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O brother, where art thou? America has lost the initiative in East Asia

Image credit: COMSEVENTHFLT (Flickr: Creative Commons)

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had the good fortune to attend a couple of different events here in Canberra. The first was an on-stage conversation between Kim Beazley and James Clapper, former US Director of National Intelligence. Held in Llewellyn Hall at the Australian National University in Canberra, the event’s focus was the ongoing role that America will play in the Asia-Pacific in the 21st century.

Director Clapper spelled out the points common to all these occasions: he emphasised a longstanding mutual interest between Canberra and Washington, the role that culture plays in determining alliance affiliation, and the place of history in the relationship between our two countries. Importantly, he also touched on America’s role as protector of the world order, and Washington’s ongoing determination to uphold that role into the future.

The other event was delivered in a cramped basement lecture theatre by Emma Sky OBE, a British Middle Eastern expert and former counterinsurgency advisor to the United States. Ms Sky’s remarks focused on the Iraq War and its concomitant effects on US prestige and credibility. She believes the US’ geopolitical rabbit-hole detours in the Middle East curtailed its ability to uphold the international order, and that we face the resultant end of ‘Pax Americana’.

The tone of the two events couldn’t have been more different, venues notwithstanding. One was broadly optimistic, extolling the virtues of US-led order and might. The other pessimistic, predicting the end of empire and the chaos such epochal shifts bring. It may be too early to tell which opinion is more useful, but my hunch is that Sky is onto something in her prediction of the long-term decline of relative US power and influence.

To my mind, this rings most true in East Asia. The US has been regional policeman there since the end of the Second World War, and its continued presence underwrites so many of the assumptions underpinning the regional order. Regional prosperity—the Asian miracle—occurred against a backdrop of strategic stability guaranteed by US power. It’s becoming increasingly clear, however, that 21st century political, economic and strategic developments have begun to erode old certainties. At the centre of this eroding force is China, whose meteoric rise to second-superpower status makes the question of its role in world politics the most crucial we face in the world today.

Indeed, China is clearly carving out its own geopolitical niche. Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative linking Europe with Asia via Central Asia appears to be going ahead in the face of great enthusiasm from investors and participating countries. It’s an ambitious project that will economically bind two continents together using Chinese-built infrastructure. China has also pursued its security agenda in the South China Sea, directly in the face of strenuous objections from Washington.

America’s total inability to prevent most of the world’s developed countries from joining the Beijing-proposed Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) is another example of the ceding of economic initiative to Beijing. China can and will use the AIIB to fund development projects throughout its region, using economic leverage to pursue its political goals.

As I noted a couple of months ago, China has also taken the lead in at least one issue of global moral concern. China is the world’s biggest polluter, and its initiatives to reduce its carbon emissions in line with global agreements represent a move to occupy the global moral high ground. This must be particularly galling to the American establishment, since the US has long prided itself on being the voice of morality in international affairs, and often lectured Beijing on its perceived moral deficiencies.

China still lags far behind the US in one area: military capacity. America’s military machine is still the most capable, lethal organisation on the planet, and China has a long way to go before it can hope to match the US in power-projection capacity. This might tempt hot heads in the White House to default to this option should Washington find its efforts frustrated elsewhere.

Of course, this argument is not suggesting that we are close to war or international anarchy. Rather, current trends suggest the world is becoming more multipolar, and the US seems to be leaning away from a multilateral approach to international relations. China, naturally and perhaps rightly, will step into this void, at least in Asia. It will aim to maximise its power, wealth and authority by using the tools at its disposal.

I am not necessarily a champion of US withdrawal. As a big brother, America has been very good to Australia. We benefit immensely from its patronage in security, economic and political partnerships. We should, however, prepare for a future in which the international environment is increasingly crowded, and America no longer offers the only voice to which we need to listen. President Trump’s unique combination of vacillation and impulsivity is emblematic of a deeper American ambivalence towards world politics—ambivalence which other countries will only too happily seize upon.

Of course, we shouldn’t write the US off too early. One of the great themes spread right through American history is the country’s vast capacity for reinvention. America has bounced back from a bitter civil war, at least two economic depressions and two world wars. There is every chance that the US will once again combine its resources, idealism, technological edge, and fierce self-belief to re-enter world politics as the driving moral and political force. The longer it’s absent from the throne, however, the harder that will be.

Rob Cullum is the East Asia Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

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