The election of Joe Biden represents not only a repudiation of Donald Trump and his divisiveness, but an embrace of centrism and a mainstream approach to government and policy.
On the global stage, as at home, Biden is likely to follow a familiar script. Most obviously, he will embrace America’s alliances and strengthen its engagement with multilateral institutions. Rhetorically at least, he will give human rights and democracy a much more prominent role in Washington’s approach to the world.
In short, he is likely to pursue a global role much more in line with how the US has acted globally since the end of the Cold War. While it might be tempting to assume Biden will run foreign policy as a continuation of the Obama administration, there will be some points of continuity but also key changes. And some very significant challenges will remain.
Asia, and particularly China, in focus
One area of continuity, with both Obama and Trump, will be the centrality of Asia to US global strategy. This is in part for the same reasons his predecessors made the region a priority: it will be the most consequential part of the world for decades to come. But it is also because stretched US finances will mean the country will be unable to sustain a significant European presence or the kinds of policies it has pursued in the Middle East.
For Obama, the “pivot” to Asia was a choice about where to focus efforts. For Biden, the scarcity of resources will focus the mind on Asia. It will also mean a scaling back of US activity in those other theatres.
The biggest foreign policy question facing Biden will be how to approach the People’s Republic of China. Under Trump, the US moved toward a posture, on paper at any rate, of full-spectrum strategic competition. The 2017 National Security Strategy described China as intent on eroding Washington’s global advantage, and the US would reorient the instruments of national power to contest that effort.
In practice, Trump’s China policy was incoherent and inconsistent. Trump himself pursued a peculiar relationship with Xi Jinping, even allegedly encouraging the herding of millions of Uyghurs into concentration camps.
Biden is unlikely to move US China policy back to its “engage but hedge” setting of previous years – the mood in the US has hardened decisively, and not only because of Trump. However, the way the US competes with China is likely to change and there will be a need for co-operation. Biden won’t wind back the trade conflict significantly and moves to delink the two economies will continue, particularly in high-technology areas.
The US will continue to work to limit China’s ambitions to change Asia’s regional order, but it is likely to try to build on some areas of common interest to improve co-operation. The aim will be to advance their shared goals on that issue but also mitigate against the more damaging consequences of geopolitical competition.
This is most like to occur in relation to climate change. The Biden administration will put a very high premium on this vast threat and to advance that agenda meaningfully will require collaboration with China. So expect a more moderated approach to competition with the PRC but not an end to contestation in the region.
… and North Korea, too
North Korea was the scene of Trump’s most high-profile foreign policy gambit. While nuclear testing has stopped, it is increasingly clear that, in spite of protestations to the contrary from the president’s Twitter account, North Korea has a functional nuclear weapon capability.
The US-DPRK relationship, such as it is, has become highly personalised and the move away from Trump raises questions as to whether North Korea will revert to its bombastic past form – it has described Biden as a “rabid dog”. The most likely scenario will be a Biden administration that learns to live with a nuclear North Korea and, in contrast to Trump, works closely with its allies in South Korea to co-ordinate their approach.
Resuming normal transmission
The return to normality in Washington will greatly hearten America’s allies. They will no longer be ignored or, in some cases, overtly disparaged by the president. The Biden administration will place a strong emphasis on the role allies play in its foreign policy ambitions. It will value the alliances, rather than debase them, and use the reach they allow and political support they create to drive a more strategic approach to managing China.
But this greater value will not come cost-free. A financially constrained US will expect allies to do more to advance their shared security interests than they have in the past. This will be most evident in Asia, where treaty allies like Australia, Japan and South Korea will be under renewed pressure to play a more expansive, risky and expensive role in the region’s geopolitics. For Australia this will be a challenge in terms of both its capacity and its risk appetite.
A Biden presidency will restore dignity to US leadership and bring a much more integrated approach to managing its global interests. It will also act in stable and predictable ways.
But Biden will inherit an America whose power and credibility are in decline. The global institutions that the US built to stabilise international order and advance its interests are in a parlous state, and not only because of the attacks of the Trump presidency. It faces a global stage with ambitious emerging powers that have shrewdly used the incoherence of the Trump presidency to advance their position.
Biden’s election symbolises a return to orthodox ways in Washington. His instincts, and that of his foreign policy team, will be in line with how the US has approached the world for many decades.
We know the Trump approach has undermined US power and prestige. What remains to be seen is whether Biden’s instincts are the right ones in a dangerous and unstable global environment.
The United States has registered the largest fall in relative regional power of any country in the Indo-Pacific during the last year, according to the Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index.
The index, started in 2018, ranks 26 countries and territories according to the power they wield in the region. It uses multiple indicators across military capability and defence networks, economic resources and relationships, diplomatic and cultural influence, and resilience and future resources.
While the US is still the most powerful country in the region, it has gone from a 10 point lead over China two years ago to five points in 2020, scoring a rating of 81.6.
“Despite its continuing pre-eminence, US standing has waned in all but one of the eight Index measures,” the report says.
It says the closing power disparity with China suggests America, “far from being the undisputed unipolar power, can more correctly be described as the first among equals in a bipolar Indo–Pacific”.
The US lost the most points in measures where China is ahead – economic relationships, economic capability, and diplomatic influence.
Despite the US’s significant advantages, “the current US administration’s unilateral inclinations mean the United States is an underachiever in its ability to wield broad-based power in Asia. In addition, the coronavirus has contributed to a loss of US prestige.
“America has suffered the largest reputational hit in the region for its domestic and international handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The report says while China has been “diplomatically diminished” by COVID it is “holding ground in its overall power”.
“In conditions where most countries are less powerful than a year ago, China’s fast economic rebound from COVID-19 will widen the power differentials between itself and the rest of the region.”
China, which ranks second at 76.1 on the regional power index, has an unchanged score.
“China leads in four of the eight measures of power: economic capability, diplomatic influence, economic relationships and future resources. But the country delivers inconsistent results in the other measures, with stark strengths and weaknesses. By contrast, US performance in the Index still appears more rounded.”
Australia and two other middle powers – Vietnam and Taiwan – were the only countries to gain in comprehensive power in 2020.
“Their competent handling of the COVID-19 pandemic was a necessary, but not sole condition for improving their regional standing.”
Australia ranks number 6 on the index with an overall rating of 32.4. It was previously 7th and has overtaken South Korea. Its greatest improvement was in cultural influence.
“Australia’s comparative advantages as a middle power are most evident in its defence networks, where it ranks second behind the United States. Despite a far more modest military capability, Australia is ranked ahead of the United States for its defence diplomacy with non-allied partners.
“Canberra has led the way in forging variable geometry — bilateral, trilateral, quadrilateral and ‘quad plus’ — defence partnerships with a diverse range of countries, including India, Japan, Indonesia and Vietnam. Australia carries less ‘great power baggage’ and has demonstrated it can be far nimbler in Southeast Asia than its US ally.”
But the report warns of the effect of the contraction of migration to negative levels.
“Dropping out of the demographic ‘Goldilocks zone’ will have adverse implications for Australia’s fundamentals as a young and growing middle power. The failure to reverse this trend in the next few years would result in a smaller, poorer and ultimately less secure nation.”
The report also concludes that Japan will take much of the next decade to recover economically from COVID. It says that of all the countries, “India’s economy has lost the most growth potential through the damage inflicted by the pandemic”.
Workers everywhere are feeling the impact of COVID-19 and the restrictions necessitated by COVID-19.
A value chain is the process by which businesses start with raw materials and add value to them through manufacturing and other processes to create a finished product.
A supply chain is the steps taken to get a product to a consumer.
Most of the time we don’t think about them at all.
Cotton is complex
Our research project with the Cotton Research Development Corporation is investigating strategies for improving labour conditions in the value chain for Australian cotton.
This is the chain in which our cotton is spun into yarn, woven or knitted into fabric, and turned into garments and other items which are sold to consumers.
When we began our project in mid-2019 the world was a very different place.
The changes brought by COVID-19 have had a significant impact on those working throughout the chain – particularly in garment production, but with flow on effects to other tiers.
The tiers in the diagram are numbered backwards.
The first is Tier 4, where Australian cotton is grown and harvested. The next is Tier 3 where it is turned into yarn, usually overseas.
Tier 2 is the production of fabric, Tier 1 is the production of garments and other products, and Tier 0 is retailing and selling to retailers.
Tier 0 (brands and retailers) has been hit by delays in shipments due to factory closures at Tiers 1 and 2.
However this has been matched by a decline in demand as social distancing and lock-down arrangements discourage or prevent consumers from shopping in person.
Globally, many multinationals have closed their doors.
Shocks along the chain…
Nike is expecting sales to drop by US$3.5 billion. While seemingly immune from some of the social distancing provisions, online retail is also likely to take a hit due to a drop in demand.
Tier 1 (garment manufacturing) has been hit by falling demand as retailers cancel orders or ask for delays in payment. It has also faced disruptions in the supply of fabric, especially from China.
Fabric producers in Tier 2 and cotton spinners in Tier 3 have had to contend with a decreased supply of raw materials and demands to retool to produce medical equipment.
For cotton growers in Tier 4, the fall in demand has pushed prices down from US 70 cents at the start of the year to US 50 cents, the lowest price in a decade, before a partial recovery to US 58 cents.
…with human costs
In Bangladesh estimates have 1.92 million workers at risk of losing their jobs as factories receive notice of US$2.58 billion worth of export orders cancelled or on-hold.
Making things worse, many workers in Tiers 1-3 were receiving less than a living wage defined as the minimum needed to provide adequate shelter, food and necessities. This has made it hard for them to plan or save for emergencies.
Many are migrant workers without funds to return home.
Even the workers who manage to hang on to their jobs aren’t in the clear. Programs set up to improve their working conditions have been disrupted.
The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh is a legally-binding agreement between brands and unions set up in the wake of the collapse of the the Rana Plaza factory in 2013 which killed 1,133 people and critically injuring thousands more.
Inspections under the program have been suspended, as have audits due to the closure of borders.
The problems are cumulative – delays in orders due to interruptions in supplies will need to be addressed when factories scale back up, creating demands from buyers that might result in pressure for workers to work unpaid and involuntary overtime, or even worse, subcontract to the informal market where there is a high risk of human rights violations.
Shoots of hope
Amid the havoc are some shoots of hope.
Companies along the value chain have been asked to produce and supply medical equipment such as surgical gowns, face masks and materials and elastics.
Dozens of brands and retailers have donated funds and activated their logistics networks to support the effort.
As orders slowly start returning, cotton and textile associations have joined forces in calling for greater collaboration throughout the value chain. Governments have announced aid packages for their workers, and the European Union has provided an emergency fund to support the most vulnerable garment workers in Myanmar.
Longer term, the supply risks highlighted by the disruption might cause companies along the value chain to diversify their suppliers and even produce locally.
The crisis has demonstrated forcefully the importance for manufacturers and retailers to be agile. Yet this can best be done when workers have been well trained and have access to the best technology and equipment.
For now, we watch and see. Cotton is as good an indicator as any other of the brittleness of supply chains and the ways in which what we produce and consume affects the livelihoods of those further down the chain.
In the short-term, a best-case scenario would see a revaluing of garment work as “essential” in order to produce protective/medical equipment that we need in a way that benefits the people who help make them.
Sarah Kaine, Associate Professor UTS Centre for Business and Social Innovation, University of Technology Sydney; Alice Payne, Associate Professor in Fashion, Queensland University of Technology, Queensland University of Technology, and Justine Coneybeer, Research Assistant – Supply Chain, Queensland University of Technology
In 2017 we finally realised that the four decades of geopolitical stability enjoyed by Asian countries and societies had come to an end. In 2018, the major patterns that will come to dominate the region will become increasingly clear.
China and the United States worked out a way to live with one another in the 1970s, and that paved the way for the region’s remarkable economic growth. The US actively sought to engage China in the belief that Chinese economic integration with the world would eventually lead to the liberalisation of China’s political system.
But as Xi Jinping’s first five years in office have made clear, that optimism was misplaced. A more affluent China has become more authoritarian, more nationalistic, and increasingly intent on changing the international environment to one it perceives better reflects its interests.
In his first year in office, US President Donald Trump surprisingly played a gentle hand with China. In contrast to this campaign rhetoric, his administration approached China with moderation, focusing principally on establishing a good personal relationship with Xi and trying to garner Chinese help to manage North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
That is likely to change in 2018. As signalled in the National Security Strategy and the National Defence Strategy, the US sees strategic competition among major powers as the most important feature of the country’s security environment.
The active engagement of China by the US, even one tempered by a degree of containment, is coming to an end. China is viewed now as a country that seeks to mould the international environment in its own image. Expect the US to increasingly contest China’s power and influence, both in the region and globally.
This is likely to take both military and economic forms, as China is increasingly viewed by the US as a full-spectrum adversary. This will mean some kind of action on what the US perceives as China’s predatory trade policy, as well as a ratcheting up of military steps to push back on Chinese activities, particularly at sea.
China will not respond to the likely increase in American pressure with equanimity. Indeed, one real risk in 2018 is that China will overplay its hand. Its lesson from 2017 is that Trump is a paper tiger. Trump is perceived as being neither able nor willing to match his bombastic words with deeds. China could be emboldened to act provocatively because it miscalculates how the US might respond.
The disputed islands in the East China Sea are probably the most likely place for this to happen. The South China Sea disputes have a slightly lower risk in 2018, as China has largely achieved its objectives in that area, and while the US would prefer that this hadn’t occurred, it can live with the consequences for the time being.
While Sino-American competition will increase the regional temperature, it is by no means the only way in which great power rivalry will shape the region.
Last year’s Doklam crisis reminds us that the extensive border between China and India is highly contested. Expect India’s ambitions and China’s confidence to lead to further tensions in the Himalayas.
China was slightly surprised by India’s response in Doklam, and will have learned from that occasion. When, and not if, China next tests India, it will probably involve a higher level of military risk.
In late 2017, senior officials from the US, Japan, India and Australia met, reviving the “quadrilateral initiative” of a decade ago.
The move is publicly framed as efforts to coordinate policies of countries that value an open and free Indo-Pacific. In substance, it is about collaborating to limit Chinese influence and sustain the liberal order. The “new quad” will take further steps in 2018 and China will respond in ways that will further heighten regional tensions.
This year will also see a further decline in the stock of liberalism in Asia. For a period in the early 2000s, liberalism seemed ascendant. China joined the World Trade Organisation, democracy was on the march in Southeast Asia, and economic globalisation was seen as an unalloyed good thing.
No longer. There are no democracies in continental Southeast Asia. Rodrigo Duterte is undermining liberalism in the Philippines, shutting down a vibrant news website, and some fear that the martial law he imposed in the restive south may be expanded across the country in 2018.
Cambodia has stripped away its thin democratic veneer, while Myanmar’s democratisation process remains highly limited. Even in Japan and India, liberal ideas are under challenge from thin-skinned nationalists.
In 2018, liberal ideas in Asia will face an increasingly difficult environment, particularly as the geopolitical competition will encourage erstwhile champions of liberal ideas to put interests ahead of values in order to manage that contest.
This year will sadly see the Rohingya crisis linger on, with insufficient political incentives for international actors to help end the crisis. The alignment of interests between the military and the government in Naypidaw will mean the region’s worst humanitarian crisis in decades will continue.
There is also a good chance that in 2018 we will work out how to live with a nuclear North Korea. The US will ultimately realise that it has no options for managing the crisis – or at least none that carry acceptable costs – and that a nuclear north can be managed. Indeed, a North Korea that feels secure may finally undertake the kind of economic reforms that its populace needs, and which could integrate the isolated country into the regional economy.
Contested Asia has become a geopolitical and geo-economic reality. In 2018 we will see just how sharp the contests will become. The wounded nationalism of China, the erratic and unpredictable US, and the weak political leadership in many regional powers mean the coming year in Asia is going to be even more challenging than 2017.
Donald Trump is flexing the United States’ economic muscle in East Asia by introducing a web of new-generation bilateral trade deals to contain China’s challenge. But Beijing is fighting back by political means.
A closer look at the US president’s 2017 trade policy agenda and its ensuing initiatives reveals a pattern. Obama’s trade policy favoured multilateral, comprehensive and ultra-regional deals such as the failed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, and the frozen Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA). Whereas Trump pushes for bilateral and more targeted deals.
Obama used trade deals, such as one with South Korea, to confront China on the regional status quo. But Trump is reshuffling the cards.
Under Trump, the US Trade Representative (USTR) office prioritises the strict enforcement of US trade laws to counter foreign government subsidies – even if that means undermining the World Trade Organisation and risking trade retaliations.
Trump’s deals in Asia
Beside the deal with Australia, the US has only two bilateral free trade agreements (FTA) in force with Asian countries, namely South Korea and Singapore. In comparison, China has nine FTAs in force in Asia, another four under negotiation, and five more under consideration.
The US boasts it has more than ten Trade and Investment Framework Agreements (TIFAs) with Asian economies. Essentially, these agreements may form the basis for future FTAs or Bilateral Investment Treaties.
Previous US administrations have often sacrificed domestic industrial manufacturing to prop up international trade, using it as a bargaining tool to exert security influence over geopolitical partners and rivals. Before Trump, the US openly accepted trade deficits and the rorting of international trade laws as the price paid for advancing its defence policy agenda globally.
Imagine it as a strategic pyramid, with defence on top, trade in the middle and industry at the bottom.
Now with Trump we have a strategic triangle. Industry is the top point, with trade and defence interlinked, on the same level, at the bottom. This evolution is nowhere clearer than in the Asia Pacific region.
Curbing China’s power
China’s goal is to use the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations to accelerate its major Asian infrastructure projects. The most notable of these is the Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. This initiative promises to compete with the Western-centric World Bank and Japan-led Asian Development Bank.
It’s not an arms race, but infrastructure projects, investments and even humanitarian aid are fuelling Xi’s “major-power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics”. This means clusters of Asian countries are becoming more and more embedded in China’s economic and strategic policy.
Strangely, Trump’s strategic triangle is making US policy look like China’s, after it opened to the global economy in the 1980s. Conversely, Xi Jinping’s more assertive regional politics is moving China where the US was before Trump – with defence on top of trade and industry.
The US’ bilateral trade moves are also targeting new commercial routes. The US is looking at a free trade agreement with India. This would be a great win for the US, as it would further push India away from the China-led RCEP deal.
Indeed, after a promising start, the RCEP negotiations have stalled mainly because of India’s resistance to eliminating tariffs on imported goods from China. India’s trade deficit with China is on the rise and already exceeds US$50 billion.
A balanced US-India FTA would be a win-win solution for both countries in their quest to muscle out China commercially and politically, especially if it precluded finalising the RCEP.
Adding to this is a recent US trade report which urged allied economies to coordinate an anti-dumping action on China’s industries. This is designed to protect trade secrets and intellectual property rights.
The report pointed out that China systematically:
…imposes requirements that US firms develop their IP in China or transfer their IP to Chinese entities as a condition to accessing the Chinese market.
In exchange for all of this, the US offers maritime security for a close range of key partners such as Australia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. This explains why the US administration is wooing India to join Japan and Australia in a revived trade-security alliance against China, the so called Quadrilateral Security Forum.
This recent Trump policy is a remake of Nicholas J Spykman’s “Rimland Theory” that framed the US understanding of Eurasian power politics during the Cold War years. Spykman memorably wrote:
Who controls the rimland rules Eurasia; who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.
For one thing, Trump’s restoration of bilateral trade shows a clear direction for the US strategy in Asia. Beyond that, the convergence of trade and security policies has the potential to effectively reshape the US as an indispensable Asian power.
Donald Trump has just attended his first APEC leaders’ summit following bilateral state visits to Japan, South Korea, China and Vietnam. After the NATO summit and G20 earlier in the year, in which he displayed his inexperience and lack of affinity for multilateralism, many feared the worst.
But the comfortable rapport he established with leaders like Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, as well as the less formal structures of APEC, meant there was no repeat of the northern hemisphere summer.
APEC was established in 1989 with the leaders’ summit added in 1994, with an ambition to drive economic co-operation and in particular trade liberalisation across the region. While it has been modestly successful in the unglamorous area of trade facilitation – involving largely regulatory streamlining to make the business of international trade smooth – as a co-operative framework it has not achieved any major outcomes.
So when looking at APEC, the real interest is not on the grouping’s economic policy process, but what occurs on the platform that the leaders’ summit provides, as its convening power remains impressive. What did we see in 2017?
Once again, APEC was a forum for discussing a non-APEC trade agreement. The TPP had regularly figured in previous meetings, and this time the 11 remaining members met to try to craft an agreement without the US. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau failed to attend one of the meetings, but it does appear that the 11 have salvaged some kind of a deal.
A string of meetings occurred on the sidelines. Of greatest interest was Trump’s conclave with Russian President Vladimir Putin, mostly focused on relationship-building, particularly important given the slate of new leaders in the club. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Moon, Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen were all making their debut.
Despite the evidently warm personal relationship that Trump has developed with Xi, the smiles and diplomatic tourism in Beijing are the pleasant facade of what has become a more overt competition for influence in the region. At the 2017 iteration of the meeting Gareth Evans famously described as “four adjectives in search of meaning”, this was plainly in sight.
At keynote speeches to the APEC CEO summit, Xi and Trump laid out their views on the region’s future. Trump’s speech was the second setpiece, following Rex Tillerson’s speech at CSIS in October, which outlined a belated US strategy to the region. The US aims to sustain a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, and Trump’s focus at APEC was on the economic dimension.
Continuing the themes raised in his UN General Assembly speech of September in which Trump declared he expected all countries to pursue their own interests first, he continued his walk away from core principles of its economic engagement of the region. In the past it had pursued large scale multilateral agreements, initially chasing a big free-trade agreement of the Asia Pacific, and more recently the TPP.
Trump said very plainly that there would be no more big agreements, and only bilateral deals based on strict and fairly narrow ideas of reciprocity. The other notable element was a direct statement that the US would no longer put up with predatory practices of other countries, such as IP theft, subsidies and not-enforced trade rules. While he did not name China as his main concern, he didn’t need to.
Trump’s effort to reconcile US rhetorical commitment to an open economic order in the region with his mercantilism stood in contrast to Xi’s approach. Xi painted a picture that seemed much more in keeping with the longer-run trends in Asia’s economic order.
Xi repeated the promise made at Davos that China was committed to economic openness. More specifically, he said China would seek to make economic globalisation more open, inclusive and balanced.
Interestingly, he said China would uphold regional multilateralism as the best means to advance the region’s common interests that were “interlocked”. He also presented the “Belt and Road Initiative” as an open mechanism that would help advance regional connectivity and even, somewhat surprisingly, described it in fairly economically liberal terms.
To be clear, Xi’s speech was a declaration of what China would do – whether it actually follows through is an open question. Nonetheless, Xi presented a China that would lead an open and inclusive economic order, in some ways as a defender of the status quo. Trump, in contrast, seemed to break with that tradition. Trump’s economic nationalism was on display, and he encouraged others to follow his lead.
Quite where this leaves the region is unclear. We still have to wait to see whether the two speeches of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” becomes an actual strategy. US policy remains hindered by a lack of resourcing in key branches of government.
Equally, we have to wait to see what China will actually do. But make no mistake, at APEC 2017, the region’s two biggest powers presented clearly different visions of the region’s economic future.
Not for several presidential cycles, and perhaps not since Richard Nixon’s visit to China to initial the Shanghai Communique in 1972, has a visit to Asia assumed such significance – and one that is potentially fraught.
US President Donald Trump leaves Washington late this week for a 13-day tour of Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam for APEC, and the Philippines before returning home via Hawaii.
In these two weeks, Trump will be exposed to an Asia-Pacific – or Indo-Pacific – that is undergoing a wrenching transformation against a background of risks to a “long peace”. It is one that has survived more or less intact since the end of Korean War, leaving aside Vietnam.
From an Australian perspective, the Trump Asian tour could hardly be more important, given Canberra’s challenge of balancing its security and economic interests.
An American wrecking ball in the region is the last thing Australia needs, especially one that risks mishandling a North Korean nuclear threat to regional security.
In this regard, Trump’s every utterance, including his contributions to social media, will be scrutinised over the next two weeks by a nervous region.
What is striking about this latest period is the velocity of a geoeconomic shift that is challenging long-held assumptions about US authority in the regional power balance.
Seemingly, the Asia-Pacific region can no longer take for granted a US stabilising role.
As China’s power rises, so does US leverage ebb. This is not a zero-sum game.
The question is how pieces of a kaleidoscope will settle, if indeed they do.
Trump’s Asia tour will enable an assessment of the extent to which the US will remain a reliable regional security partner and a participant in various regional forums.
Former president Barack Obama talked about a “Pacific Century”, involving as it did a US “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific. Trump has not used such terminology.
Indeed, one of his first executive acts was to undo work that had been put into US participation in a region-wide trade initiative – the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) – aimed partly at countering China’s geoeconomic dominance.
This was a hasty, ill-considered decision that sent all the wrong signals about US commitment to building an Asia-Pacific trading and security architecture.
The other 11 TPP signatories, including Australia, are pressing on with attempts to finalise the trade liberalising protocol, but US absence significantly lessens its weight.
It may be unrealistic – given Trump’s bellicose “America First” pronouncements on trade – but Washington would do its regional credibility no harm if it reversed itself on TPP.
On a visit to Australia last month to launch the first volume of his memoir – Not For The Faint-Hearted – former prime minister Kevin Rudd warned of the risks of the end of a period of relative stability.
His warnings were based on a paper produced by the Asia Society Policy Institute – Preserving the Long Peace in Asia – of which he is president.
In a contribution to the East Asia Forum, Rudd asked the question: how can we save Asia’s “long peace” in light of North Korea’s attempts to develop a ballistic missile nuclear capability?
This has been a crisis long in the making, beginning with the Soviet training of North Korean nuclear scientists and engineers after the second world war, the north’s expulsion of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors in 2002, and the subsequent series of ballistic and nuclear weapons tests.
The uncomfortable truth is that for the last quarter of a century, the international community has simply been kicking the can down the road. And now, at one minute to midnight, everyone is scrambling on what to do about it.
In Rudd’s view, the Asia-Pacific needs to develop a security understanding – like the Helsinki Accords in Europe – to deal with security challenges, including North Korea and, more broadly, territorial disputes that threaten regional stability.
His preferred option is to bolster the East Asia Summit (EAS) as a regional forum to promote peace and stability. He makes the valid point the EAS has, potentially, the regional heft to undertake such a stabilising role.
Disappointingly, Trump is not planning to stay in the Philippines an extra day for this year’s EAS gathering. It might have been time well spent.
Membership, including the ten nations of the Association of South East Asian Nations, plus China, South Korea, Japan, India, Australia, New Zealand, Russia and the US, means all the main Indo-Pacific players are participants.
This is how Rudd puts it:
The EAS has the mandate to expand its activities in the security domain. The Kuala Lumpur Declaration of 2005 is clear about this. Furthermore, members of the EAS have all signed the Treaty of Amity and Co-operation, which commits partners to peaceful dispute resolution. Moreover, the EAS uniquely has all necessary players around the table.
What is required in all of this is American leadership, but as things stand there is little sign of Washington possessing an overarching vision of where it might take the region in the next stage as China continues to expand its power and influence.
In this regard it is hard to disagree with a Lowy Institute paper – East Asia Policy under Trump. It identified a serious case of drift in American engagement with the region under a president whose knowledge of – and interest in – the Asia-Pacific appears limited at best.
US policy on East Asia is thus on autopilot, which presents two distinct risks. First that of a crisis, whether created by the president or events.
The US faces challenges to its economic leadership from Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, a program of massive infrastructure investment that will enmesh the economies of China and its Asian neighbours, challenges from Chinese attempts to shape regional institutions to its advantage, and to shape a narrative of the region’s future that puts Beijing at its centre.
It also faces challenges from an increasingly capable Chinese military. All this in a region that is becoming increasingly illiberal – and doubtful of US staying power.
This is a fairly bleak assessment of a US ability to engage the Asia-Pacific constructively in this latest period. In fairness to Trump, he remains on a steep learning curve. How all this will play out is anyone’s guess.
What is the case is there is no more important stop of Trump’s itinerary than his visit this coming week to China to engage the newly reinforced ruler Xi Jinping.
The China talks, in the lead-up to APEC in Vietnam, are the linchpin of Trump’s Asian foray. The two leaders exchanged a visit in April this year when Xi visited Trump in Mar-a-Lago.
On that occasion, a novice American president was feeling out his main rival for global leadership. This was a getting-to-know-you opportunity.
However, on this occasion more will be expected of a Trump-Xi encounter on issues like North Korea, concerns over China’s mercantilist behaviour, and its assertiveness in the South China and East China Seas.
While it would be unrealistic to expect a “grand bargain” to emerge between the leaders of a new bipolar world, what is needed is some clear guidance about US priorities amid the confusion that has accompanied Trump’s nine months in the White House.
Laying out some sort of vision for US engagement in the region should be a minimum requirement at a time of considerable uncertainty.
Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations put it this way in a CFR blogpost:
The president can allay regional fears that the United States is commitment-phobic, by reinforcing at each step Washington’s allies and partners are the cornerstone of US engagement in the region. Reiterating the US commitment to freedom of navigation, free trade, and political freedoms will also reassure regional actors that it still makes sense to buy into a regional order underpinned by a US alliance system. Of course, this trip is only the first step in putting the United States on firmer ground in Asia, after many months of confusing signaling and disruptive initiatives.
Expectations for Trump’s engagement with the region may be low, but the same could not be said for the stakes at a time of considerable uncertainty and risk.
Conflict was almost baked into Asia’s post-1945 international order. Taiwan’s contested status following the communist victory in China’s civil war, and the division of the Korean Peninsula are only the most obvious and volatile of Asia’s military hotspots.
Yet one of the region’s most striking features was the way in which, from the 1970s, it was able to foster a remarkably stable international environment in spite of the visible flashpoints in almost all corners of the region. The growth and prosperity enjoyed by so many people would not have been possible had the countries of the region not worked out how to manage their often vast differences.
That period of stability is coming to an end. Asia’s great powers are increasingly jostling with one another for influence, and as they do the region’s old wounds open up again.
The high altitude military stand-off between India and China at the Doklam Plateau, near the tri-border of Bhutan, India and China, is an acute example of how these old problems have been reinvigorated by Asia’s geopolitical flux.
India and China share a border in excess of 3,000 kilometres in length, much of which is disputed by the two behemoths. This has long been a source of friction, including a short and nasty war in 1962 that India lost in humiliating fashion. Most of these have occurred in India’s north on the Chinese side of Jammu and Kashmir.
The Doklam stand-off is notable because it is in the north-east of the country. It started on June 16 when Chinese PLA engineers began work to extend a road that is within territory that is disputed between Bhutan and China, but in which Beijing has been operating freely since at least 2005. The work appeared to be an effort to extend the road closer to India’s border.
In response, Indian military forces crossed the border on June 18 into what it regards as Bhutan – a country with whom Delhi has an agreement to guide its foreign policy – and prevented the road from being constructed.
Beijing’s response to the deployment of Indian forces has been incandescent rage. This is in stark contrast to previous cross-border tensions and standoffs, when China has generally approached the matter with a degree of caution and calm, in public at any rate.
The fulmination is the result of China’s belief that the PLA is operating on sovereign Chinese territory and that India has intervened in its affairs for strategic advantage. This is a particularly neuralgic issue for the PRC.
Since then, both sides have mobilised their forces with at least 100 soldiers on either side eyeballing one another, while India has moved thousands more into close supporting positions.
The public rhetoric on either side is hardening. China has carried out military drills and declared that it is easier “to move a mountain than to shake the PLA”. Foreign Minister Wang Yi bluntly stated that the standoff was entirely India’s fault, and that the troops had to get out of China.
India in turn has accused China of reneging on its agreement not to change the status quo and has rallied international support by using the standoff as another example of China acting as a disruptive force.
Neither disputes the basic facts – China was building a road towards India’s border, while India does not deny contesting PLA forces beyond its own borders – so what motivated their risk-taking?
Delhi’s reasoning is slightly easier to discern. India is at a military disadvantage in most of the border disputes with China. This area is one in which Delhi has the upper hand. It believes China was taking preparatory steps to negate that advantage.
India is also acutely aware that the tri-border area is very close to the Siliguri Corridor, the narrow strip of land that physically connects India to its eastern states that lie between Bangladesh, China and Burma. Defending the corridor is a first order priority for India.
China’s claims that it was merely road building in its own land are disingenuous. It knows that the territory is in dispute with Bhutan and is acutely aware of Indian sensitivities. This was not just a bit of civil engineering, nor was it a case of a rogue PLA unit operating without central clearance.
Many think that China’s move is punishing India for its tilt to Washington and its criticism of the Belt and Road Initiative. The timing was unmistakably intended to embarrass Modi.
It was not by accident that the incident was timed so that it would cast a shadow over the prime minister’s participation in the G20 summit and a meeting with Xi Jinping. It also signalled that, contrary to his strong-man persona, Modi is not able to control the country’s borders and core interests.
Some also see the effort as an attempt to wedge Bhutan. Beijing has been courting Thimpu in the way it has successfully cultivated other South Asian countries such as Sri Lanka. This appears to be a fairly Machiavellian means of pushing another of India’s close partners into the China column.
MIT’s Taylor Fravel, an expert on China’s border disputes, has argued that while China probably did intend to push some strategic agenda, it probably miscalculated the strength of India’s response.
There has been far too much hyperbole about the prospects of this leading to a nuclear war – that is extremely unlikely – but it is also unlikely that this will end in a quickly negotiated diplomatic settlement of the kind that has resolved previous border stand-offs.
Both have positioned themselves in ways that will make backing down quickly very difficult. This crucial bilateral relationship is now at a low ebb, and as the standoff is likely to drag on for a long time, a frosty Sino-India relationship looks set to remain in place.
When we think of difficult great power relationships in Asia, US-China and Japan-China ties tend to predominate. But the crisis in the difficult terrain of the Doklam Plateau reminds us not only that India is an Asian great power, but that the tenor of its relations with China is of crucial strategic significance.
Equally, the tension is a sign of Asia’s new contested and complex geopolitics. This is a world in which American influence is marginal – not just because US Asia policy is on autopilot – and one in which old and long running animosities have been revived by the combustible blend of ambition and wealth.
How Doklam is resolved will tell us a good deal about the extent to which Asia’s great powers can accommodate one another’s interests and recreate the stability of the past. The prospects do not look good.
The first week of July is not normally one that brings great events in world politics. Around that time, the northern hemisphere normally shifts into summer holiday mode.
Recently, this has become less true. Coups in Egypt, Turkey, and a terror attack in France have bucked the trend. Asia’s early part of July 2017 has also defied the languorous tendencies of the seventh month.
Presenting it as a gift to the US on its national day, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un proved his isolated country now has the ability to fling death and destruction across the Pacific. Contrary to US President Donald Trump’s declaration that it “won’t happen”, North Korea has successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile and is now within touching distance of a viable nuclear weapon capability.
China’s approach to the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong sought to underscore Beijing’s power and prestige. But it only succeeded in reminding us of the party state’s insecurities and increasingly militarised approach to its regional dealings.
The over-the-top martial parades, China’s first aircraft carrier sailing into the harbour city, and President Xi Jinping’s powerful warnings not to “use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland” made clear China’s intent to signal that it is firmly in charge of the upstart entrepot.
However, Xi did so in a manner which reminds us of the party-state’s military instincts and its thin skin.
In the Himalayas, China and India had another of their high-altitude standoffs as Chinese military engineers constructed roads and buildings in territory that is disputed, as well as in land that no one regards as anything other than Bhutan.
Tensions have escalated, with China’s ambassador in New Delhi reminding India of the “bitter lesson” of the 1962 border war.
And in the South China Sea, the US deployed B1 bombers to fly over the disputed features – much to China’s chagrin.
The Trump administration stayed its hand in trade and the South China Sea in the belief China could restrain North Korea. But North Korea’s test shows the White House either that Beijing wasn’t trying hard enough, or that it does not have necessary leverage over Pyongyang.
Either way, the Sino-American relationship, which had seemed in reasonably good condition following the “citrus summit” at Mar-a-Lago, is entering a much more difficult phase.
It is hard to recall a time at which Asia’s geopolitical circumstances have been this fraught – at least since the 1970s. The region, which had enjoyed one of the most settled strategic circumstances, is now in a period in which its great powers not only don’t trust each other but are beginning to contest one another’s interests militarily.
Over the past 40 years, American leadership has been vital to Asia’s stability. Its dominant military power provided public goods and kept regional rivalries in check. Economically, it provided much-needed capital, and its large home market was open for export opportunities.
But US leadership is visibly waning. The credibility of US power and influence is openly questioned while its economic openness is also in doubt. Rising powers realise this and are jostling for advantage.
In response, defence spending is on the rise, as countries take steps to secure their interests in an increasingly uncertain world. North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile test is only the most visible example of a region that is arming itself in the face of a shift in the balance of power.
Declining US leadership predates Trump’s election. But the sense of uncertainty has been badly exacerbated by the absence of a coherent Asia policy from his no-longer-new administration.
US policy in Asia is largely on autopilot, with the direction set by the Obama administration remaining in place. But this is due to inertia; it is not a considered strategy. If this continues, it will amplify the destabilising actions taken by those across the region who are unsettled by this uncertainty.
China’s position in the region is changing swiftly. Its gains in the South China Sea are unlikely to be reversed, and its infrastructure initiatives – both the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative – are being widely welcomed.
Equally, China has taken the opportunity of Trump’s unwillingness and inability to lead to present its rise as a positive force on a range of issues – most obviously on climate change and the global economy.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s globe-trotting efforts to build the country’s reputation has seen him complete more than 60 trips abroad since his election in 2014. While there is some way to go to turn his ambition for India’s international heft to match its demography and civilisational legacy, it is modernising its military capacity and expanding its international influence.
As the standoff with China shows, it will be no pushover. Crucially, India sees the current period of flux as one of historic opportunity.
The region’s lesser powers are also playing their part in this geopolitical drama. Like Modi, Japan’s Shinzo Abe sees opportunity in these circumstances. He is pushing for Japan to be able to do far more militarily – something that is contentious at home and abroad. And even with its very limited capacity, Japan is proving a thorn in Chinese ambition.
Many others, such as Australia, the Philippines and Korea, are positioning themselves in relation to a larger contest for influence in Asia.
For decades, Asia’s countries took comfort from a stable balance of power underwritten by US might and economic openness. This allowed rapid economic growth. But that wealth is now powering ambition that, when paired with America’s declining influence and sense of purpose, has created an increasingly unstable Asia.
Unfortunately, there will be many more months and weeks ahead like July 2017’s first week.