Duterte's and Najib's China Visits and the Future of Small-State 'Realignment' in the Trump Era - CWP Alumni Kuik Cheng Chwee
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak madehigh-profile visits to China from October 18-21 and from October 31 to November 5,2016, respectively. It was the first China visit for Duterte since he took office about four months earlier (his first trip outside of ASEAN), and the third for Najib as premier since 2009. Both visits sparked concerns that have grown after Donald Trump's sur-prise triumph on November 8. Is the United States losing to China in the long-term geopolitical competition in Southeast Asia? Are more smaller states in Asia tilting to-ward China for economic benefits at the expense of US interests? Is the continuing uncertainty surrounding Trump's external policies (particularly on China, US-Asian al-liances, and the TPP) creating more room for China to expand its influence in Asia?These questions are misleading because of their zero-sum, dichotomous assumptions;however, the issue of small-state 'realignment' in Asia, as highlighted by mounting concerns in and out of the region, is real. Regional statesÕ strategic ÒreorientationsÓ willhave an impact on the power order in the Asia Pacific. If countries, especially thoseperceived by Beijing as within its ÒtraditionalÓ sphere of influence, are ÒshiftingÓ theirexternal priorities one after another in embracing China's geo-economic andgeostrategic designs under President Xi JinpingÕs One Belt, One Road Initiative, the de-velopments may signify the reemergence of the Sino-centered order. Are the twoleadersÕ visits an early sign of such a trend? We contend that it is still early to draw such a conclusion, as the visits underscoremore recurring themes than new trends. They signify greater readiness on the part of smaller countries to move closer to Beijing; however, this is more a calculation of self-interest in the face of fast-changing, uncertain, external and internal conditions than ademonstration of strategic choice to side with the proximate giant. The direction of alignment decisions will depend especially on three factors: ChinaÕs actions, TrumpÕs Asia policy, and the actions and reactions between the two giants. The top-down ef-fects of these interactions will then be filtered by domestic conditions, prompting states to respond in ways that serve their own ruling elitesÕ internal agenda. If TrumpÕstelephone conversation with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on December 2 wasindeed Òplanned in advance to signal a new, robust approach to relations with ChinaÓas reported, this may signal more turbulent US-China relations ahead with growing uncertainty that continues to make any clear-cut alignment choice on the part of smaller states unlikely.
A View from Malaysia
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak madehigh-profile visits to China from October 18-21 and from October 31 to November 5,2016, respectively. It was the first China visit for Duterte since he took office aboutfour months earlier (his first trip outside of ASEAN), and the third for Najib as premier