COVID-19 SPECIAL: Speaking Of Asia

US goes MIA in Asia as disease surges

America proves unable to fill its traditional leadership role in this global crisis, while China tries to step up

In the final scene of Big Jake, one of John Wayne's last movies, the dying leader of the gang that kidnapped his grandson for ransom squints at the tall, mildly wounded figure in the Stetson Peacemaker cowboy hat and asks his name.

Told that it is Jacob McCandles, a glimmer of surprise and recognition passes across the face of the bandit, who responds weakly: "I thought you was (sic) dead."

"Not hardly," says the iconic figure of Western movies.

For long years anyone who suggested that America's leadership, so prominent and dominant since the end of World War II, was waning amid competing power centres, could have met with the same response: Not hardly!

Today, as the world fights the global Covid-19 pandemic on a war footing, you cannot be too sure where the chips will fall after what is already being touted as the biggest global crisis since World War II.

A virus outbreak that started halfway across the world is devastating the United States, even as China, the place where it originated, has substantially got back onto its feet. Medical leaders are warning that the disease could kill Americans in the hundreds of thousands. Worse, they have no clue how to tackle it effectively and the response is confused and, often, poorly coordinated.

The leadership so lacks credibility that when it asked its giant automakers to turn some of their production lines towards assembling badly needed medical equipment such as ventilators for the gasping millions, it was told: Show me the money first. It finally had to invoke what amounts to war powers.

The administration of US President Donald Trump has no bracing message to offer its people, or the world for that matter. Whatever falls from Mr Trump's mouth - or off his Twitter handle - is often ridiculed instantly by a media whose innate scepticism has turned into a dangerous cynicism.

It wasn't that way just a while ago: When the 2004 tsunami devastated an arc stretching from Indonesia's Sumatra to southern Asia and to the shores of the African continent, the US was on the ground in no time with aid and relief. Memorably, former US president Bill Clinton, who was named by United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan as the UN Special Representative for Tsunami Recovery, gave us the unforgettable catchphrase "Build back better" as an operating theme.

China may be the current leader of the UN Security Council and, for its own reasons, not keen to bring up the subject of the pandemic for discussion in that august council. But nothing prevents the US from rallying the world independently. Instead, the situation is being aggravated, and the possibility of collective action thwarted, by American xenophobia and unilateralism.

Recently, Group of Seven foreign ministers failed to come up with a statement after their meeting because US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wanted to include reference to the "Wuhan virus".

Mr Pompeo did say this week that some US$274 million (S$392 million) in aid will be sent to 64 priority countries, mostly in the Indo-Pacific region, but it cannot be missed that his State Department has reportedly issued a directive to its diplomats in countries that receive US foreign aid to now ask them for help.


Meanwhile, China is offering expert advice around the world in a situation resembling the US role in Africa during the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

"The United States has always had the reputation of being the global responsible first responder in moments of crisis," Ms Alina Polyakova, head of the Centre for European Policy Analysis, was quoted as saying this week in Foreign Policy magazine. "(Today), you have a situation where an authoritarian state like Russia is providing humanitarian assistance to the most powerful country in the world."

Compare this with China, whose image in Asia has risen with every crisis.

Nearly a quarter century ago, the Asian financial crisis partly had its roots in a severe devaluation of its currency by China in early 1994. East Asian economies began losing competitiveness and three years later, the crisis blitzed through the region, devastating one economy after the other starting with Thailand. By the end of it, though, East Asian economies were thanking China - for not doing competitive devaluation that would hurt their economies further and delay the recovery.

Likewise, the massive stimulus package of US$586 billion it unveiled over a decade later during the global financial crisis bolstered the region, which soon emerged in a V-shaped recovery. With the US economy on the ropes while its own was relatively unscathed, China could be excused a measure of national pride it undoubtedly felt to see its package helping to prop up growth not just in its neighbourhood, but also in the world's biggest economy.

Besides, it had just pulled off a spectacular Olympics in Beijing in 2008 and defence scientists in Changsha had just developed a supercomputer that could do a quadrillion calculations per second, as good as any in the West. Two years later, in 2010, China would pass Japan to become the world's second-largest economy.

Today, Asia, where economies had been already slowing before the virus outbreak, waits to see if the Chinese Communist Party's Politburo meeting a few days ago will lead to another significant announcement of a package that could offer hopes of another significant lift to the region.

That will probably come once its economic planners fashion a plan that avoids the mistakes of the credit-fuelled one of 2008 which analysts believe exacerbated distortions in the Chinese economy.


Musing on the roots of what used to be American elan, I spent some time listening to a recent speech by the distinguished American historian Victor Davis Hanson on World War II military hero George S. Patton, and then went looking for the general's famously rousing speech to the Sixth Armoured Division in 1944, ahead of the Allied invasion of Europe.

In that brief address to a rag tag bunch of men he would fashion into a fighting force, General Patton says Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans, he says, play to win all the time.

"That's why Americans have never lost and will never lose a war. The very thought of losing is hateful to Americans."

Hmm. To be sure, there is merit in the argument that America is typically slow off the starting gate but that it eventually builds up enough momentum to regain lost ground.

That would not be a bad thing except that it is not clear whether the US WANTS to do so any longer. Study after study, including by the respected Pew organisation, suggests Americans are tiring of their global role and instead are focused inward.

At the operational levels, what was once a lithe governmental machine that thought up the Peace Corps has now got too much sand in its gears.

One of the telling statistics rolled off by the CNN television personality Fareed Zakaria in the recent episode featuring Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was when he quoted the scholar Paul Light to point out that while the Cabinet departments had 17 "layers" of hierarchy when John F. Kennedy was president, today there are a staggering 71 layers. Both Republicans and Democrats have contributed to the problem, making the US federal government a caricature of bureaucratic inefficiency.

Granted, it is too early to call the era of American dominance over. After seeming to have hit rock bottom during the global financial crisis, its economy did stage a bounce back that set off one of the longest growth runs until punctured by the novel coronavirus.

And yes, it is true that contrary to many forecasts, the US share of global gross domestic product (GDP) has actually grown from 23 per cent to 25 per cent in the decade to 2020.

There is no denying as well that the rush to the US dollar seen since news of the Covid-19 outbreak broke speaks of its globally perceived position as a safe haven. Nobody, for instance, rushes to snap up the Chinese renminbi.

If China has risen, it is not at America's cost but at Europe's - the European Union's share of global GDP has dropped from more than a third, to just over a fifth of the global economy.

So, if you thought the US can be written off easily, well - not hardly!

Still, that doesn't mean its leadership is not being challenged every day.

The US may have dominated the atomic age - it remains, today, the only nation to have atom bombed another country and not just once, but twice. In the era of information technology, it controlled the microchip and the Internet.

But today, as we enter the era of artificial intelligence (AI) and biotech combined with advanced telecommunications, the playing field is far more even. It may own the only companies with market capitalisation exceeding a trillion US dollars but it lags China in AI and 5G, and probably isn't too far ahead in biotech either.


It is in this universe that the American star is fading and Asia cannot be oblivious to it. Every way you look at it, China's comprehensive national power is rising; just look at the way it has begun to try to control the narrative about the coronavirus outbreak. It even has filed a case in the Wuhan courts accusing US agencies of covering up the origin of the coronavirus.

China does not need to exert too much to assert its dominance. Whether in the waters off Indonesia's Natunas or in the icy Himayalan wasteland which it contests with India, it has the ability to do pretty much what it pleases.

This is why since February, Chinese fishing vessels, under close protection of the China Coast Guard, have fished with impunity in Indonesia's exclusive economic zone while Jakarta stays silent. And if it can balance its harder instincts with soft measures - last week I argued for it to build healthcare as a key plank of its Belt and Road Initiative - it would be unstoppable.

Ageing Japan has no appetite to challenge it and in any case the pandemic has slammed it against the ropes. Its entitled leadership seems so distant from the scourge that photographs of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe calling the International Olympic Committee to discuss postponing the Tokyo Games showed him seated in close proximity with five others around a low table. Hello, have you not heard about social distancing and do you think you have special immunity?

Americans, said Patton, have always admired the best boxers and the biggest ball players. This is probably why Paul Simon asked in song: "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you."

Asia, and indeed the world, is humming that tune. Could the US really be that tone deaf?

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 03, 2020, with the headline US goes MIA in Asia as disease surges. Subscribe