Speaking Of Asia

Readying for post-US order

The time has come to recognise that the US has changed, and is fundamentally changing before our very eyes. Asia, get ready for a post-US world.

Sometimes it takes a bottle of strong brew for even the bravest to summon up the courage to speak their minds and to drive some truths home.

Dr Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, does not lack courage. Nor is she known to shy away from plain speech. Even so, after meetings with US President Donald Trump, she could be excused if she were seen nursing a pint of Bavaria's best bitter to utter the words that echoed around the world this week.

"Europe must really take our fate into our hands," she told a packed Bavarian beer hall rally on Sunday. "The days when Europe could depend on others is over, to a certain extent. This is what I have experienced in the last few days."

I have spent most of the past month travelling in the United States, from San Francisco to Chicago, New York and Washington, and down to its southernmost tip in Key West, Florida. What's on evidence should make any Asian strategist sit up and ponder the future of America, and, in turn, its future presence and role in Asia. Even without Dr Merkel's words as a prompt, this column's theme would not have changed.

For it is time to recognise that the US has changed, and is fundamentally changing before our very eyes.

This weekend, US Defence Secretary James Mattis will probably deliver a reassuring speech at the annual IISS Shangri-La Dialogue being held in Singapore that all is well and the US remains committed to the Asia- Pacific. He will need to work hard to assure the region that the Freedom of Navigation Operations performed by the US Navy off Mischief Reef recently was not timed only for the dialogue and comes from serious conviction in the White House that such periodic reiterations of principle matter.

To many in the world beyond the US, President Trump is a nightmare that has manifested itself. In the US though, outside the bookends of the two coasts and led by the states of California and New York, the Trump mantra continues to resonate with large sections of the people. Even many who think he is doing a poor job in office do not disagree with his world view.

Three weeks ago, I sat listening to the president of a large university in the Mid-West addressing a commencement audience. Without mentioning names, the university president stressed the importance of truth in academia and why it is imperative to separate fact from fiction. There was little doubt who he was targeting. The message was clear. A few in the audience, mostly Asians, applauded. A substantial chunk of the predominantly white audience looked uncomfortable and stayed pointedly silent.

HOLLOWING OUT OF AMERICA?

Across the Mid-West, liberal- minded professionals and other people in the professions and in companies are feeling uncomfortable and uneasy, as though in an unfamiliar environment. Some are contemplating migrating north to Canada. Dozens of others are planning to move to California or New York, globalised metros that retain their liberal outlook. This hollowing out, if it proceeds, will ensure that the inward-looking ideology of victimhood will not be easily erased, even if Mr Trump leaves office before the end of his current term. In other words, Mr Trump may go, but Trumpism will remain.

Asian nations that had made timely adjustments for the eventuality of America's decline will obviously do better than others who failed to provide for more flexibility in their own outward policies.

To my surprise, Americans also seemed fairly sanguine about their personal security and the strategic challenges they face, even if threats of terrorist attack since 9/11 have altered lifestyles in many ways. At Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, for instance, there are no left-luggage facilities any more, possibly as a security measure.

One well-off man in Chicago with a post-retirement job, who said he worked more for recreation than from need, summed up the sentiment for me nicely. "We are generally a safe country," he said. "We have friendly neighbours north and south and we are protected by two big oceans. We have a little problem with North Korea but that is being sorted out."

The rest of the world may think their worries and threats are also America's, hence worthy of Uncle Sam's brotherly eye and help that could be whistled up at a moment's notice. It may not be so, even if it involves a putative rival to US power.

Perhaps because Beijing has been careful to not challenge US power directly, most Americans do not seem to view China as a threat, or even a nuisance beyond lingering uneasiness about Chinese proclivity to snap up choice real estate, as Japan did in the 1970s.

DISCONNECT BETWEEN POLICY AND VOTERS

Professor Walter Russell Mead, a fellow at the Hudson Institute and editor-at- large of the American Interest, summed it up well when he wrote recently that the core problem in American foreign policy remains the disconnect between the establishment's ambitious global agenda and the limited engagement that voters appear to support. "As Washington's challenges abroad become more urgent and more dangerous, the divide between elite and public opinion grows more serious by the day," he said.

Outside the Pentagon and state, the establishment mindset, media included, is fully fixated on President Vladimir Putin and Russia, a has-been power despite its mighty nuclear arsenal. Indeed, it sometimes descends to the ridiculous as when I watched talking heads on a respected news channel being given air time to criticise Mr Trump for agreeing to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, at Mr Putin's request. It was as though the very act of receiving Mr Lavrov was indicative of a certain disloyalty to American interests.

Fact is, most Americans seem less interested in China than they used to be as recently as five years ago. Part of this is because US companies are seeing their opportunities in China being steadily crimped by Beijing. Mr Trump's granddaughter may be able to sing Chinese songs but in many schools across the land, where learning Chinese as a second or third language had been the rage some time ago, fewer and fewer are enrolling for Chinese classes. The urge to understand China and learn more about it is perhaps waning.

To be sure, some observers sense there is more continuity in American foreign policy than is generally recognised. Following on Vice-President Mike Pence's recent trip to the region, I myself alluded to this in a column titled, "Did the US just say 'pivot'?"

But Asia, if it needs to see America as the linchpin of its security system, needs more than continuity. It needs to see an enhancement of the Obama doctrine, which, truth be told, in hindsight tended to be an "otherworldly strategic vision", to borrow the characterisation used by Mr John Bolton, the distinguished US diplomat.

Vision aside, multiple other weaknesses in the US edifice are coming into view.

For instance, America's entrepreneurial energies, which helped keep it globally engaged and interested, are not what they used to be. Despite the outward optimism of an economy running at near-full employment, the research firm Economic Innovation Group recently reported startling evidence of dropping economic dynamism that has gone on largely unnoticed for nearly a quarter of a century. The worst performers are the heartland states around the Great Lakes.

"The decline of dynamism has been steep, rapid and pervasive across all states," the report, as cited by the Financial Times, said, going on to describe the US economy as "static, top-heavy and concentrated".

Asian leaders headed to the White House at Mr Trump's invitation will also be aware that it seems impossible these days to have a frank conversation with the US leadership that does not find its way into the pages of the Washington Post or New York Times within a week. How to expose your fears and concerns when little remains private?

All these are but straws in the wind, of course. But Asia should be prepared for a time when it could all come together faster than you might imagine.

This is not a call to shift allegiances or drop old partners. Indeed, the alternatives currently available may be worse than is commonly acknowledged.

Still, Asian nations that had made timely adjustments for the eventuality of America's decline will obviously do better than others who failed to provide for more flexibility in their own outward policies.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 02, 2017, with the headline 'Readying for post-US order'. Print Edition | Subscribe