By Invitation

Dawn of the post-American order in Asia

The Trump administration's narrowly defined 'America First' approach towards Asia has effectively ceded US leadership in the region to a rising China.

Historians may well look back at 2017 as the year that Asia's leadership changed hands. It will be seen as the year China stepped forward and America stepped back.

The United States-led regional order that we have known for so long is being replaced by a new Chinese-led order that remains deeply uncertain and, to many of us, deeply unsettling. But now, at the end of this year, it is no longer credible to deny what is happening, or to expect that it can be reversed. Welcome to the new, post-American Asia.

Two closely sequenced set-piece events demonstrated the transition from the old order to the new. The first was Beijing's 19th Party Congress in October, where President Xi Jinping set out forcefully and in detail his vision of China as a regional and global leader.

He extolled China's achievements as an inspiration to other countries, and its model as an example for others to follow. He asserted China's right to take the lead in addressing international issues. And he implicitly claimed for himself the historic achievement of restoring China to its rightful place as a leading Great Power.

The second event followed last month, when Mr Donald Trump made his first visit to Asia as President of the US. Over 12 long days, he showed beyond doubt that he was not serious about asserting US leadership in Asia. This was hardly a surprise. It had become clear from the very beginning of his presidency, when he pulled America out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, that as president, Mr Trump would do exactly what he had promised as a candidate. He would put "America First", taking a narrow view of US interests in Asia and dismissing obligations and commitments which were not obviously and directly connected to that narrow view.

In Beijing, Mr Trump revelled in the pomp of a full-court state visit, and heaped praise on his host. He did nothing to contest Mr Xi's assertion of Chinese leadership in East Asia, made no mention of key issues in their strategic rivalry like the South China Sea, and left a clear impression that he was willing to accept China's view of their respective roles in Asia.

Then, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Danang, Mr Trump passed up the chance to explain and promote a new American vision of Asia's future as an alternative to China's - a future as a "free and open Indo-Pacific". He barely touched on these themes in his big set-piece speech. Instead he talked trade, and in the worst possible way.


He brusquely repudiated the commitment to free trade which had done so much to underpin US leadership, regional integration and economic development in Asia in recent decades. He declared a push for managed trade arrangements aimed at eliminating the bilateral trade imbalances which he sees, in defiance of economic logic, as the source of America's economic problems.

By doing this, he left it to Mr Xi to project China as the champion of free trade and regional economic integration. Mr Xi's pitch was lent credibility and substance by his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which this year has moved to the centre of China's version of global engagement and regional leadership. The huge BRI summit hosted in Beijing this year was arguably the most significant international meeting of the year. While much remains unclear about what the BRI will ever deliver, it has at least provided a positive vision of what China purports to offer.

From Washington, by contrast, Asian countries heard little that was positive, or even coherent, about how the new administration sees its future role in Asia. This month's new US National Security Strategy was so internally contradictory that it has only deepened the confusion about where America is heading under Mr Trump. But amid the contradictions, there was a clear underlying message.

On the one hand, the new National Security Strategy has at last, and for the first time, acknowledged in stark terms what we in Asia have known for years - that China is plainly determined to take over from America as East Asia's primary power. On the other hand, the document offered no compelling argument that America's interests required it to resist China's challenge, and no coherent idea of how it could do so.

In fact the main theme of the new strategy points the other way. The "America First" slogan reflects a determination that America should commit itself only where the most direct and vital US interests are engaged. Having abandoned the post-Cold War vision of a harmonious US-led global order, there is no overarching case that America's interests require it to dominate every region of the world - including in Asia. As long as America can trade in Asia, and faces no direct threats from the region to its own security at home, then Washington will step back and let Asia look after itself.

We can see this shift at work in the new administration's focus on North Korea's long-range missile programme, which has dominated its diplomacy in Asia this year. Much of Asia has been threatened for years by Pyongyang's shorter-range missiles, but Mr Trump is worried only by the threat that the new missiles could pose to America itself. To avoid that, he is willing to threaten, and maybe even fight, a devastating war in Asia.

Most likely, however, he will end up deciding that America's massive nuclear deterrent makes it safe enough from North Korea's missiles, and US allies in Asia will be left to deal with Pyongyang's threats by themselves.

So for Asia, the lesson of 2017 is simple: America no longer sees itself having interests in Asia great enough to justify the immense costs and risks involved in resisting China's drive to replace it as the leading regional power. That means that, especially in East Asia and the Western Pacific, we face the prospect of living under China's shadow. Indeed we already are. And 2017 has given us a sobering foretaste of what that will mean, as China has more overtly used its weight - economic, diplomatic and strategic - to promote its interests and impose its wishes on its neighbours. South Korea has felt this over the deployment of a US missile defence system that China deems to be a threat to its security. In Australia, there has been an upswing of anxiety about China's efforts to influence domestic politics and public debate, and plain expressions of displeasure from Beijing as a result.

Perhaps we should not be surprised by all this. After all, China is just doing what great powers have always done, using their weight and influence to impose costs on those that displease them.

But for all of us in Asia, we are going to have to rethink our approach to foreign policy to address this new reality. That will not be easy. New thinking will be needed.

  • The writer is professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 30, 2017, with the headline 'Dawn of the post-American order in Asia'. Print Edition | Subscribe