OPINION: China will fill void left by waning US leadership in Asia
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One of the most striking and immediate effects of President Trump’s announcement on withdrawing from the Paris climate accord was how effortlessly China stepped up to the plate, vowing to take over global leadership on the issue.

In a clear shot at Washington, a foreign ministry spokesperson said the pact will now be “shouldered by China as a responsible major country” and promised that Beijing would uphold the agreement, signed by all countries except for Syria and Nicaragua. 

“We also hear that our actions and leading role are applauded by the international community," she added. "We will earnestly implement our obligations."

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It marked the most spectacular example on the world stage of what China has been quietly doing for years in its backyard — moving in to take over influence from the U.S., filling the void created whenever Washington has disengaged.

 

Nowhere has this been more apparent than in Southeast Asia, once a model of American influence that today is increasingly looking to Beijing for guidance politically, militarily and economically. Following the Trump administration’s pulling out of a trans-Pacific trade deal, our allies in the region could be forgiven for interpreting the climate deal withdrawal as but the latest sign of broad American disengagement in the region. 

Such an impression is only reinforced by the fact that — nearly five months into President Trump’s term — the administration has yet to name ambassadors to Seoul, Singapore, or Tokyo. That, along with drastic cuts to the State Department, does not bode well for U.S. diplomacy. 

Putting America first means keeping American leadership strong and active. We need to remain actively engaged; otherwise we risk watching Chinese influence take over where ours once reigned as we hunker down in our isolationist fortress.

China is a rising global power that cannot be ignored, especially in Asia. As someone who has quite a bit of experience in dealing with North Korea, I can tell you that the North Korean problem — one of the key international challenges currently facing America’s security — cannot be solved without the engagement of China, Pyongyang’s main protector.

So we will need smart cooperation with China. But that doesn’t mean abandoning to Chinese influence of a region that’s home to nations that have been, up to now, our erstwhile allies — Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand. 

Signs of ebbing American influence are everywhere. Take Thailand, once a model of U.S. engagement in the region.

The U.S. put military and economic cooperation on ice following the 2014 military coup, but the withdrawal has seen the country turn further and further away from democratic values. The death of the popular King Bhumibol Adulyadej last year allowed the ruling military clique to tighten its grip on power.

The new monarch, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, signed an army-drafted constitution that cements the grip of the army over any future government. Political gatherings are banned and parties are prohibited from undertaking any political activity. Social media censorship is rampant — Facebook recently faced a countrywide ban because of content deemed to violate Thailand’s draconian laws of “lèse majesté” (insults to the monarchy).

Since the coup, scores of people have been arrested under these “lese majeste” laws. Jatupat Boonphatthararaksa, a student, faces 15 years in prison for a simple Facebook post deemed critical of the king. An ordinary factory worker was threatened with 37 years in jail for daring to “insult” the pet dog of the late king. 

Nopporn Suppipat, an entrepreneur who owned a wind farm valued at $1.9 billion and who held well-known pro-democracy views, was forced to flee the country after learning that he would be arrested on a “lese majeste” charge. Today he lives in France, which granted him political refugee status, and like many other businessmen victims of selective justice, he is now investing abroad. In the absence of rule of law, there can be no sustainable economic prosperity.

The situation is not isolated to Thailand. Like dominoes, country after country in the region is turning away from the United States' ideas of free trade, capitalism, rule of law, open society and democracy. Many no longer regard America as a role model. Others are well aware of the trend.

Ahead of President Trump’s pullout of the Paris climate accords, world leaders tried hard to convince him to remain during a G-7 Summit in Sicily.

“If the world’s largest economic power were to pull out, the field would be left to the Chinese,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned, according to Spiegel online. Chinese leader “Xi Jinping is clever," she added, and "would take advantage of the vacuum it created.”

It is imperative for the U.S. to reassert its influence and presence in Asia and the North Korean issue is a golden opportunity to re-engage, working with strategic partners both old and new. We must lead from the front, chart a clear path for regional stability and prosperity and push back against China filling the power void. 

Only then will we make America’s influence in this vital, strategic region great again.

Bill Richardson is the former Democratic governor of New Mexico. He was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and the secretary of energy, both during the Clinton administration. He also served in the House of Representatives. As a diplomat and special envoy, Richardson has received four Nobel Peace Prize nominations and has successfully won the release of hostages and American servicemen in North Korea, Cuba, Iraq and the Sudan.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.