he recent withdrawal of the United States from key multilateral agreements, including the TPP and Paris Climate Accord, has Asia experts concerned that an increasingly isolationist Trump administration could accelerate Chinese power in the region.
It comes after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called for an inquiry into Chinese influence in Australian politics following a joint Four Corners-Fairfax investigation.
Ely Ratner, a China specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, says recent revelations about Chinese political donations in Australia are of significant interest to the US.
“One of the accusations coming out of the documentary were that there were politicians within Canberra in Australia who were literally purchased to change their position on the South China Sea — an issue of incredible economic and strategic importance to the United States,” he said.
“I think what would be in the interest of the United States would be that Australia is acting in its national interest and not in the interest of Chinese individuals or much less the Chinese Communist Party.”
Meredith Sumpter, a Washington-based Asia expert for the Eurasia group, says Beijing is seizing its moment as the US withdraws from key multilateral agreements.
“The Chinese Premier heading to Europe and standing with Angela Merkel in Germany just as President Trump was announcing the pull out of the Paris Climate accord — the timing could not have been more pointed,” she said.
Ms Sumpter says US President Donald Trump has pursued an isolationist agenda since taking office, resulting in a mixed message to Asia.
“There is a discrepancy between the way President Trump is speaking about the US-China relationship and the US role in Asia and that with which some of cabinet secretaries are also talking about US interests and China’s role in the region,” she said.
“The discrepancy is not necessarily lost on the Chinese.”
Mr Ratner says the perception of the US disengaging from the region could be influential in how nations make decisions that could impact China.
“I think the lack of US leadership, particularly on global issues like climate change and on trade and economic issues in the region, the withdrawal from the TPP, has clearly created a vacuum China is trying to fill,” he said.
“Perceptions are what drive politics, so as long as the region perceives United States withdrawal and the emergence of Chinese leadership, the actual facts on the ground are a lot less important.”
In a speech at the Shangri-la dialogue last week in Singapore, Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis sought to reassure Asian allies of their engagement with the region.
“We will still be there. And we will be there with you,” he said.
At that same June 3 speech, Mr Mattis addressed the new dynamic between the nations.
“While competition between the US and China, the world’s two largest economies, is bound to occur, conflict is not inevitable. Our two countries can and do cooperate for mutual benefit. And we will pledge to work closely with China where we share common cause,” he said.
An uneasy union
An unlikely bond was formed between Mr Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at their April Mar-a-Lago meeting, as they sought to manage an increasingly aggressive North Korean missile program.
Ms Sumpter says the Chinese are heavily invested in making the relationship work, after a bruising 2016 election campaign.
“They’ve worked very hard to establish this constructive relationship with President Trump and have turned that relationship around after a very bumpy start when the President first came to be elected,” Ms Sumpter said.
“The Chinese are studying the new team with great interest and intensity, they have sought very quickly on to establish a relationship with the President’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.
“In their view, Jared would be viewed as something of a princeling who has direct access to the Oval office and to the President.”
For the Trump administration, China’s actions to curb escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula is considered a litmus test for the relationship.
“They’re seeing North Korea as a test to whether or not Xi Jinping wants to have a cooperative relationship with the United States,” Mr Ratner said.
“In some ways it’s a tough issue to do that on because it’s very unlikely, in my view anyway, that China is going to cooperate as far as the United States would like.”
By Brooke Wylie