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.