Muddy Boots & Smart Suits is a sprawling volume, containing everything from a plea for the practice turn in international relations theory to an explanation of cross-validation in predictive quantitative modeling to reflections on internet access in rural Myanmar. It is also, paraphrasing the introductory chapter by Michael Wesley, an attempt at reflection on Asia-Pacific studies by researchers with current or past links to the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University. Reading this volume as a big fan of (and occasional visitor to) the ANU, I had the sense that this volume reflects not just a larger conversation that has been happening for decades now between ‘area studies’ and ‘the disciplines’, but also something more special to the ANU.
The book succeeds in showcasing the breadth and diversity of scholarship on Asia and the Pacific within that community. Looking across the volume as a whole, some of the more useful contributions (to the mind of this reader) are those that touch on the policy process, and the ANU’s position as a national university serving Australia itself. There are also some interesting discussions of Australia’s position in the Asia-Pacific region, viewing the country as not just an outside observer but as itself a case.
Readers curious about particular topics or questions will also find much to learn in the individual chapters, which showcase scholars’ areas of expertise in an engaging and sometimes speculative manner. I suspect that this volume’s best use will be as a series of chapters, read individually by students and specialists who find the chapter topics engaging and wish to know more.
This leads me to my main criticism. Taken as a whole, the volume’s weakness is how disjointed the individual contributions are. This may have been inevitable given the volume’s charge, but there are missed opportunities for interesting and productive engagement across chapters that may have led to some more substantial conclusions. Here is one example: the chapter on strategic cultures by Peter J. Dean and Greg Raymond summarises various disagreements between first and third generation schools of strategic culture. Simplifying mightily, one axis in this debate is between whether behavior is just a dependent variable or is both a dependent and an independent variable. It would have been revealing to put this into conversation with Paul Kenny’s chapter on design-based inference. If the first generation strategic culture theorists are right, what does this mean for a research strategy that requires a strict conceptual separation between causal variables and their effects? Is this tension irresolvable? If so, what’s next?
Another tension is between chapters that express a preference for microlevel details versus those interested in broad national trajectories. Evi Fitriani studies regional alignments in Asia with a conceptual focus on state-level processes. Nick Bisley’s chapter on power also operates at the state level. Contrast this with Cecelia Jacob’s preference for local-level studies of conflict and local-level understandings of international norms, each of which requires a focus on the individual or subnational community level. Should scholars following in Jacob’s tradition find Fitriani and Bisley’s analyses compelling, and vice versa? One argument—which I find overly simplistic—is that this is just a depth/breadth tradeoff. I suspect that the issues are more substantial, and would have enjoyed reading the authors grapple explicitly with them, in direct conversation with one another.
More narrowly, but importantly for the volume’s broader reach, I disagree with two characterisations of Asia Pacific studies in Wesley’s introductory chapter, which for better or for worse frames the entire volume. First, I take issue with the claim that Asia Pacific studies has been ‘remarkably non self-reflective’. It is impossible to list all of the volumes, workshops, seminars, and conference panels devoted to ‘rethinking’ or ‘reimagining’ or ‘refocusing’ the unwieldy body of intellectual inquiry captured under the term ‘Asian and Pacific Studies’, not just in Australia but in North America, Europe, and in Asia itself. There are at least four common themes that can be found throughout the subgenre of self-reflection: (1) the constructedness and artificiality of ‘Asia and the Pacific’; (2) discipline versus area studies; (3) positionality, hegemony, and Orientalism; (4) local versus global and sub-, cross-, trans-, and international studies.
The other disagreement I have is that ‘few methodological or conceptual debates have originated from within the study of Asian and Pacific societies’. The exceptions are just subaltern studies and the rise of great powers. How narrow a view of the contributions of Asianists this is! Just a glance at my bookshelf reveals so many additions. Margaret Mead on Samoa. Benedict Anderson on nationalism. Clifford Geertz on the Balinese cockfight. James Scott on the resistance and the state. Aihwa Ong and Michael Peletz on gender and identity. Chalmers Johnson on the developmental state in Japan. I could certainly go on—that list just reflects my idiosyncratic tastes and interests. These are major contributions by regional experts working on regional issues that have shaped entire disciplinary conversations, each with methodological implications that has occupied a generation of graduate seminars around the world.
The more general observation that emerges from this discussion has implications beyond Muddy Boots & Smart Suits as a volume. Research on Asia is important: the study of Asia and the Pacific has proven to be remarkably generative, providing major concepts and debates in the social sciences and humanities. Muddy Boots & Smart Suits reminds us of the value of self-reflection, and especially of the individual researchers, political incentives, and institutional support required to make these contributions.
Trying to appease Saudi Arabia and the Muslim World and isolate Iran
Six days after the 9/11 attacks, in 2001, President George W. Bush went to the Islamic Center in Washington to dampen fears of a clash of civilizations between the Islamic world and the West. “The face of terror is not the true face of Islam,” he said. “Islam is peace.” Three days later, at a joint session of Congress, Bush defined the challenge from Al Qaeda in political rather than religious or cultural terms. “This is the fight of all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom,” he told Congress. “This will not be an age of terror. This will be an age of liberty here and across the world.” A central theme of Bush’s Presidency was fostering democracy through nation-building.
President Barack Obama’s main speech to the Islamic world, in 2009, called for a “new beginning” between Muslim and Western nations, noting “civilization’s debt to Islam.” Declaring to Cairo University students that “we also know that military power alone is not going to solve the problems,” he, too, envisioned political and economic solutions to countering extremism.
“All people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose,” Obama said. “Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.” He also outlined plans to spend billions in U.S. aid to build schools and hospitals, roads and businesses, and to help those displaced by conflicts in the Islamic world.
Donald Trump took a starkly different tack during the campaign. “I think Islam hates us,” Trump told Anderson Cooper, on CNN, fourteen months ago. He told both MSNBC and Fox News that he’d be willing to close mosques in the United States. At the Presidential debate last October, in Las Vegas, he was particularly critical of Saudi Arabia. “These are people that push gays off buildings,” he said. “These are people that kill women and treat women horribly, and yet you take their money.” He continued the theme in his first days in office, with an executive order that banned travel from seven countries (later downgraded to six) with predominantly Muslim populations. It was ruled unlawful by U.S. courts, but the Trump Administration is still appealing the decision.
On Sunday(May 21), on his first trip abroad as President, Trump tried to hit the reset button in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam. He heralded Islam as “one of the world’s great faiths,” and his visit as the beginning of “a new chapter” between the United States and the Islamic world. In a palace of dazzling opulence, he spoke to dozens of leaders assembled by the Saudis from the Arab and Muslim world. In turn, the oil-rich kingdom, which is weathering its own political and military turmoil, treated him like royalty, with billboards across the Saudi capital covered with Trump’s face.
Trump does not the know the difference between Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabish and Iran’s Shiaism
Trump’s main message was that Muslims must do more—much more—to fight militants who have proliferated from North Africa to South Asia since 9/11. “The nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them,” he said. Reading slowly off a teleprompter, Trump urged, even demanded, “Drive them out! Drive them out of your places of worship! Drive them out of your communities! Drive them out of your holy land! And drive them out of this earth!”
Some of Trump’s language about Islam was right out of the Bush-Obama playbook. “This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations,” he said. “This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life and decent people, all in the name of religion.” He declared it “a battle between good and evil.”
Trump notably did not use one of his favorite terms—“radical Islamic terrorism.” His national-security adviser, H. R. McMaster, has tried to get the President to avoid using the term, at least in public. During the campaign, Trump railed against Obama for not using it—and even charged that “anyone who cannot name our enemy is not fit to lead this country.” In Riyadh, Trump’s original speech called for him, instead, to talk about “Islamist extremism.” He veered off script, however, and talked about “confronting the crisis of Islamic extremism and the Islamists and Islamic terror of all kinds.” Many Muslims are sensitive to the implication that Islam and extremism are synonymous.
Trump’s strategy differed most strikingly from Bush’s and Obama’s in its largely military approach to extremism. One of the top objectives of his maiden foreign tour is to create a coalition of Arab and Muslim countries to tackle extremism, confront Iran, and foster peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The coalition has been informally dubbed an “Arab NATO“.
First Lady Melania Trump watches as President Donald Trump poses for photographs with leaders at Arab Islamic American Summit, at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
The President seems to have largely abandoned notions of promoting political openings or addressing economic grievances that have fuelled so much of the dissent and militancy, especially among Arab youth. Even oil-rich Saudi Arabia has high youth unemployment, estimated to exceed thirty per cent. The kingdom has produced thousands of jihadis who have joined both ISIS and Al Qaeda.
“We are not here to lecture,” Trump told the Muslim leaders, who were seated on throne-like leather chairs under enormous crystal chandeliers. “We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership—based on shared interests and values—to pursue a better future for us all.”
Trump framed his counterterrorism policy in Let’s-Make-a-Deal terms: Washington will sell weaponry to the Arabs, which will in turn create defense-industry jobs in the United States. In his speech, the President digressed from the main theme to claim that his Administration has created almost a million new jobs—adding that the kingdom’s pledge to invest billions more in the United States would create thousands more new jobs.
As a candidate, Trump repeatedly complained that the United States got very little from its relationship with the kingdom. “Tell Saudi Arabia and others that we want (demand!) free oil for the next ten years or we will not protect their private Boeing 747s. Pay up!” Trump tweeted, in 2014.
That year, he also tweeted, “I just want to know how much is Saudi Arabia and others who we are helping willing to pay for our saving from total extinction. Pay up now!” In 2015, he tweeted that Saudi Arabia “must pay dearly! NO FREEBIES.”
In Riyadh, however, he bragged about the low prices his Administration was offering the Saudis. “We will be sure to help our Saudi friends to get a good deal from our great American defense companies.” His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, reportedly intervened personally with Lockheed to negotiate a better deal for the Saudis.
Nepotism in 1600 Penn. Avenue, Washington DC
In one of his more astonishing comments, the President expressed optimism about the future of the Middle East, despite wars in Libya, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria that have killed hundreds of thousands; the greatest humanitarian and refugee crises since the Second World War; and the return of authoritarian rule—disasters which have dashed the hopes sparked by the Arab Spring.
“The potential of this region has never been greater,” Trump told the Muslim leaders assembled in Riyadh. Maybe it was the brilliant glare of the chandeliers that blinded his vision.
Despite strong official backing by Beijing, Hong Kong’s future Chief Executive, Carrie Lam Yuet-ngor, promised to heal the divisions in society. Yet in the run up to her installation on July 1, it appears increasingly that the healing of divisions is going to be accomplished by silencing one half of that divide. Actions and words in recent days have shown the current Chief Executive CY Leung bent on vengeance, and a central government bent on squeezing the life out of the Two Systems concept.
Quite what Lam feels about these moves is unclear, but they have raised concerns in many traditional pro-government circles as well as among the direct target, the advocates of more democracy and the autonomy promised in the Basic Law and Joint Declaration.
Not content with using legal procedures to have two young elected pro-democracy legislators disbarred from office, the authorities had them arrested for “unlawful assembly” and “attempted forced entry” for trying to attend a Legislative Council meeting. The government then followed this up with the arrest of nine other activists from the pro-democracy faction who took part in a Nov. 6 demonstration against the court decision to ban the two elected legislators. The nine are charged with “unlawful assembly” for taking an unauthorized route during a march to the Liaison Office, Beijing’s power center in Hong Kong.
These charges come in the wake of 18 previous ones against activists, some dating back to the 2014 Umbrella movement, and it is widely believed that more such charges are in the works to cripple the pro-democracy movement and further reduce its numbers in the Legislative Council, thus using loosely framed laws to counter its stunning success in elections last September.
Four other lawmakers face disbarment on the basis of being in conflict with a November 2016 decision by Beijing’s National People’s Congress. If these cases succeed, the ranks of elected legislators would be again thinned, giving the government complete control of a Legislative Council half of whose members are chosen mostly by small, pro-government electorates. Hong Kong’s political system would have no more credibility than that of the military junta in Thailand.
Just possibly, harsh measures by the outgoing and highly unpopular Leung are a deliberate ploy to enable Lam to start her rule with some concessions, such as a general amnesty for those – including policemen – involved in legal actions related to Umbrella and related demonstrations. But that is probably over-optimistic. An autocratic Xi Jinping appears in no mood for compromises with insubordinate Hong Kong residents, of whom there are many.
Hong Kong Skyline Digital Art – Hong Kong Skyline Fine Art Print
Adding further to Hong Kong concerns was a speech by a legal advisor to Beijing’s Liaison Office, Wang Zhenmin, which threatened the end of the domestic autonomy promised under Two Systems if it was perceived to undermine the interests of One Country. Wang suggested that separatist sentiment in Hong Kong has damaged national security and that the territory “needs to actively defend the sovereignty, national security and development interests of the country in accordance with law.”
Wang seems deliberately to exaggerate the extent of separatist sentiment in the territory, confusing demands for genuine autonomy with ones for independence, an entirely impractical proposition supported only by a few naïve youngsters. The “independence” canard and the priority to One Country have thus become sticks to beat those wanting the sustain genuine autonomy and the freedoms of speech and publication which Hong Kong enjoys. Soon it may be impossible to have open debate on issues such as the status of Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet or the South China Sea.
What Beijing consistently declines to recognize is that the Umbrella movement itself, and the anti-government vote in the 2016 elections, was a direct response to Beijing’s earlier interference quashing efforts to extend representative government.
The implication that Hong Kong may be a threat to national security has to be seen in the context of China’s National Security law. This is so broadly drafted that it can be used against almost any criticism of the Communist party and its leadership and policies. For instance, Article 15 reads:
“The State persists in the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, maintaining the socialist system with Chinese characteristics, developing socialist democratic politics, completing socialist rule of law, strengthening mechanisms for restraint and oversight of the operation of power, and ensuring all rights of the people as the masters of the nation, and strengthening restraint and oversight mechanisms on the operation of power.
“The State guards against, stops, and lawfully punishes acts of treason, division of the nation, incitement of rebellion, subversion or instigation of subversion of the people’s democratic dictatorship regime; guards against, stops, and lawfully punishes the theft or leaking of state secrets and other conduct endangering national security; and guards against, stops, and lawfully punishes acts of infiltration, destruction, subversion or separatism by foreign influences and other conduct endangering national security; and guards against, stops, and lawfully punishes acts of infiltration, destruction, subversion or separatism by foreign influences.
“The State persists in the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, maintaining the socialist system with Chinese characteristics, developing socialist democratic politics, completing socialist rule of law, strengthening mechanisms for restraint and oversight of the operation of power, and ensuring all rights of the people as the masters of the nation, and strengthening restraint and oversight mechanisms on the operation of power.”
Wang’s speech elicited a quick rebuke from a former leader of the pro-business and generally pro-government Liberal party Allen Lee Peng-fei. “What authority does he have to speak to Hong Kong people?” and to lay down his view about constitutional reform, a matter for the territory itself. Lee is long retired so has little to lose from speaking up, but his views reflected those of many fearful of expressing views for fear of retribution in one form or another.
In particular, Hong Kongers increasingly resent the overt interference of the Liaison Office which is supposed to keep Beijing informed of Hongkong peoples’ views, not act as the hand guiding a puppet regime.
Such levels of interference and the constant talk of “national security” are worrying traditionally conservative groups such as lawyers and accountants, and those want to see Hong Kong remain attractive to open minds and free expression, essential if its future is to be more than just one of several large cities on the south China coast.
As it is, the territory is spending large sums to celebrate the 20th anniversary of return to Chinese sovereignty. President Xi will be on hand as Lam takes over. But for many in Hong Kong there is a diminishing cause for celebration as the demand for One Country, as ruled by the party, dominates discourse, and the related concept of “Hong Kong People Ruling Hong Kong” is constantly undermined by Beijing’s spokesmen and their army of parrots in the local media. Doubly worrying, it comes at a time when President Xi is bent on reducing or eliminating foreign influence in social, political and cultural domains. Hong Kong is by this measure a gateway for undesirable ideas. For sure, closing the windows will keep out foreign flies, but so are fresh air and fresh ideas. Deng Xiaoping must be turning in his grave.
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.
It is conceivable that Trump could flip again on China (or North Korea). Indeed, Trump’s policy reversals may well turn out to be more dangerous than his actual policies. The need for constant adjustment will only stoke greater anxiety among America’s allies and partners, who now run the risk that their core interests will be used as bargaining chips. If those anxieties prompt some countries to build up their militaries, Asia’s strategic landscape will be fundamentally altered.–Brahma Challaney.
US President Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy – based on tactics and transactions, rather than strategic vision – has produced a series of dazzling flip-flops. Lacking any guiding convictions, much less clear priorities, Trump has confounded America’s allies and strategic partners, particularly in Asia – jeopardizing regional security in the process.
To be sure, some of Trump’s reversals have brought him closer to traditional US positions. In particular, he has declared that NATO is “no longer obsolete,” as it supposedly was during his campaign. That change has eased some of the strain on the US relationship with Europe.
But in Asia – which faces serious security, political, and economic challenges – Trump’s reversals have only exacerbated regional volatility. With so many political flashpoints threatening to trigger violent conflict, the last thing Asia’s leaders need is another strategic wild card.
Yet, in Trump, that is precisely what they have. The US President has shown himself to be more mercurial than the foul-mouthed Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte or the autocratic Chinese President Xi Jinping. Even the famously impulsive North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un seems almost predictable, by comparison.
Perhaps the most consistent feature of Trump’s foreign policy is his obsession with gaining short-term advantage. In one recent tweet, he asked why he should label China a currency manipulator, when the Chinese are working with the US to rein in North Korea. Just days earlier, Trump had called the Chinese the “world champions” of currency manipulation.
That tweet may offer additional insight into Trump’s Asia policy. For starters, it highlights North Korea’s sudden emergence as Trump’s main foreign-policy challenge, suggesting that the strategic patience pursued by former President Barack Obama could well be replaced by a more accident-prone policy of strategic tetchiness.
This reading is reinforced by Vice President Mike Pence’s claims that the recent low-risk, low-reward US military strikes in Syria and Afghanistan demonstrate American “strength” and “resolve” against North Korea. Such claims reflect a lack of understanding that, when it comes to North Korea, the US has no credible military option, because any US attack would result in the immediate devastation of South Korea’s main population centers.
North Korea is ready for war, but it may be prepared to make a direct deal with President Trump if conditions are right. Right now, it is a war of nerves–Din Merican
The Trump administration’s current strategy – counting on China to address the North Korea challenge – won’t work, either. After all, North Korea has lately been seeking to escape China’s clutches and pursue direct engagement with the US.
Given the bad blood between Xi and Kim, it seems that Trump’s best bet might be some version of what he proposed during the campaign: meeting with Kim over a hamburger. With the North Korean nuclear genie already out of the bottle, denuclearization may no longer be a plausible option. But a nuclear freeze could still be negotiated.
Trump’s reliance on China to manage North Korea won’t just be ineffective; it could actually prove even more destabilizing for Asia. Trump, who initially seemed eager to challenge China’s hegemonic ambitions, now seems poised to cede more ground to the country, compounding a major foreign-policy mistake on the part of the Obama administration.
Of all of Trump’s reversals, this one has the greatest geostrategic significance, because China will undoubtedly take full advantage of it to advance its own objectives. From its growing repression of political dissidents and ethnic minorities to its efforts to upend the territorial status quo in Asia, China constantly tests how far it can go. Under Obama, it got away with a lot. Under Trump, it could get away with even more.
Trump now calls China a friend and partner of his administration – and seems to have developed a fondness for Xi himself. “We have a great chemistry together,” he says. “We like each other. I like him a lot.”
That fondness extends beyond words: Trump’s actions have already strengthened Xi’s position – and undercut his own – though Trump probably didn’t realize it. First, Trump backed down from his threat not to honor the “one China” policy. More recently, Trump hosted Xi at his Florida resort, without requiring that China dismantle any of the unfair trade and investment practices that he railed against during the campaign.
The summit with Trump boosted Xi’s image at home ahead of the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th National Congress later this year, where Xi may manage to break free from institutionalized collective rule to wield power more autocratically than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. It also indicated the Trump administration’s tacit acceptance of China’s territorial grabs in the South China Sea. This will embolden China not just to militarize fully its seven manmade islands there, but also to pursue territorial revisionism in other regions, from the East China Sea to the western Himalayas.
Trump believes that “lots of very potentially bad problems will be going away,” owing to his relationship with the “terrific” Xi. In fact, his promise to “Make America Great Again” is antithetical to Xi’s “Chinese dream” of “rejuvenating the Chinese nation.”
Xi’s idea, which Trump is unwittingly endorsing, is that their countries should band together in a “new model of great power relations.” But it is hard to imagine how two countries with such opposing worldviews – not to mention what Harvard University’s Graham Allison has called “extreme superiority complexes” – can oversee world affairs effectively.
It is conceivable that Trump could flip again on China (or North Korea). Indeed, Trump’s policy reversals may well turn out to be more dangerous than his actual policies. The need for constant adjustment will only stoke greater anxiety among America’s allies and partners, who now run the risk that their core interests will be used as bargaining chips. If those anxieties prompt some countries to build up their militaries, Asia’s strategic landscape will be fundamentally altered.