A new regional order?

Irawan Ronodipuro

IO – Early into his tenure at the White House, President Donald Trump’s decision to remove the U.S.A. from the regional trade pact known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership—one of the centerpieces of the Obama administration’s rebalancing poli­cy—resulted in grave concern across Asia. Key U.S. allies—Japan, South Korea, and long-term friends within the ASEAN community of nations— started to ponder the prospect and potential consequences of the U.S.A. once again failing to match its for­eign policy priorities with the impor­tance of Asia’s increasingly impor­tant role in the global economy and security.

It is no secret the majority of Asia’s leaders and their citizenry are apprehensive about this pros­pect, especially given China’s am­bitions to become the regional he­gemon. Although China’s success story and its economic prowess are admired by its neighbors, the main consensus in Asia is a stronger and enduring American presence is a necessity in order to avoid becoming subjects of a Chinese ‘lake’.

America’s recent impulse to­ward isolationism is understand­able: after expending significant blood and treasure on long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and a seemingly unending open war against terrorism, Ameri­cans feel a world weariness that resembles the post-World War I era. Trump’s purported aversion toward interventionism and nation build­ing, his ‘America First’ slogans and anti-globalist sound bytes all reso­nated with his supporters for good reason.

When it comes to the current bal­ance of power, there is widespread belief China has been and will con­tinue to gain the upper hand with the U.S.A. This is best exemplified by China’s forays into the South and East China seas, her predom­inant bilateral trade relations with the major economies of Asia, and Beijing’s long-term grandiloquent vision to control eventually the en­tire supply chain of maritime trade stretching from Asia into Africa and as far away as Europe through its One Belt One Road initiative.

Domestic politics in China and the U.S.A. are also part of the cal­culus. While President Xi Jinping is consolidating power and emerging as a modern-day version of Mao Zedong, Trump is increasingly be­coming unpopular. And, as the Mueller investigations continue over the coming months or perhaps even longer, there is a risk—analo­gous to the closing chapters of the Nixon presidency—the White House will fall victim to a siege mentality. If this does happen, it is expected China will become a prime benefi­ciary and enable her to play an even stronger role in Asia affairs and di­plomacy.

Still, it would be a mistake to assume China will necessarily con­tinue along its trajectory of success and prowess to emerge as the re­gional hegemon. China’s period of hyper-charged economic growth is now coming to a close. Wide­spread corruption, lower growth rates, increasing inequality and a middle-lower income class with inadequate purchasing power for securing decent health care, hous­ing and education have placed the Communist Party of China, or CPC, under tremendous pressure for reform.

Keeping these challenges in mind is important in order to shape a bet­ter perspective on China and its fu­ture. Jinping, in particular, is deep­ly informed by the reasons for the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Once we understand that, we can better grasp his motivations, intent and style of leadership.

In fact, Jinping is believed by many of the Chinese elite to be the savior of the CPC, which, under previous leaders, was derided in private quarters as decadent and on the road towards ruin. Yet in his ostensible role as the man who could reverse course and save the CPC, he has also managed to exert a firm authoritarian grip over his party, the military, government and Chinese society.

Since first coming to power Jin­ping has overseen a massive an­ti-corruption campaign directed against CPC cadres, purged most of the local party leaders and gov­ernors, replaced large swathes of senior officers in the People’s Liber­ation Army, and he installed suffi­cient numbers of loyalists inside the party’s Central Committee in its re­cent congress to ensure his position at the commanding heights over the Chinese economy and policy. Final­ly, Jinping and his CPC has placed limits around academia on conduct­ing research into ‘sensitive topics’, and the Chinese media has been pressured not to report news that might reflect negatively on the par­ty; small wonder, then, Jinping has been called a ‘supreme commander’ by a supplicant media.

Given these latest trends—Wash­ington ostensibly ceding influence to Beijing as it turns more isolationist, a weakening American president while China’s president strengthens his authority, and Jinping’s flagship One Belt One Road initiative (other­wise known as OBOR), which could be properly viewed as China’s Great Leap Outward while the CPC looks for the means to maintain its coun­try’s economic well-being and hence its primacy—there is a pervasive sense Asia could be entering a new regional order.

At the same time, it would be wrong-headed to reach any hard conclusions, at least for now. A new order with China becoming the regional hegemon is far from being inevitable. American and Chinese leadership, foreign policy strategies, diplomacy and unexpected events will factor into the final equation and hence the future of Asia.

For example, an outbreak of war or political instability on the Kore­an Peninsula could easily shift the balance of power in ways still not fathomable, ending in a new order or perhaps even disarray. Certainly China would need to be involved in talks about the future of a unified Korea in the event North Korea’s regime were to be destroyed or col­lapse. Much as the reunification of Germany after the dismantling of the Soviet Union led to a reordering of power in Europe, a new Korean state could have far-reaching politi­cal consequences and potentially al­ter the entire geopolitical chessboard of Asia.

It is also conceivable a sud­den change in the U.S. presidency would result in the U.S.A. intensely re-engaging in Asia. The departure of Trump, which could conceivably occur through impeachment, would certainly see a reversal in trade and foreign policy. If Trump were im­peached, his successor now-Vice President Michael Pence would more than likely usher in more tradition­al Republican establishment-type policies. Under this scenario, one could easily imagine Washington reversing course and re-joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership. A new administration under this scenario would also be less confrontational and rely more upon diplomacy in hotspots such as North Korea and in its dealings with China and the rest of Asia.

Finally, as China continues to expand its commercial footprint as envisioned in its OBOR initiative, there is a risk of overreach and sour­ing relationships. Critics of OBOR rightly point out it is overly reliant upon debt financing and could re­sult in a mammoth-sized bubble. A recent case in point is the $6 bil­lion mega-port and investment zone project in Sri Lanka, which is heavi­ly backed by Chinese debt financing and was subsequently restructured in order to avoid default. Another Chinese port project, in Pakistan, also has been heavily criticized for plans to develop a real estate com­plex that will house nearly half a million expatriate workers from Chi­na. Such cautionary tales have not been lost on China’s neighbors, and unless Beijing reconsiders its way of doing business, its reputation and grandiose ambitions could easily falter.