China, U.S Battling Behind-The-Scenes

Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit earlier this month came at a critical time in the evolving Asian order. This year's Asian conferences, escpecially the ASEAN & APEC high-level meetings, have bluntly shown an undeclared Cold War between the US and China. Xi's visit to Manila, which failed to seal a strategic alliance, only exposed China's premature bid for hegemony in the region which has rattled a number of neighboring countries.

Singapore's PM, Lee Hsien Loong, stated that tensions between both China and the US could soon force smaller nations to "take sides", despite it being "very desirable" to sit on the sidelines. The visit by President Xi to Manila to meet President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines demonstrated exactly that with no major breakthrough on areas of shared concern. The meeting in fact showed just how tough it might be for a Chinese hegemony to take hold in the future with Duterte hedging his bets for the best possible deal. This only highlights the agency of smaller powers and the fragility of China’s bid for hegemony in Asia.

China’s rising influence has also provoked backlash across the region, with a growing number of countries, including Maldives, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Australia, revisiting their strategic and economic relations with Beijing. China’s much-vaunted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is now increasingly seen through the lens of Sri Lanka’s debt trap. 

                                                                  Inner Conflict

President Xi is also appearing to pay the cost of his misplaced strategic celebrations. In recent months, he's come under criticism at home as well as abroad for ditching Deng Xiaphing's "hide and bide" dictum in favor of unrestrained assertiveness on the international stage.

Long Yongtu, China's former chief trade negotiator who oversaw the country's accession to the WTO, has criticized Xi and his administration for refusing to "think deeply" when dealing with international partners such as the US.

Add to this alienation by China of the smaller regional nations, diplomats at the latest APEC summit have reportedly forced their way into Papua New Guinea's foreign minister's office to demand changes to the proposed joint communique. This was a testy showdown which prevented officials from Washington and Beijing meeting at the APEC for the first time in it's two-decades-long history. Despite the best efforts of "middle powers" particularly Indonesia and Australia, they failed to broker a compromise between the two superpowers on the final language of the joint statement.

Even worse, China has provoked a reinvigorated U.S pivot to Southeast Asia under the Trump administration which has stepped up its efforts with regional powers to attempt to constrain Chinese influence across the Indo-Pacific area. Two of those regional powers are Japan and Australia who have joined a Transparency Initiative in an attempt to track, expose and counter China's "debt trap" diplomacy with threats to freedom of travel attached to it. In many ways, this is the real pivot to Asia that many observers had expected earlier.

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