HANOI — As Washington sat entranced this week watching the impeachment hearings of President Donald Trump, his defense secretary, Mark Esper, crisscrossed Southeast Asia, conducting a seemingly endless string of diplomatic engagements barely noticed back at home. But there was one common thread throughout it all: rising concern about how to handle an increasingly aggressive and powerful China.
Esper’s trip was meant to demonstrate the United States’ commitment to the Indo-Pacific region and included stops in South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam. Often calling out China by name, he hammered home his theme of preserving a rules-based order that protects big and small countries alike from bullying and coercion. At the last stop here in Hanoi, Esper said that he heard a common note in all his meetings.
“Within ASEAN countries, all of them are all concerned about China,” he said of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. “The fear is real. The want and need for leadership and action is real. And we are committed to providing that, because there’s a recognition that China is becoming more aggressive, their claims are becoming more excessive and they are going to throw their weight around in the region.”
At a meeting of defense ministers in Bangkok, Esper said smaller Asian countries were often too intimidated to point fingers publicly at Beijing but nevertheless called for more American presence, involvement and attention in the region to counter rising Chinese influence. “And in many ways, that’s our duty, to call out China by name and to make clear we are going to stand up to them,” Esper said.
Of course, all Asian countries have different relationships with China, and some are less enthusiastic about the Trump administration confronting Beijing. The United States’ commitment to the Indo-Pacific remains unclear. Beyond rhetorical support, Esper had little new to offer those Asian countries that do want to push back against China’s worst behavior.
And while there’s a consensus in Washington that more must be done to compete with China — especially in Asia — there’s no clear plan. There’s no clarity on how to marshal resources, what trade-offs will be needed and how we will bring others along. In short, there is no strategy.
This weekend, the Halifax International Security Forum will convene in Canada to kick off a new effort to fill that gap. Trump’s new national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, will be in attendance. Halifax Forum President Peter Van Praagh told me the effort will focus on how democracies can come together to confront a rising authoritarian China.
“It is no longer a secret that Xi Jinping’s China wants to make the world safe for authoritarianism,” he said. “We need a comprehensive strategy for the United States and its allies that makes the world safe for democracy.”
The Halifax Forum was co-founded by the late, great Sen. John McCain, who believed that a community of democracies was needed to defend the rights of not only Americans but also people throughout the world struggling for dignity and freedom against dictatorships like the one presided over by the Chinese Communist Party.
The forum is only the latest organization to create a project to figure out what we should do about China, but its emphasis on democracies working together represents the essence of McCain’s worldview. The idea that upholding our values strengthens our ability to promote our interests is what’s missing from the Trump administration’s approach.
“There is an increasing feeling across the Western world that we have lost our way, that we no longer have clarity about what it is that we stand for,” said Van Praagh.
As Esper toured Hanoi this week, remembrances of McCain were everywhere. At the Vietnamese Defense Ministry, a photo gallery celebrated American officials — including McCain, who had visited Hanoi after the war to help repair relations. Esper toured the Hanoi Hilton, the prison where McCain and several other American pilots suffered years of torture. Here, too, the Vietnamese prominently display photos of McCain returning to make friends with his former enemy.
Esper knew McCain when he was a senior staffer for another Vietnam veteran senator, Chuck Hagel. His view of Vietnam was shaped by these two men as well as his uncle, George Esper, an Associated Press correspondent in Vietnam during and after the war. Mark Esper said he believed the Vietnamese people’s desire for healing and friendship was genuine and their resolve to remain independent of Chinese domination was firm.
The strategic challenge of a rising China will be the defining test of our time. It will require both cooperation within the community of free nations and — whenever possible — working with not-yet-free countries that face the same threat. What everyone from Hanoi to Halifax can agree on is that there is no time to lose.
Josh Rogin is a columnist for The Washington Post.
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