This combination of pictures created on April 04, 2017 shows US President Donald Trump in St. Louis, Missouri on October 9, 2016 and China's leader Xi Jinping in Beijing on December 5, 2012. (Ed Jones, Paul J. Richards / AFP)

Dangerous Dichotomy


Recent analyses of a US decline and China's rise in East Asia can illuminate and clarify as much as they obfuscate and confuse.

The Cold War is revived, in the minds of a growing number of analysts (and political leaders) opining on current events in East Asia. We are told that Malaysia’s decision to buy a small number of vessels from China is a nail in the coffin of the US rebalance policy (Click here to view article). The relaxation of Chinese blockading of Philippine fishing vessels around Scarborough Shoal is deemed a US failure (Click here to view article). Any improvement of relations between China and a regional country, no matter how small the improvement or the country, is immediately presented as a major loss for the US.

This ‘back to the future’ analysis is beguiling in its simplicity and familiarity. It also reinforces the narratives of US decline and impotence and China’s rise and potency that many in East Asia and beyond find intellectual even civilizational comfort in. Yet, intellectual grand narratives can obfuscate and confuse as much as they can illuminate and clarify and are certainly, by themselves, bad guides for policy decisions.

This ‘back to the future’ analysis is beguiling in its simplicity and familiarity.

Malaysia, like most Southeast Asian states, has long found US weapons systems too dear and high-end for its more modest means and missions and has purchased weapons from a range of suppliers including Russia. Malaysia’s current fiscal woes simply add to this commercial mismatch (Click here to view article). Chinese firms are looking to expand arms exports with support from the Chinese government and can offer cheaper, less complex platforms at a more competitive price. Rather than oppose, the US has repeatedly expressed its desire for better Philippine-China relations and China-Philippines fisheries cooperation around Scarborough Shoal. This is particularly the case if that cooperation, in action if not in word, is consistent with the 12 July arbitration tribunal ruling.

Malaysia’s commercially informed decision to buy ships from China is not a major blow to US security interests in Asia. Neither is greater access for Philippine fishing vessels around Scarborough Shoal as called for by the 12 July ruling. The regional security order is not an extremely sensitive, frequently oscillating US-China balance with every decision by regional countries a weight on one side of scale or the other.

Malcolm Cook was previously Visiting Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Editor at Fulcrum.