When the new U.S. president takes office in January, he will find an entire East Asian region, from Japan to Indonesia, wavering between American and Chinese influence. The picture is rendered more complex by the increasing presence of Russia in the Far East.
Much has been written about the foul language and unorthodox behavior of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, including his sudden declaration of "separation" from the U.S. Yet, the Philippines may not be the only ally slipping away from Washington.
Take Japan -- America's closest ally in Asia. Tokyo has started to question the resolve of the U.S. in its commitment to Japan's defense. The growing doubt is one of the factors behind Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's "new approach" to Russia.
Although primarily aimed at resolving the long-running territorial dispute between the two countries, the Japanese initiative also points to a desire to build a strategic partnership with Russia to counter the Chinese expansion that both countries regard as a threat. South Korea, another staunch U.S. ally, has in recent years pushed for improved ties with China.
But it is in Southeast Asia that the sand is moving fastest under America's feet. Outside of the Philippines, other South China Sea nations such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia have all signed up for closer economic ties with the world's second-largest economy.
It is easy to understand why the Philippines became such a coveted piece in the East Asian geopolitical power game. If Manila disengaged itself from the joint resistance to Chinese advances in the South China Sea, it could result in a domino effect on other Association of Southeast Asian Nations members, culminating in Beijing gaining full domination of this strategically vital international trade route.
However, Duterte is playing his hand more skillfully than he may be credited for. Contrary to what many startled observers initially thought, "separation" did not mean the Philippines' outright defection from the U.S. camp. The Chinese leadership understands that well. Following his Beijing visit, where he declared China as his country's best friend, Duterte flew to Tokyo and showered Japan with equally lavish praise.
It has become clear that, despite Duterte's personal aversion to the U.S., his pro-American country is not about to jump ship completely. China and Japan ended up having their rivalry exploited by Duterte, who walked away with huge economic cooperation packages from both sides. Ironically, the trend of East Asia drifting away from Washington may be further encouraged and accelerated by the incoming U.S. president, who vindicates Duterte for his "separation" declaration.
LITTLE MARGIN FOR ERROR Showing stark ignorance of how alliances in Asia fundamentally serve U.S. interests, Donald Trump has repeatedly declared that America will no longer be the world's policeman and has threatened to abandon allies, in Asia as well as in Europe, who fail to pay up for U.S. protection. Unless Trump learns more about the delicate situation in Asia, he may push the entire region irrevocably into the Chinese sphere of influence.
The result would be the return of an almighty Middle Kingdom in Asia, with far-reaching political and economic ramifications for the rest of the world. The Communist authoritarian regime may bring its own brand of economic benefits to the region but would certainly set back, if not annihilate, all the accomplishments made so far in terms of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. That the equally authoritarian Russia also stands to benefit only increases concern.
Besides emboldening Chinese and Russian influence, the way the president-elect has told countries like Japan and South Korea to defend themselves will inevitably set off a dangerous and uncontrollable arms race in the region.
In this sense, it was encouraging that the very first foreign leader to meet the president-elect was an Asian one -- Japan's Abe. Given Trump's reputation as a foreign policy novice, the early timing of this meeting, barely a week after his election victory, bore a particular significance. "I am confident that trust was established," Abe told reporters after the 90-minute discussion. "Alliances require mutual trust and I believe we can trust Mr. Trump's leadership."
Yo-Jung Chen is a former French diplomat. Taiwanese-born and educated in Vietnam and Japan, he became a French citizen before entering the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.