THE contrast could not be greater. While United States President Donald Trump raves and rants – and belts this or that person – China’s President Xi Jinping looks measured and assured as he offers an alternative global future to the world.
Xi is no angel of course, as his political opponents would know, but his system conserves and protects him, as Trump’s would not. If only Trump were the leader in a centrally controlled political order – but even then his temperament would blow it apart.
Leadership, like politics, is the art of managing the possible. Trump does not understand this, and does not know how. Xi does, knows why, and knows how.He has a growing economy too behind him, whatever the hiccups. Trump only promises one, without any clarity or logic.
His plan to boost the American economy, based primarily on slashing corporate tax from 35 to 15%, is likely to flounder in an American Congress seriously concerned about its causing the fiscal deficit to balloon.
Already Trump has had to climb down from trying to secure funds from Congress for his dreaded border wall with Mexico in order to avoid budgetary shutdown in September.
The stock market has fallen back from the boost to the price of banks and industrial products following his election. Interest now has returned to what might be termed “American ingenuity stocks” such as Google, Apple and Microsoft on Nasdaq – a proxy for much that is great about America, which Trump’s immigration and closed-door policies threaten to destroy.
Meanwhile Xi has been rolling out his “Belt and Road” plans – something he first envisaged at the end of 2013 – for greater world connectivity and development, committing funds from China and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and engaging global financial institutions such as the World Bank.
Malaysia, for instance, will be an actual beneficiary with additional projects thrown in. China is Malaysia’s largest trading partner. But the US has not been a laggard, being Malaysia’s fourth largest trading partner. And indeed the US remains the largest foreign investor in Malaysia, both new investments and total stock.
A staggering statistic not often recognised is that total American investment in ASEAN is more than its investment in China, Japan and India COMBINED!
The point, however, is that this position is being eroded. Trump’s policies are hastening this process. Abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) means there is no American strategic peaceful challenge to the Chinese economic juggernaut in Asia-Pacific.
Balance is important to afford choice. Absence of choice means serious exposure to risk. Price, quality and after-service standards are affected, not to mention a new geo-strategic economic underlining.
Over-dominance by China in the region is a price not only countries in the region will pay, something that most probably is on Trump’s mind. It is a price that America too will sooner or later have to pay.
China’s Belt and Road proposition is not without its challenges, of course. India is deeply suspicious of the connectivity with Pakistan which cuts across India-claimed Azad Kashmir, about 3000km of it.
The link to the Pakistani port of Gwadar, in southwest Baluchistan on the shores of the Arabian Sea, is seen by India as a Chinese presence at the entrance to the Indian Ocean and a hawk eye on the Indian sub-continent. With the Chinese also in Sri Lanka, India is circumspect on China’s Belt and Road initiative.
There have also been commentaries on some uneconomic linkages which extend right across the English Channel.
All these reservations, however, do not take into account the benefit of connectivity to economies, the time it often takes to get those economic benefits and, most of all, the patience, persistence and long view of history of China and its leaders.
One of the most striking things about the Belt and Road map is that America is not there. Of course, Xi Jinping does not preclude America just as much as the US did not say that China was not permanently excluded from the TPP. And of course, in the Old Silk Routes and shipping lanes, the New World – America – had not been discovered.
But in their revival, led by now rising and then ancient China after 150 years of national humiliation to the present time, there is the irony that the last three quarters of a century of America world dominance is on course to be marginalised, if not supplanted, by the old Eurasian world centred in an ancient civilisation.
Trump does not seem to understand history. The art of the deal is purely transactional. Short-tempered and short-term gratification does not a strategy constitute.
So we have leader, system and economic promise distinguishing the two leaders – and the two countries.
Instead of America first, what we are seeing is Trump hurrying America’s decline relative to a rising China. We are not seeing a world changed from people wanting to be like a kind of American to being people wanting to be a kind of Chinese. Actually, the Chinese people themselves want to be like a kind of American, with all that wealth, influence and power.
What we are seeing is China – not America – leading the way to that desired, if not always desirable, end. It is China that is driving the next phase in the evolution of world economic development.
Under Xi Jinping, China appears to be heroically moving towards an epochal point in its Peaceful Rise. With Donald Trump, America is being led backwards and inwards, with all the problems of its governance now all coming out. It is in grave danger of losing in the peaceful competition.
Not knowing how to play that game – certainly under its current President – there remains the danger of the status quo power lashing out against the rising one.
The Greek historian Thucydides observed: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” A Harvard professor has studied what is now called the Thucydides Trap and found in 12 out of 16 cases in which this occurred in the last 500 years, the outcome was war.
There are many potential flash points against the background of China’s rise – the North Korean Peninsula and the placement of THAAD missiles in the south, the South China Sea – where Trump may temperamentally find cause to lash out. This is the trapdoor he might take the world down because of failure to compete peacefully.
Newborn babies crushed under the weight of a soldier’s heavy boot. Children having their throats slit as they try to protect their mothers from rape by security forces. Women and girls facing rape or sexual assault and humiliation. The elderly and infirm burnt alive in their homes. 1,000 killed and another 75,000 displaced to Bangladesh. These atrocities were documented in a disturbing February 2017 United Nations report which concluded that they are ‘very likely to amount to crimes against humanity. More recently, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Yanghee Lee has named them ‘definite crimes against humanity’.
The most recent reports have not emerged in a vacuum. In 2015, the Yale Law School found ‘strong evidence of genocide against the Rohingya’. The same year, the International State Crime Initiative from the School of Law at Queen Mary University of London concluded that genocide was taking place in Myanmar. In 2013, Human Rights Watch identified crimes against the Rohingya which it argued amounted to ethnic cleansing.
Sheer hypocrisy of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto Foreign Minister: ASEAN’s Non-Intervention Policy VS Responsibility to Protect(R2P)
National League for Democracy chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi, right, and central committee member Win Htein, center. (Photo: Tin Htet Paing / The Irrawaddy)
The government of Myanmar has denied this charge. U Win Htein, a senior member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s now more than one year old National League for Democracy (NLD) government, rejects claims of crimes against humanity, and says this is an internal affair that has been exaggerated. This rhetoric is eerily close to that of the previous governments that the NLD vowed departure from.
Certainly, this is not a popular concern domestically. The Rohingya are not recognised in Myanmar, and are instead called Bengali. Their history in Rakhine State and rights to citizenship are heated issues of contention. While the NLD has appointed several commissions to investigate the situation in Rakhine State, they are lacking either the mandate or capacity to deal with the situation that has arisen since October 2016.
Given this, there is a need for an accessible publication which brings together the complex history and discussion of the increasingly brutal persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar today. Unfortunately, Azeem Ibrahim’s The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide is not that book. Instead it is hastily written and poorly considered, offering an inaccurate rehashing of history, no new arguments and a failure to engage with current debates.
A large section of the book summarises convenient arguments from the contentious debate over the origins of the Muslim community in Rakhine State and the Rohingya ethnic label, despite recognising that the discussion is peripheral. There are numerous factual errors throughout not just this section but the whole book, such as the claim that most rulers of the Arakanese Mrauk U dynasty were Muslim (p. 24). There are other claims which would be significant if any evidence was provided. Rather, unreferenced passages assert that the 1784 Burmese invasion of Arakan was ‘in part as there were so many Muslims in Arakan’ (p. 65); and that the British never used the term ‘Rohingya’ in their records because the administration was in the habit of categorising the population by religion, not ethnicity (p. 31) — the latter simply an untenable statement. Errors such as these are surprising, given the author’s extensive academic qualifications.
There is little discussion of genocide before the reader arrives at the chapter devoted to the topic. Here, we find that the book is not actually arguing that there is genocide underway, but that the Rohingya are ‘on the brink of genocide’ (p. 99).
While invoking the term genocide is sure to attract interest, the discussion is lacking in depth. The 2015 Yale Law School report noted, significantly, that it was difficult to establish intent for genocide on the part of the Myanmar state. However, this book does not engage with this report or the question of intent, despite it being crucial to any allegation of genocide. Instead, outcome appears to be equated with intent. The overwhelming focus on the crime of genocide could perhaps have been substituted with a discussion of other crimes against humanity in relation to the Rohingya, as noted by the UN and others.
One of the most striking flaws of the book is its failure to consider Rakhine perspectives. This is reflected not only in the considerable confusion and misinformation about contemporary Rakhine political parties (p. 121). The author appears to have spent very little time in either Rakhine State or Yangon, and not to have consulted the Rakhine communities who have long lived alongside the Rohingya. In a chapter devoted to solutions there is little mention of the Rakhine, despite the fact that any resolution must include both communities. Instead, solutions offered refer primarily to international pressure, reflecting the publication’s target audience.
In this respect, the book makes an important point about the failure of the international community to address this issue. Western governments’ vision of what is occurring in Myanmar has been blurred by their ‘indulgence’ of Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, the book argues (p. 133). There is a reluctance to pressure her government, which was hailed in the US as a foreign policy success of the Obama administration. Ibrahim pushes back both against the argument that Aung San Suu Kyi is doing her best as well as claims that the plight of the Rohingya is a hiccup to be expected during a difficult transition from military rule to democracy. The book rightly notes that such a perspective flies in the face of evidence that Aung San Suu Kyi has proved herself unwilling to show leadership and to prioritise the Rohingya issue — and that ultimately she must hold responsibility.
Therefore, the book argues, international pressure is going to be crucial for the Rohingya. We are told via a ‘Media Pack’ on Ibrahim’s website that he has an address book to rival a Prime Minister’s. If the book serves to bring attention to this desperate situation, then it may redeem itself somewhat.
James T Davies (pic above) is a PhD candidate researching Myanmar at UNSW Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy. He should write a book on the Rohingyas since he is very critical of Azeem’s attempt to expose the plight of the people of the Rakhine State.–Din Merican
Cambodian Global Dialogue–ASEAN@50: The Challenge Post 50
Featuring H.E. Dr. Sok Siphana, Advisor to The Royal Government of The Kingdom of Cambodia, Dean Amb. Keo Chea, Techo Sen School of Government and International Relations, and Prof. Dr. Din Merican, Special Assistant to The President, The University of Cambodia.– Courtesy of SEATV, Cambodia
“As an economic power, ASEAN is small by international standards. Given the level of development and technological base, ASEAN is unlikely to make a big impact on the global economy.” Do you agree with Professor Heng’s observation)?
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was founded in 1967. Its 50th anniversary this year is a good time to take stock and to look ahead. ASEAN was established with the goal of preserving long-term peace in region at a time when the First Indochina War was raging, even though its explicitly stated goals were economic growth, social progress, and cultural development. One of its guiding principles is to abide strictly by the modern international system of sovereign states where countries do not interfere in each other’s internal affairs. ASEAN’s leaders have chosen to make decisions by consensus, and to avoid airing their differences in the public.
ASEAN has scored significant success as an economic community, due largely to the activities of global production networks in the region. In the assessment of a senior Chinese official speaking at a workshop in 2009, ASEAN is the healthiest and most integrated regional organization in Asia and it should be the center and platform to promote Asia’s economic integration.
However, one cannot ignore the failure of ASEAN to resolve significant intra-ASEAN problems such as the Thai-Cambodian border dispute, the annual haze originating from Indonesia, and the blatant violation of human rights in Myanmar. Such problems cannot be resolved within ASEAN because of the strict non-interference policy in each other’s internal affairs. But conditions in the international arena today are different from when ASEAN was formed half a century ago. Environmental pollution, climate change, epidemics, terrorism, and transnational crime cannot be solved without close international cooperation. In the event of large scale violations of human rights, sovereignty cannot be used as a cover for the state to fan off interference by the international community. With the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, the concept of state sovereignty in the past few decades has acquired subtle but important new interpretations. ASEAN’s strict insistence on non-interference is out of sync with prevailing international norms.
Before the 1997 Asian financial crisis, global capital had focused on gaining market access and investment in Southeast Asia. In the wake of the crisis, it began to be disenchanted with the region’s failure to respond effectively to the crisis. Meanwhile, critical examination of the financial meltdown revealed some serious flaws among the political leadership in most ASEAN member states. This period also saw the rise of China and India as new economic powers next door. Between them, these events prompted soul-searching within ASEAN.
Driven by internal and more so by external developments, ASEAN has strived to deepen and widen its integration and has set its sights on becoming a community of nations. To do so, it has to look beyond the geopolitical and economic dimensions, and widen its scope to include the social and cultural dimensions. Though some progress has been made in this direction, especially in their agreement to the terms of the ASEAN Charter, it remains to be seen whether the member states will be able to live up to the ideals as enshrined in this document. Even if they do so, they need to go further than this document in order to be in tune with prevailing international norms as adopted by the United Nations.
Unity in Diversity
One of ASEAN’s achievements has been its ability to group together ten member states with different political systems, population sizes, geographical sizes, languages, religions, historical backgrounds, and stages of economic development. It should come as no surprise that the ASEAN Charter has adopted as its principle the concept of “unity in diversity.”
Just like unity in diversity, the concept of social justice is found in many ASEAN documents. For example, the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint of 2009 claims that “ASEAN is committed to promoting social justice and mainstreaming people’s rights into its policies and all spheres of life, including the rights and welfare of disadvantaged, vulnerable and marginalized groups such as women, children, the elderly, persons with disabilities and migrant workers.” The reality in the ASEAN countries however shows clearly that there is a wide mismatch between such lofty statements and what the people experience.
A close reading of the ASEAN Charter will reveal that it has some lofty and high sounding concepts. For example, ASEAN and its Member States shall act in accordance with, among others, the principle of “adherence to the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy and constitutional government.” This sounds hollow when its member states undermine the independence of their judiciaries, allow corruption to run wild, pay scant attention to protect their environment, indulge in gerrymandering, and harass their political opposition.
Same Journey but at Different Speeds
ASEAN may be seen as a fine example of unity in diversity. But to strive towards the goal of a community of nations, they must live up to the goals and aspirations as written in their own official declarations. One way to do so is to emulate the best among them in a given area. For example, Indonesia has made significant progress in democratic transformations, and can fairly be said to be the most democratic of the ten. While Indonesia should continue to make progress, the other nine should be inspired by the success of Indonesia and follow its example. Similarly, Singapore’s achievement in economic development and clean government should spur the other nine to do the same.
The common struggles of the ASEAN peoples across the region will be a firm foundation for the growth of ASEAN solidarity, shared consciousness, sense of common interests, and an ASEAN identity.
It is of special importance that Indonesia can carry out democratic reforms, and Singapore can practice clean government. It means that these institutions and practices are not alien to Southeast Asia or in a wider context to the non-Western world.
Unity in diversity here may take on additional meanings: united in pursuing the goals of social justice, economic prosperity, clean government, human rights, democracy, etc. but with different member nations proceeding at different speeds. Those moving ahead should nudge and help those trailing behind.
Promoting Knowledge at the People-to-People Level
According to the Charter, community building is to be intensified through enhanced regional cooperation and integration via the means of the security community, economic community, and socio-cultural community. The first two have enjoyed the lion’s share of official attention. The third deserves to be given its due attention.
A recent study reveals that the general public in cities in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore perceive the formation of the ASEAN Community as beneficial, but they see the formation as elitist and state-centric as it did not involve the people. This is a disturbing finding. City residents are generally more well-informed and involved in the political life of their countries. If they do not feel so involved in the formation of the ASEAN Community, one can imagine how low the sense of involvement can be in the rural areas. Much more must be done therefore to create and nurture a sense of participation by the citizens.
There is a useful role to be played by ASEAN’s professional bodies, like the ASEAN Associations of Lawyers, Engineers, Doctors, Accountants, Architects, Journalists, Writers, Teachers, etc. Through their regular contacts and sharing, we have new channels for evolving ASEAN styles of landscaping, architecture, paintings, music, and so on. The Association of Doctors could also be a good forum for them to develop a teaching program on traditional medicine based on research and as practiced by their ancestors.
In additional to the above are regular exchanges of cultural troupes. Their works should be featured on national television channels, and tickets should be subsidized by sponsors. For those more inclined to intellectual discussions, their interests can be served by local think tanks hosting talks and seminars by public intellectuals and thinkers on topics concerning the broader and long-term future of the region.
From its humble beginning, ASEAN has grown into a regional body that is courted by major world powers. Given the different historical backgrounds, cultures, political systems, and their lack of complementary economic activities, its endurance and success might come as a surprise. Credit must be given to its political leaders for being able to respond well to the emerging challenges and opportunities.
The success of ASEAN can also be seen as a clever response to the challenges posed by globalization. This is clearly seen in how the Asian financial crisis prompted ASEAN to speed up and deepen its integration. The same was again seen in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. The latest is how global production networks have integrated the ASEAN economies with that of China, forming the basis for the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement.
As an economic power, ASEAN is small by international standards. Given the level of development and technological base, ASEAN is unlikely to make a big impact on the global economy.
Perhaps the most important area which ASEAN can contribute to the world is to bring about the ASEAN Community with cultures and historical backgrounds different from those of the European Union. The new global conditions present Southeast Asia with opportunities and challenges. The greatest opportunities are the big avenues for economic growth in the region, and long-lasting peace. Territorial contestation leading to war is for most countries a thing of the past. Some challenges are persistent — nationalism, ethno-religious parochialism, discrimination against women, massive natural disasters, diseases, and poverty. Some challenges are new — climate change, environmental degradation, depleting natural resources, transnational crime, and terrorism. The challenges call for political, religious, opinion, and business leaders to re-orientate their courses of action toward the greater common good of the people in the region.
What is more crucial and effective is for the citizens of ASEAN countries to render support to each other in their struggle to realize the ideals of the ASEAN Charter such as environmental protection, rights of migrant workers, human rights, and social justice. It would be difficult for the governments to suppress these struggles because these are struggles inspired by a document crafted and endorsed by the government leaders themselves. The common struggles of the ASEAN peoples across the region will be a firm foundation for the growth of ASEAN solidarity, shared consciousness, sense of common interests, and an ASEAN identity.
Like other historical processes, the journey to the formation of the ASEAN Community will take time and will not be easy. There is still a wide gap between the deeds and words of the government leaders of ASEAN. If and when the realities on the ground are in line with the lofty proclamations of the ASEAN documents, then and only then will the ASEAN Community be no longer a dream but a reality. It will be an ASEAN with a new identity, for it will represent a new moral and political order, able to articulate global issues in international forums with moral authority and coherence.
ASEAN leaders should begin to give stronger leadership and get into some details. They cannot be making platitudinous statements again and again. They cannot continue to spend time over prepared drafts which are becoming like an old record. They cannot be rushing from one meeting to another on a tight schedule prepared by the officials which gives them little time for true contemplation. They cannot be rushing home as soon as the ceremonies are over – and only start dealing with the regional issues at the next summit. ASEAN leaders must give ASEAN quality time.–Munir Majid
THE Chairman’s statement at the end of the 30th ASEAN Summit in Manila was at its clearest on concern over rising tension in the Korean Peninsula. With respect to other parts of the long statement, the world was treated to the usual prevarication on the South China Sea issue and sanguine satisfaction with progress in the ASEAN community pillars as well as its other integration projects.
ASEAN leaders, without qualification, identified North Korea’s belligerence and roguish behaviour as having caused the threat to peace, even if they called for restraint to preserve it.
The fact that China has a 1961 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance with North Korea, which technically obliges Beijing to come to Pyongyang’s defence in the event of an attack on North Korean territory, did not deter ASEAN from insinuating Kim Jong-Un has been asking for it with his comic and infantile antics.
Of course, China is nowadays not as close to North Korea as “lip and teeth”, which was how Mao Zedong put it in 1961, but still…
Thus it was that the Chair of ASEAN for this year, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte had this telephone conversation with United States President Donald Trump when he expressed the regional grouping’s concern as well as hope for restraint in the Korean Peninsula, and got invited to meet his opposite number – some would say his political double – in Washington.
The fact that Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha also was invited in a separate call to come to Washington gives the impression that these invitations are for ASEAN countries with whom the US has formal defence arrangements.
According to the Philippines media, Duterte will not be going. But if he does, it is to be hoped he will carry the ASEAN card with him as well.
And if Duterte brought his common law wife along, there is no doubt it would sit well with Trump. Both revel in the unconventional.
Certainly Duterte has had no cause to call Trump the “son of a whore” just as Trump does not find particular offence in Duterte’s anti-drug warfare in the Philippines.
If they came to discuss the South China Sea issue, however, it would be interesting to see who would outdo the other in double-talk.
For ASEAN there would be great interest in whether the South China Sea would be discussed and what kind of representation Duterte would make. He could only make a representation on behalf of the Philippines, if he could make clear what exactly is Manila’s position.
Duterte’s South China Sea opacity – or more accurately obfuscation – might actually endear him to Trump who is a master of the art. So it could be expected there would be some good coming out of a meeting between the two Presidents, particularly for Duterte and the Philippines.
While Trump has been sitting in Washington like some kind of emperor of a Middle Kingdom with all these foreign leaders coming to pay homage, the solution to the South China Sea disputes and China’s claims, however, lies in Beijing.
So in the Chairman’s statement after the 30th ASEAN Summit in Manila, there was a safe distance between paragraph 7, where there was reference to full respect for legal and diplomatic processes in the settlement of disputes, and the section on the South China Sea (paragraphs 120 to 121) where there was absolutely no such reference, of course.
There was not a squeak on the ruling devastating to China by the Law of the Sea Arbitration Tribunal last July.
Instead, the leaders trotted out the usual asinine hope for a Code of Conduct by the middle of the year which has been long overdue since the Declaration of Conduct of 2002. And even tried to celebrate the imminence of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) which has been in existence in many places.
It is as if, right on cue, they have no idea how to move forward. ASEAN leaders must stop this charade. If they do not want to cross China – a perfectly understandable predisposition – they should at least come up with ideas on how to found a long-term cooperative solution. Why has ASEAN always got to wait on China?
There are many ideas out there on how to convert the South China Sea from an area of contention to a zone of cooperation. One involves turning the Spratlys into an International Marine Peace Park.
More than the undoubted oil reserves, the South China Sea is a huge source of fish for the entire region. About two billion people depend on it for their protein, and a not inconsiderable number for their livelihood. Over 12% of total world annual fish catch comes from the South China Sea (valued at US$21.8bil).
With all their talk about a people-centric ASEAN, should not the leaders get their officials and experts to look into making a proposal which would turn the South China Sea into a zone of cooperation to sustain the harvest of fish? Even Israel and Jordan could do so – under the 1994 peace agreement which created the Red Sea Marine Peace Park in the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea.
In a new e-book, Justice Antonio T. Carpio of the Philippines notes: “The eggs and larvae that spawn in the Spratlys are carried by currents to the coasts of China, Vietnam, Luzon, Palawan, Malaysia, Brunei, Natuna Islands as well as the Sulu Sea. The Spratlys are the breeding ground for fish in the South China Sea.”
ASEAN leaders should begin to give stronger leadership and get into some details. They cannot be making platitudinous statements again and again. They cannot continue to spend time over prepared drafts which are becoming like an old record. They cannot be rushing from one meeting to another on a tight schedule prepared by the officials which gives them little time for true contemplation. They cannot be rushing home as soon as the ceremonies are over – and only start dealing with the regional issues at the next summit. ASEAN leaders must give ASEAN quality time.
Apart from clear concern over the tension in the Korean Peninsula, there was again too much self-satisfaction in the chairman’s statement of the 30th ASEAN Summit. On strengthening the secretariat and ASEAN organs, for instance, the leaders were happy with the progress made by the High Level Task Force. But exactly what progress and in which direction? They did not say.
On the study to update the ASEAN Charter, they agreeably noted the direction from Ministers “for a precise and cautious approach taking into account the views and positions of all Member States.” Does this mean no change in the ASEAN Charter for the next five years? Ten years?
Even on the tension in the Korean Peninsula, they did not make any specific suggestion on what could be done. Another attempt to revive the six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear programme that first started in 2003? Play tough and kick North Korea out of the 27-member ASEAN Regional Forum which North Korea had joined in 2000?
With so many matters covered in such general terms, the Chairman’s statement at the end of ASEAN Summits is becoming more and more superficial. ASEAN leaders must give clear leads with some details on one or more of the issues to show they are on top of them and wish to see a meaningful end result.
Easternization: Asia’s Rise’s Rise and America’s Decline from Obama to Beyond Trump
by Gideon Rachman
Other Press, 307 pp., $25.95
Gideon Rachman’s Easternization, his new survey of a transformed Asia, admirably does what so little writing on foreign affairs attempts. It treats with equal facility economics, geopolitics, security, enough history for needed background, official thinking, and public attitudes. Rachman, Chief Foreign Affairs columnist for the Financial Times, has an eye for the telling statistic and for the memorable detail that makes it stick. He packs an enormous amount of information into a short book and opens windows of understanding for non-experts onto this immensely important three fifths of humanity. And while not directly concerned with the new American administration, the story he tells shows well why Donald Trump’s foreign policies could end so badly for the United States and for the world.
But Rachman does not, in the end, make a convincing case for the book’s thesis—embodied in its one-word title. The central issue, he writes, is “how the rise in Asian economic power is changing world politics.” His momentous answer is that “the West’s centuries-long domination of world affairs,” stretching back to 1500, “is now coming to a close.” Without doubt, Asia’s economic ascent has been extraordinary, but Westernization—the spread of the West’s influence and values—has rested on much more than its wealth and the military power derived from it. Those other elements—including open governments, readiness to build institutions, and contributions to others’ security and growth—are weak or absent in Asia today. Easternization is neither here nor coming soon.
Asia is the world’s largest continent and home to 4.4 billion people. But its story is disproportionately about China’s economic growth. Beijing’s official statistics are notoriously unreliable, but by most reckonings, China became the world’s largest economy (measured by purchasing power parity, PPP) in 2014. What isn’t so well known is how astonishingly fast the end came for the 140-year reign of the American economy as the world’s largest. According to numbers Rachman cites, China was just 12 percent of the size of the US economy in 2000 and only half as big as late as 2011. Such meteoric growth has been enough to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty, finance the US deficit, and still allow China to increase its military spending at double-digit rates every year for two decades.
In matters of national security the momentum of Chinese growth has meant, for example, that while Japan’s military spending was triple China’s in 2000, it was only half as large by 2015. A rapidly expanding military has underwritten Beijing’s surging confidence in its own strength vis-à-vis both its neighbors and the US, and increasingly aggressive behavior in the South and East China Seas, where it has claimed islands, rocks, and waters also claimed by Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines. It has built artificial islands and constructed runways and other dual-use facilities on them. It has deployed planes and ships to assert its rights and challenged others’ rights to fishing areas, oil resources, and even freedom of navigation in areas of open ocean. It has vehemently rejected a strong ruling against its claims by a tribunal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Though Chinese leaders have not specified exactly what waters they claim and insist that China wants a peaceful, negotiated solution to these disputes, it is easy to see their actions in a very different light. Beijing has notably failed to clarify its goal: whether to assert its newfound strength, to test others’ resolve, to extend its regional sway, or to claim sovereignty over everything within the so-called nine-dash line (a demarcation of China’s claims to the South China Sea that dates back to 1947) and attempt to push the US out of the western Pacific—an outcome Washington will not accept. In the atmosphere of profound strategic mistrust that defines US–China relations, the potential for tragic miscalculation by both sides is obvious.
This is not the only or even the most immediate security risk in the region. Taiwan’s official status as part of mainland China—known as the One China policy—is nonnegotiable for Beijing. Trump’s biggest blunder to date was to suggest that he might no longer accept that policy, which has kept the peace among the US, Taiwan, and China for four decades while allowing Taiwan to flourish. Beijing instantly—and entirely predictably—froze all communication with the US, and Washington was forced to back down.
Assuming that the Trump administration has permanently learned this lesson, the far more serious threat is North Korea’s advancing nuclear capability (it could soon have enough nuclear fuel for one hundred warheads) and its progress toward nuclear-armed ICBMs that could reach the US. Though it is formally China’s ally and largely dependent on it, Pyongyang routinely ignores Beijing. In a rare misjudgment, Rachman devotes only a few short paragraphs to what may well be the first major crisis the new US administration confronts, and a source of acute contention between it and China.
Rachman links China’s newly aggressive policies to President Xi Jinping, noting that the month after he took office “Chinese military aircraft entered Japanese-controlled airspace for the first time since 1958,” and that in his first eighteen months Xi “paid more official visits to the People’s Liberation Army than his predecessor had done in a decade.” Xi has paid equal attention to building public support for his newly assertive policies, bolstering decades of Communist Party propaganda that China, at long last, is claiming its rightful place as a world power after more than a century of foreign humiliation.
This “aggrieved nationalism” coexists with an equally strong feeling of insecurity within the Chinese government—a dangerous mixture. The Communist Party’s legitimacy no longer rests on ideology but on economic growth, which is slowing. The Party is convinced that the West fomented the string of so-called color revolutions demanding democratic governance that took place during the 2000s—from Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan to Lebanon and Iran. It fears and expects similar subversion in China. Outrage at elite corruption was a common feature of these movements, and corruption is rampant in China. So Xi has launched a vigorous campaign against it—conveniently jailing many of his political opponents. The difficulty, as Rachman points out, is that “arresting more than one hundred thousand people…risks creating political instability by another route.”
China may appear an economic and military powerhouse but it is confronting critical challenges at home. Environmental pollution—especially of the air—is not only hugely unpopular and economically costly; it is a killer, responsible for the deaths of a staggering million to a million and a half Chinese annually. China also faces a looming demographic crisis with its aging population, shrinking workforce, and huge number of people who will retire with only a single child and a drastically inadequate social safety net to support them. The cost of pensions and health care will balloon. Anticipating the coming cliff, Beijing changed its one-child policy to a two-child policy in late 2015, producing a small increase in births but not yet what is hoped for. Stalled economic reform also belongs on this list of weaknesses, as does widening inequality and continuing deep poverty in rural areas.
Not surprisingly, China’s recent belligerence has intensified long-standing fears among its neighbors. Many of these fraught relationships stretch very far back. Rachman recounts the Vietnamese joke that the shape of its coastline reflects a spine bent under the weight of China, with which it has fought seventeen wars. In Southeast Asia, too, countries fear China, look to the US for support, and hope that they will not be forced to choose between them. In China, the memory of Japan’s brutal World War II occupation remains fresh, while Japan fears that China’s new militarism may be a repeat of its own mistakes of that period. And India, Asia’s other superstate—and one of China’s four nuclear-armed neighbors—sits across the longest disputed border in the world.
India’s Act East Policy
India is growing faster than China and may one day surpass it as the world’s largest economy, but today it is far behind. Indeed, the country faces a list of challenges so long that one is forced to conclude that it is little short of a miracle that a unified, democratic state exists at all. But in Narendra Modi, India now has dynamic leadership for the first time in many years. Led by the Hindu nationalist BJP party, the Modi government has come under criticism for its restrictions on civil liberties and its failure to protect religious minorities. But with his recent landslide win in state elections, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, Modi may be consolidating enough political strength to force through long-needed reforms in New Delhi.
Though Rachman takes India’s growth as more evidence for Easternization, culturally and politically India is facing west. In contrast to its wary and sometimes actively contested relationship with China, India’s relations with the US have been growing steadily closer since the George W. Bush years. Russia is no longer India’s major arms supplier; the US is. And the stunning success of Indian immigrants in the US, from Silicon Valley to Wall Street to academia, is a powerful draw for others to follow.
Russia, too, is turning east, Rachman argues. Its doing so is “part of the same phenomenon” as China’s increasing assertiveness, namely relative Western economic and political decline. Evidence includes joint Russian–Chinese military exercises, shared pressure against color revolutions, and, in 2014, a loudly trumpeted natural gas deal (though the latter has yet to be implemented). In reality, Moscow’s latest turn toward China happened because it could not get what it wanted—respect as a great power and equality in NATO—from the West. Then Russia’s actions in Crimea and Ukraine triggered tough sanctions that the US and its allies show no sign of lifting. Thus, the turn is at least as much a push from the West as it is a pull toward the East.
Asia is the World’s Economic Center
With India, China, and Japan accounting for three of the world’s four largest economies (as measured by PPP), and rapid growth in two of them, Asia is becoming the world’s economic center, though today the US and the EU together remain substantially larger. Arms purchases and greatly increased military strength have followed Asia’s growth. China, in particular, is closing the gap, though the US retains a huge advantage. When alliances are added to the picture—as they should be—the picture becomes much more lopsided and more complicated since Japan and South Korea and several other Asian states, together with the twenty-eight members of NATO, number among America’s vast global alliance network. China’s main allies, Pakistan and North Korea, may be a net burden.
But, as Rachman shows, the West’s ability to impose order on the world is not what it once was. Among the many reasons is its relative decline in military power, the advent of asymmetrical warfare, decades of under-spending on defense by European powers, and the salutary disappearance of the artificial order imposed first by colonial empires and later by the cold war. America’s European allies have placed such a strong priority on social spending over defense spending that in many cases their individual military capabilities have become negligible. Rachman notes that when Britain’s cuts are completed next year, its army would fit comfortably in London’s Wembley Stadium with 16,000 seats to spare. Even collectively, the EU has been content to largely offload its strategic responsibilities to the US.
For its part, the US is still fighting the longest and most expensive wars in its history in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Trump administration may well escalate US military operations in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, but special operations and even missile strikes can only achieve so much. The American public has little appetite for any new commitment of ground troops, especially in the Middle East. Taken together, these trends do create an unsettling new environment in which the Western powers are less in charge. But this does not translate into a greater influence for Asian nations.
More telling, though, is that throughout history, the dominance of the West has been driven as much by values, ideas, and political attraction as by economic and military power. The West has stood for open, usually democratic and secular polities and a shared culture that places a high value on individual freedoms. Western nations have preferred open trade to mercantilism. They have evolved a uniquely successful capitalist economic system and been devoted to the rule of law. They have prioritized education and technological innovation. And in the decades since World War II, Western nations have invested enormous effort and money into building a liberal, rules-based world order and a panoply of international institutions whose work benefits all countries. In short, Westernization has spread as much through the positive attraction of its model as through overt or implicit coercion.
What does Asia-based Easternization look like in this light? The first thing to be said is that Asia is not remotely cohesive. There is no “East” comparable to “the West.” Though the region is integrating economically, it is riven by active conflicts, bitter historical memories, and deep cultural divisions. Economic and political systems vary widely. Adherence to the rule of law is extremely uneven. One result is the rampant flight of capital—to the West. Wealthy Russians and Chinese flock to put their money in US securities or real estate in London or Miami. Education lags behind the West. Not a single Asian university ranks in the globe’s top tier.
China is becoming much more active in international governance and many Asian countries have staffed United Nations peacekeeping missions. But by and large Asians have been the beneficiaries rather than the creators of the regimes, agreements, and institutions conceived and built by the West, whether to manage global finance, underwrite economic development, control nuclear proliferation, govern the Internet, slow climate change, detect epidemics, preserve shared natural resources, manage air travel, and so on. And except for the city-states of Singapore and Hong Kong, there is no Asian nation whose governance stands as a model others seek to emulate.
Rachman sees Asian countries choosing to “reassert their own histories and heritages, and scrape away some of the accumulations of Westernization.” Others see the opposite. Kishore Mahbubani, an influential former Singaporean diplomat, has been writing about the dawn of Asia and the “sunset” of the West for two decades, urging the West to learn to share power gracefully. In his book The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East (2008), he argues that the fast-growing Asian economies owe their success to having finally adopted the “pillars of Western wisdom,” namely open polities, free markets, and the rule of law. (This was easier to say about China nine years ago than it would be today.)
Powered, above all, by China’s economic dynamism, Asia is stronger than it has ever been. At the same time, the United States and much of Europe are struggling with deep challenges to their democracies. The EU faces what may be existential threats from Brexit, from populist, right-wing parties, and from member states in Eastern Europe that have turned away from democracy. NATO is in disrepair. The US is more divided now than it has been at any point in the past century, with no discernible path out of what appears to be a political dead end. Yet the West still provides the robust institutional infrastructure that undergirds the global economy. And as it has for decades, the United States still provides global leadership and the security that has enabled Asia to achieve its tremendous growth.
Rachman writes that China’s long-term goal is “overturning America’s global role.” If he means that Beijing sees itself as a strategic competitor and wants to replace the US as world leader, he has gone too far. China would like to see a weaker US where US policies threaten its interests, especially in its neighborhood, but it has shown no desire to possess America’s global preeminence. China is a challenge to the United States on several fronts; not an enemy. However, the relationship is riven with tensions that could escalate into open conflict. Neither side understands or trusts the other. Avoiding these thorns will depend on steady leaders and skilled diplomacy in reading each other’s behavior. Improvisation or short-sighted deals made for a domestic audience are likely to end badly. History also warns that success will not be easy. Most often, in the past, rising new powers have clashed with reigning ones. The US–China relationship will remain the most consequential in the world for decades to come.
So far President Trump has sent decidedly mixed signals about how he intends to deal with China. He attacked China throughout the presidential campaign, promising to designate it as a currency manipulator on his first day in office and to slap on punishing tariffs—a step that would have ignited a trade war. He stumbled into a needless hole by suggesting a US reversal on the status of Taiwan. He appointed several top officials known for their fierce anti-China views, but also a treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, with different ideas. While Trump had called the Chinese “grand champions” of currency manipulation, Mnuchin promised a review based on established criteria that will show that China has not, in recent years, been devaluing its currency. Notwithstanding an early summit with Japan’s prime minister, the president’s frequent derogatory remarks about allies and alliances left Asians fearful and guessing about American intentions.
And then, at his summit with President Xi in early April, Trump reversed himself in tone and substance from all he had said before. There was no mention of unfair trade, of China “raping” the US economy or failing to do enough about North Korea. The two presidents stressed their personal relationship and the basis they had laid for future progress in resolving issues between the two countries. It could not have been a more conventional preliminary meeting, or more distant from what candidate and even President Trump had earlier promised. While presumably relieved by this, Xi surely did not appreciate being taken by surprise and completely overshadowed by a US missile strike on Syria in the middle of the meeting. And who can know whether this welcome traditional approach—new to this administration—will last when the governments actually tackle the differences between them?
Several of the administration’s actions, however, have been unequivocal and unequivocally harmful. The president followed through on his campaign promise to take the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP would have made a relatively small economic difference—most of its members already have low trade barriers—but it was geopolitically important. The partnership, which did not include China, was a means of drawing America’s Asian allies closer together and of signaling US resolve and permanent engagement in Asia. China wasted no time in taking advantage of the diplomatic gift it was handed with the TPP’s demise. At January’s global forum in Davos, President Xi appeared as the spokesman for globalization and open trade. A few weeks later, China sent high-level officials to a meeting of the eleven remaining TPP members to discuss forming a new regional trade regime in which it, and not the US, would be a member.
The administration’s reversal of measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions created a similar opportunity for China. Whether or not the President decides to formally renounce the Paris climate accord, these steps will make it unlikely that the US will be able to meet its commitments under the agreement, moving the US from leader to outlier. Here, too, China immediately acted to reassert its own commitments and, by default, international leadership.
The President’s policy choices, as revealed in the budget he submitted to Congress in mid-March, promise more of the same. Draconian cuts to the State Department, to foreign aid, to most international institutions, and to the international programs of most domestic agencies suggest that Trump holds a dangerously one-dimensional view of what constitutes US security.
Both Democrats and Republicans have underinvested in diplomacy relative to the military for decades, but both have generally recognized the immense value of the nation’s nonmilitary assets to securing the whole gamut of its interests. As General James Mattis, then the head of the US Central Command and now Trump’s defense secretary, famously put it in shorthand to a congressional panel in 2013, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”
Never before has a President suggested handing over most of the currency of US global leadership to others, free of charge. China will not hesitate to seize every opportunity offered. A much diminished and less influential America, and consequently a much less secure Asia, would be the result.