When the president came to power, he vowed to seem east with his foreign policy. But as he prepares to leave office, the US seems increasingly impotent in the region

Tsai Ing-wen is new to the job and the stres is beginning to show. Elected president of Taiwan in a landslide victory, she took office in May, buoyed by high acceptance ratings. Yet in a few short months, Tsais popularity has plunged by 25%. The reason may be summed up in one word: China. Suspicious that Tsais Democratic Progressive party, which also won control of parliament, harbours a pro-independence agenda, Beijing suspended official and back-channel talks with its renegade province and shut down an emergency hotline.

More seriously, for many Taiwanese employees, China also curbed the lucrative tourist trade, which brought millions of mainland visitors to the island during the course of its accommodating presidency of Tsais predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou. Cross-strait investment and business have also been hit.

Tsai faces contradictory pressures. The public wants the benefit of closer economic ties with China but Beijings intentions are rightly distrusted by a population that increasingly identifies itself as Taiwanese , not Chinese. Given President Xi Jinpings ominous warnings that reunification cannot be delayed indefinitely, Chinas military build-up and hawkish suggestions that Beijing may resort to force-out, Taiwanese ambivalence is wholly understandable.

This dilemma how to work constructively with a powerful, assertive China without compromising or surrendering national interests grows steadily more acute. It is shared by states across the east and southeast Asian region. From Indonesia and the Philippines to Vietnam, Japan, Seoul, Malaysia and Singapore, the quandary is the same. But the answers proffered by national leaders are different and sometimes sharply at odds.

The China dilemma is felt strongly in Washington. The US has striven in recent years to strengthen Asian alliances, increase trade and create the various regional military profile Barack Obamas so-called rebalance or pivot to Asia in a bid to contain and channel Chinas aspirations peacefully. But analysts say the pivot appears to be in trouble. For Europeans fixated on Syria and immigration, this may not seem especially worrying or relevant. Thats shortsighted. If Obama and future US chairpeople get China wrong, the resulting injury could be global, threatening the security and prosperity of all.

Obama is already badly off-track. His grand plan to promote interdependent economic self-interest across the Pacific Rim while excluding China the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP( similar to the controversial US-Europe Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP) is in deep trouble.

Shinzo Abe, Japans prime minister, declared last week that the TTP was a crucial pillar of future US influence. Success or failing will sway the direction of the global free trade system and[ shape] the strategic environment in the Asia-Pacific, Abe said.

His warning reflected alarm in Tokyo that a risk-averse Obama is again demonstrating an unreliable partner and will fail to get the deal ratified by Congress. It has already been disinherited by both his most likely successors, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

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An image from United States Navy video purportedly proves Chinese dredging boats in the water around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands.
Photograph: HANDOUT/ Reuters

Washingtons painfully obvious inability to curb Chinas controversial island-building programme straddling the international shipping lanes of the South China Sea is seen as further evidence that the pivot is failing. Each week seems to bring news of another Chinese airstrip or freshly fortified reef. Ignoring neighboring countries rival claims, Chinese has effectively unilaterally annexed 80% of the seas area, through which passes$ 5tn of world trade annually. Freedom of navigation patrols by US warships, soon to be backed by Japans navy, have had little discernible impact while increasing the risk of direct military confrontation.

China has flatly rejected a precedent-setting UN court ruling that deemed its claim to own the Spratly Islands, also claimed by the Philippines, to be illegal. Beijing has taken a similarly intransigent posture in its dispute with Japan over the Senkaku( Diaoyu) Islands in the East China Sea.

Some commentators detect ulterior motives. Chinas military construction on the Spratlys and its effort to deplete and eventually displace Japan in a tournament for the Senkakus can be seen as an endeavor psychologically and physically to isolate Taiwan and to prepare the battle space for Chinas possible utilize of military force to unify the PRC and Taiwan, an analysis by the International Institute for Strategic Survey said.

Perceived American weakness has led some allies to take matters into their own hands. It emerged last week that Taiwans military is also engaged in island fortification, at Itu Aba, its sole possession in the South China Sea.

More dramatically still, the maverick Philippines president, Rodrigo Duterte, switched sides last week, announcing Manila would discontinue maritime co-operation with the US. China, he said, was the most powerful partner. Dutertes shift reflects his anger at American criticism of human rights abuses rather than a deep strategic rethink. But it is necessarily heartened Beijing.

Other regional players are more cautious, an attitude encouraged by Beijings divide-and-rule tactics. Vietnams prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, meekly agreed in talks with Xi this month that maritime co-operation through friendly negotiations was the best route forward. But like China, Hanoi is rapidly constructing military capacity and cementing confederations with India, among others, in anticipation of less amicable times ahead.

Similar diplomatic hedging of gambles was on display in Laos this month, when an Association of Southeast Asian Nations( Asean) summit deliberately avoided mention of the UN court ruling. This feeble anxiety to play down changes and evident lack of confidence in US leadership plays into Chinas hands.

The China dilemma widens far beyond the South China Sea. Having made nuclear disarmament a top priority in 2009, Obama has failed dismally to halt North Koreas accelerating pursuit of nuclear weapons. The menace was underscored by Pyongyangs biggest ever test explosion earlier this month. China, the only country with real leveraging, has helped impose additional UN sanctions on North Korea. But it has consistently balked at taking game-changing measures, such as cutting off fuel oil supplies, which could force-out Kim Jong-un to think again. Beijing also says it will block unilateral measures by other countries.

Obamas impotence has intensified questions in Japan and elsewhere about the credibility of the American security umbrella, encouraging patriots who argue that Tokyo should re-arm in earnest or even deploy its own nuclear weapon. But their main concern is not North Korea it is China.

Xi is not looking for a fight. His first-choice agent of change is money , not munitions. According to Xis One Belt, One Road plan, his preferred path to 21 st-century Chinese hegemony is through expanded trade, business and economic partnerships extending from Asia to the Middle East and Africa. Chinas massive Silk Road investments in central and western Asian oil and gas pipelines, high-speed rail and ports, backed by new organizations such as the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, are part of this strategy, which simultaneously fosters political and economic dependencies. Deng Xiaoping once said to get rich is glorious. Xi might add it is also empowering.

Western neoliberals are optimistic. They typically argue that market-based economic exchanges can create a win-win situation for rival countries. In this route, Chinas rise may be peacefully accommodated, they say.

Xi must also calculate that time is on Chinas side. Chinas economic growth and military modernisation programs have witnessed dramatic progression since the early-1 980 s, said Karl Eikenberry in the American Interest . Chinas aggregate GDP in 1980 was the seventh largest in the world By 2014, Chinas GDP had multiplied 30 times to more than$ 9tn and is now the second largest in the world The PRCs military spending, less than $10 bn in 1990, grew to more than $129.4 bn in 2014, second only to that of the US. On current trends, Chinas 2035 GDP could be a third larger than the US, Eikenberry said.

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People watch a Tv news showing an image that North Koreas Rodong Sinmun newspaper reports of the ground exam of a high-powered engine of a carrier rocket at the countrys Sohae Space Centre in Seoul, South Korea. Photo: Ahn Young-joon/ AP

Yet for less sanguine analysts, this prospective gap, this growing lack of balance, plus the expanding number of potential flashpoints in the South China Sea, Taiwan and elsewhere, point only one route towards future military conflict between the US and China. The Pentagon now officially refers to the Chinese threat.

This is the so-called Thucydides Trap, a reference to the Athenian historians account of the seemingly inevitable conflict between the rising city-state of Athens and the status quo power Sparta in the fifth century BC. Nowadays, the US is the status quo power and China the bumptious usurper.

Open conflict is not inescapable, but it is under active debate. A recent study by the Rand Corporation made a detailed examination of who might wins such a military showdown. It concludes that it would probably be catastrophic for both sides. Yet the study also suggests that, if war cannot be avoided, the US might be best advised to ten-strike first, before China gets any stronger and the current US military advantage declines further.

The dilemma is clear: amid rising patriotism in both countries, China is not willing to have its aspirations curbed or contained and the US is not ready to accept the world number two spot. These two juggernauts are on a collision course. Its unclear who or what can prevent a pile-up.

The other players in the conflict between Beijing and Washington

JAPAN

Faced by what it perceives to be a growing threat from China, Japans government, led by its conservative “ministers “, Shinzo Abe, has sought greater freedom to project military force beyond the countrys borders. This is controversial, since it involves the reinterpretation of Japans postwar pacifist constitution. Concrete steps include joint naval patrols with the US in the South China Sea and direct help for coastal countries such as the Philippines .

VIETNAM

The communist one-party regime in Hanoi is an unlikely partner for the US, dedicated still painful memories of the Vietnam war. But Vietnam has been wooed by Obama and George W Bush as part of Washingtons attempts to control and channel Chinas regional aspirations. Vietnam has been involved in deadly fishing grounds conflicts with China, with whom it fought a war in 1979. It has also sought assist elsewhere. Earlier this month, the Indian “ministers “, Narendra Modi, offered a $500 m credit line for defense co-operation. But Hanoi is also carefully hedging its gambles by maintaining diplomatic lines open to Beijing .

INDONESIA

The worlds most populous Muslim country, Indonesia has vast human and natural resources and is seen as one of the new 21 st-century economic players. Anxious to balance growth needs and national pride, President Joko Widodo lately visited the Natuna Islands in the southern South China Sea, scene of repeated, minor fishing barge conflicts with Chinese boats. Widodo vowed to defend sovereign territory against foreign encroachment. But, officially, Indonesia calls itself a non-claimant country and tells it is not formally in dispute with Beijing. This suits both countries, at the least for now. By sidestepping their differences, they can get on with business .

SOUTH KOREA

The Seoul government is more worried about its unpredictable northern neighbour than it is about China. Its defense minister said last week that South Korea has schemes in place to assassinate Kim Jong-un and the North Korean leadership if the nuclear menace becomes critical. Seoul sticks close to the US, which maintains military basis in the country. But abiding South Korean distrust of Japan, Washingtons other key east Asian ally, dating back to the Second World War, has undermined attempts to present a united front to Beijing with which Seoul preserves friendly relations .

INDIA

Like China, India is rapidly expanding its military capabilities, spending an estimated $100 bn on new defence systems since Narendra Modi became “ministers ” in 2014. Like China, its aspiration is to project itself as a regional superpower seeming both east and west. This potentially brings the two countries into conflict. They have long-standing perimeter disputes in the Kashmir/ Xinjiang and Arunachal Pradesh areas. In a precursor to Obamas pivot to Asia, George W Bushs administration launched a strategic partnership with Delhi, partly as a counterbalance to China. For its part, Beijing preserves close ties with Pakistan, Indias historical adversary .

RUSSIA

China and Russia are old adversaries dating back to the cold war, but these days, they claim to be close friends. A visit to Beijing by President Vladimir Putin in June assured the launching of a number of trade and petroleum bargains worth up to $50 bn . China assures Russia as a valuable provider of raw materials but also as a political and military partner in relation to the US. In defiance of Washington, the two countries held large-scale war game in the South China Sea last week, practising taking over islands in disputed water. Putin also values cooperation as a route of circumventing sanctions imposed by the US and EU after Russias invasion of Crimea .

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