Phasing out the US (dis)order in the Asia Pacific

June 9, 2017

Phasing out the US (dis)order in the Asia Pacific

by Jean-Pierre Lehmann, IMD
Image result for Thucydides trap of war

It is widely held that there is qualitative distinction between the benign, liberal US global order prevailing in the Asia Pacific, and a potentially threatening and malign Chinese imperialist order. This perspective is quite hallucinatory.


To cite the most egregious example, the Vietnam War, apart from its bloody savagery, was fought with cultural arrogance. It was during the Vietnam War that the Kafkaesque term ‘body count’ was coined, whereby the number of corpses from battles were tallied up and transmitted to the Pentagon. Much forgotten was the US war in neighbouring Laos where an estimated 10 per cent of the population were killed and 25 per cent, mostly civilians, were made refugees.

Also widely ignored are the origins of the US presence in the Asia Pacific. John Hay, US Secretary of State from 1898 to 1905, expressed his vision that while ‘the Mediterranean was the ocean of the past and the Atlantic the ocean of the present, the Pacific is the ocean of the future’. When the Spanish-American War (1898-1899) broke out, Hay ensured that the US also obtained Spain’s colony in the Philippines. As even The Economist, a notoriously pro-US newspaper, points out, ‘The generals in the Philippine campaign had nearly all earned their spurs fighting Native Americans; in the tropics they applied the same genocidal techniques of terror, atrocities and native reservations’.

By no means has US foreign policy in the Asia Pacific been invariably malign. On balance, the US presence in the Asia Pacific has ultimately been positive. The US occupation contributed significantly to the economic reconstruction of Japan. There can also be no doubt that US aid, the opening of its market and technology transfers contributed mightily to the economic rise of Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. This was further enhanced by former president Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to Mao Zedong in Beijing and eventually the restoration of diplomatic relations between the United States and China. As Kishore Mahbubani argues, ASEAN owes its successful existence in good part to the collaborative, rather than conflictual, relationship between the United States and China.

Image result for Thucydides trap of war


But that was then and now is now. In the second half of the 20th century, the US’ main rival in the Asia Pacific, as elsewhere, was the Soviet Union. The Sino–Soviet split in 1960 allowed the United States to consider China a potential ally in the Cold War, paving the way for Nixon’s visit.

But the 21st century has witnessed the spectacular re-emergence of China as a global power. China’s economic growth has had a most positive effect in China itself — especially the massive reduction in poverty for an estimated 700 million — and for the world. Following the great financial crisis of 2007, China has been an engine of global growth. Its aid, trade and investments in Asia, Africa and Latin America have been significant.

As awesome as China’s rise has been, it has also generated considerable anxiety, including — or perhaps especially — among Asian nations. In contrast to the US that has a whole network of both formal and informal alliances in the Asia Pacific, China only has one: North Korea. Asian nations are increasingly faced with the thorny dilemma: while China is their major economic partner, the United States is their major strategic partner.  

The greatest geopolitical threat to the world is China and the US falling into the so-called Thucydides trap of war, which for Asia Pacific countries would require making a choice between allying with either China or the United States. Following the early 20th century pattern in Europe, the Asia Pacific risks becoming the terrain of great power military conflict.

There are many frailties and tensions in the Asia Pacific landscape. The drama unfolding on the Korean peninsula vividly illustrates how the United States may be aggravating these tensions, rather than mitigating or resolving them. By seeking to bring its allies Japan and South Korea into a confrontation with China and North Korea, Washington is playing with potentially explosive fire in Northeast Asia. The current situation of continued US military domination and presumed political leadership in the Asia Pacific is unsustainable.

Instead, Washington should take a leaf out of the post-World War II history book. While the US ‘saved’ Europe in both World War I and World War II, after World War II it provided strategic, economic and moral support to allow and encourage European governments themselves to build the post-war European edifice, especially through Franco–German reconciliation and collaboration.

Ideally, the US should phase out its military presence, while providing leadership in trade and global economic governance — in other words, the opposite of the present situation. Recognising that while at times the US presence in Asia was malign, at others benign, and that on balance it was positive, the time has come to turn the page and open a new volume in the Asia Pacific’s narrative. The construction of the 21st century Asia Pacific must be left to Asia-Pacific nations.

This process must be undertaken incrementally over the long term. A sudden impulsive US departure from the Asia Pacific region would create a perilous vacuum. Major geopolitical great power transitions have almost invariably involved war. In the process of dismantling the US-led Asia Pacific order, a new 21st century edifice with solid foundations should be constructed by the Asia Pacific itself, though with the US’ benevolent support. This seems the only viable course for peace.

Jean-Pierre Lehmann is Emeritus Professor of International Political Economy at IMD, Switzerland, founder of the Evian Group, and Visiting Professor at Hong Kong University. You can follow him on Twitter at @JP_Lehmann.


3 thoughts on “Phasing out the US (dis)order in the Asia Pacific

  1. “The construction of the 21st century Asia Pacific must be left to Asia-Pacific nations.”

    I don’t wanna to teach anyone Geography, but surely he must realize that by Asia Pacific, it means the Ocean with it’s contiguous seas, that abuts North East, East, South East Asia and Oceania – which is a huge arc having a diverse multitude of nations – each with it’s peculiar needs and interests?

    While PRC has ascended to become the dominant regional power, it’s governing plutocracy by it’s very nature is a friable, brittle entity. China’s dependence on raw material imports, huge population to control, tendency toward an inverse population pyramid, vast hinterland, propensity to environmental and natural disasters, plus a creaky (most times archaic) legal and financial framework – underlines the need for Emperor Xi to concentrate his energies domestically instead of contemptuously exulting in the West’s decline. Heck. only slightly more than 70 million of her ‘subjects’ have passports or valid visas to travel oversea. Perhaps, it’s because a vast majority of the proletariat are indeed unsophisticated hicks.

    When i interact with PRC SOE’s and private businesses who are offering ‘investments’ to Malusia, i find that many are oblivious to local sensitivities, business etiquette, legal requirements, ethnic diversity and internal politics. They continue merrily on their chauvinistic hubris, thinking that the World is lubricated solely by vast quantities of Cash. They don’t bring in anything substantive in terms of technology transfer, innovative ideas or efficient management skills. In fact, i seem to be wasting a lot of effort correcting their high mindedness of what their ‘investment’ policies should be. Enough of worker ant mentality!

    For instance, they are said to be heavily invested in Robotics, yet the Franco-Germans, Americans, Japanese and even S. Koreans are light-years ahead in practical applications.

    Or even Dr Phua’s nemesis of Lynas Rare-Earth extraction and refining – which is way less polluting and environmentally destructive, than the horrendous mess in the Gobi (specifically, Baotou).

    So while i would agree that USofA needs to control itself, instead of willy-nilly ‘projecting’ it’s awesome firepower, it’s “Strategic Business and Industrial” role needs to be ramped up instead of tamping down. This includes her Japanese, S. Korean and European high tech Allies.

    PRC otoh, needs to look at it’s ability to invest strategically and innovatively, instead of the blunderbuss approach of environmentally destructive dam building, port, transport construction and other infrastructure projects that seem to be driving the local greedy, corrupted local autocrats into a feeding frenzy. Many of such projects will not only end up as White Elephants, but drive the emerging economies into penury and bankruptcy in future.

    Peaceful coexistence must be predicated on mutual respect, mercantile interest, diplomacy and cooperation – instead of mercenary, chauvinistic, binary mind games. To declare a zone of neutrality is too much to ask, but not so – if we appeal to mutual cooperation without geopolitical hubris and domination.

    The days of ‘Bunga Mas’ have long passed and the American Dream is no longer ‘Wet’.

  2. This assumes that we in Southeast Asia (ASEAN) are helpless in this tussle between the US and China. Forget that, this is no longer the era of the Cold War and the Vietnam War. We can no longer be mere bystanders or victims of the hegemonic ambitions of either the US or China.–Din Merican

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