States is perhaps the most abusive nation on Earth this century. Its serial wars of aggression, regime change campaigns, political interference, and crimes against humanity have cut a swath of death, destruction, and destabilization from Latin America, across Africa, swallowing the entire Middle East, reaching as far east as Central Asia, and even beyond.
Myanmar, located in Southeast Asia, neighboring Thailand where Secretary Blinken was supposed to visit, is currently suffering internal armed conflict between the US-sponsored opposition and Myanmar’s military-led government. The conflict began after Myanmar’s military removed the government of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NDL) – a party built and backed by the US for decades before it was finally installed into power through elections heavily influenced by US government financing.
The conflict has since strained relations within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), threatens a humanitarian crisis as refugees flee the fighting between government forces and heavily armed militants, and is impacting the regional economy. It also – without coincidence – has impacted China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) taking shape across the region.
From Venezuela to Myanmar and everywhere in between the US demonstrates what “rules-based order” actually translates to – US hegemony under which the rules apply to everyone else to maintain US hegemony at the cost of everyone else.
The US Seeks to “Protect” a Region it itself Deliberately Threatens
Even in the South China Sea where Secretary Blinken accuses China of threatening more than $3 trillion in annual trade – the only actual threat is posed by the US Navy’s own presence and a policy of taking ordinary maritime disputes and attempting to transform them into a regional or global crisis.
Trade through the South China Sea primarily and overwhelmingly benefits China. “China Power,” a project of the US government-funded Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), even provides a map quite literally illustrating just how much trade through the South China Sea benefits China.
Chinese trade through these waters eclipses trade through the same waters of all G7 nations combined. Other nations in the Indo-Pacific region with significant trade through the South China Sea count China as their top trading partner. China clearly isn’t going to threaten its own trade nor the trade of nations that count it as a key economic partner.
The US, however, by claiming otherwise, is able to justify positioning its military forces across the region and thus pose an actual threat to maritime trade. In fact, disrupting maritime trade for China is a key objective of a potential US war waged on China as laid out by the RAND Corporation in a 2016 paper commissioned by the US military aptly titled, “War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable.”
The paper makes particular note of the “importance of nonmilitary factors” stating:
The prospect of a military standoff means that war could eventually be decided by nonmilitary factors. These should favor the United States now and in the future. Although war would harm both economies, damage to China’s could be catastrophic and lasting: on the order of a 25–35 percent reduction in Chinese gross domestic product (GDP) in a yearlong war, compared with a reduction in US GDP on the order of 5–10 percent.
The paper also notes:
In considering the economic costs of war, perhaps the most significant asymmetry is that intensive and extensive combat in the Western Pacific would disrupt nearly all Chinese trade (95 percent of it being seaborne), whereas the United States would mainly suffer the loss of bilateral trade with China and, to a much lesser extent than China, trade with the rest of East Asia.
It is abundantly clear that China depends on trade and on trade through the South China Sea in particular. Its disruption would be catastrophic for China. The US has fabricated its current narrative regarding the South China Sea specifically to justify maintaining a US military presence in the region to potentially disrupt trade and deliver a fatal blow to China’s economy.
Free to Decide (as long as you Choose the US)
Efforts to encircle, contain, and possibly even collapse China would impact all of Asia negatively. Secretary Blinken predicating his agenda in Southeast Asia on deliberately dishonest narratives like China’s supposed “threat” to its own trade in the South China Sea – trade done mainly with the nations Blinken is attempting to win over – makes it abundantly clear that not only is the US solely serving its own interests in such diplomatic exercises, it does so with minimum to no respect at all for the parties met during such regional tours.
The very nations Blinken visited or was supposed to visit count China as their largest trading partner. China also represents one of the largest if not the largest investor across ASEAN, a key partner in developing essential infrastructure, and increasingly a trusted partner in defense exports. China’s rise has tangibly lifted up the rest of the region with it over the last decade in ways many decades of US primacy in the region have failed to.
The United States, besides a large export market, has very little to offer the region. It finds itself increasingly relying on a combination of empty promises and coercion through its extensive sponsorship of opposition groups across the region. The so-called “Milk Tea Alliance” represents a US-backed pan-Asian movement openly anti-China and intent on undermining the governments of nations with close and growing ties with Beijing. These mobs have resulted in deadly conflict in Myanmar, political instability in Thailand, and threaten to do so in Malaysia. Even if they were successful in overthrowing their respective China-friendly governments, there is no viable alternative being offered to the region if it cooperates with Washington in isolating Beijing.
Secretary Blinken’s recent comments about America’s self-appointed role in protecting “the right of all countries to choose their own path, free from coercion and intimidation,” is an extreme irony. Nations “choosing” China do not do so at the cost of excluding the United States. On the contrary, many nations deeply desire to do business with both China and the US. However, Washington insists that nations either choose between doing business with America or with China. Not both. Those choosing the latter face visible and extreme consequences.
The Solomon Islands off Australia’s east coast recently switched diplomatic recognition of the US-backed administration in Taiwan to Beijing. As a result the US has dumped millions of dollars into opposition parties now seeking violent separatism. Just recently, violent mobs travelled from Malaita island to the nation’s capital of Honiara where they rampaged through the city’s Chinatown, killing several and destroying a large number of businesses.
Myanmar – for not cutting off its ties with China and participating in the BRI – now faces a similar scenario but on a much larger and more dangerous scale. Thailand’s ongoing and violent street protests are also the “price” paid for “choosing” China over the United States. Thailand, which counts US markets as their second largest destination for exports, would ideally prefer to do business with both the US and China. China’s massive population, growing economy, expertise in infrastructure, and obvious proximity to Thailand means Thailand will obviously do more business with its regional neighbor than the US. Any attempt to resist this otherwise obvious reality would clearly serve Washington’s interests but entirely at Thailand’s own expense.
Choosing America: Damned if You Don’t, Damned if you Do
Nations that have entirely subordinated themselves to Washington do not prosper. The Baltic states, Poland, and Ukraine in Eastern Europe, all pulled into Washington’s orbit over the course of US-sponsored color revolutions, are now stagnant, destabilized, and declining. Afghanistan under 20 years of absolute US domination has been left destitute, destabilized, and divided by conflict. The Solomon Islands, despite years of obedience to Washington and the US-backed administration in Taiwan, is one of the most impoverished and underdeveloped nations on Earth.
Conversely, nations working closely with China, including in Southeast Asia, after decades of chronic poverty and stagnant development are now beginning to enjoy first world infrastructure and economic opportunities. Telling these nations to “choose” between China and progress, or the US and continued poverty results in a very predictable geopolitical trend – a trend that does not favor US ambitions in Asia.
Secretary Blinken’s comments represent an increasingly irrational US foreign policy resisting otherwise obvious realities for the nations in Southeast Asia and Asia as a whole (if not throughout the world). The US, by demanding Asian nations join it in its attempts to encircle, contain, and collapse China – the engine of Asia’s rise – is the US in essence attempting to encircle and contain the rise of all of Asia, not just China.
Brian Berletic is a Bangkok-based geopolitical researcher and writer, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.