Asia has been the future for more than a generation.
When Americans try to glimpse what’s to come, images of the Pacific Rim flood the imagination. For movie audiences in 1982, the rain-soaked Los Angeles of Blade Runner looked like downtown Tokyo. By 2014, the City of Angels in the Spike Jonze film Her had more of a Shanghai vibe. This upcoming October, with the release of Blade Runner 2049, Los Angeles will likely resemble Seoul.
Off-screen as well, Asia has been almost as good as a time machine. When I was coming of age, it was the place to go for anyone hankering for the next big thing. After college, a number of my classmates traveled to Japan to strike gold teaching English. Today, recent grads are more likely to visit the big cities of South Korea and China, or head further south to Singapore and Malaysia. They all come back, as I did in 2001 after three years in Asia, with stories of the future: bullet trains, otherworldly urban landscapes, the latest electronic gizmos.
Get our free emails
So, it’s not surprising that when foreign policy elites think about what will replace a U.S. superpower in relative decline — speculation that has grown more feverish in the Trump era — they, too, look East. But no longer to Japan, which is passé, or South Korea, which has also perhaps peaked. Instead, they tremble before China, which has already surpassed the United States in gross economic output, while steadily enhancing its military capabilities. It seems like the only country remotely capable of challenging the United States as the world’s sole superpower.
The anxiety of declining U.S. influence became so intense during the Obama years that the notion of a Group of Two (G2) gained considerable currency: if we can’t beat ’em, went the thinking at the time, then maybe we should join ’em. However seriously intended such a proposal to co-rule the world with China might have been, the Obama administration never followed up beyond agreements on climate change and bilateral investment.
Ambitious and impatient, Beijing decided to strike out on its own. It has unveiled a twenty-first-century, industrial-strength version of the post-World War II Marshall Plan with which the U.S. once put a devastated Europe back on its feet. China’s vision, however, focuses on the building up of all the countries on its periphery and some even further afield, as it tries to draw the whole Eurasian continent into its sphere of influence. Although it’s expected to provide an estimated $1 trillion to more than 60 countries, this “One Belt, One Road” plan is anything but a charity mission. It will direct a major influx of resources to Chinese construction companies, bring minerals and energy to Chinese factories, and promise a better potential return on investment than U.S. treasury bonds. Some infrastructure projects will also allay security concerns, like the energy pipelines to be built through Myanmar that will bypass the watery bottleneck of the Malacca Straits where a determined adversary could potentially shut off 80% of Beijing’s oil imports.
The victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 elections has only deepened anxiety over China’s ascendance among Washington’s policymakers and pundits. During his campaign, Trump frightened both the neocons and more conventional militarists with his talk of avoiding military entanglements overseas. As president, he has pledged to boost military spending but seems to have no idea of how to use all the Pentagon’s new toys other than to bomb the stuffing out of the militants of the Islamic State.
Nor does Trump care a whit about the soft power the United States has traditionally used to cultivate international support. For instance, Washington had long promoted international financial institutions and free trade agreements, but Trump has railed against the “false song of globalism.” China, meanwhile, is positioning itself to become the new overlord of global capitalism, even going so far as to set up a parallel international financial system to realize its vision. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which began operations in January 2016 without the support of the United States or the European Union, will function like the World Bank in providing financing for China’s various building projects abroad. Whereas Beijing controls less than 5% of the votes at the World Bank, it commands 28% of the shares in the AIIB. Although still a small operation compared to China’s commercial banks, it will be quite capable of scaling up if the opportunity arises.
The contrast between Beijing and Washington has become even sharper around climate change. Trump’s denial of global warming — he once labeled it a Chinese “hoax” — has whetted the Beijing leadership’s appetite for global influence. As one of its top climate change negotiators said shortly after Trump won the November election, “China’s influence and voice are likely to increase in global climate governance, which will then spill over into other areas of global governance and increase China’s global standing, power, and leadership.”
All of this is part of a larger trend of power flowing from West to East. In 2010, North America and Western Europe were responsible for 40% of the global gross national product. By 2050, that share, the Economist Intelligence Unit estimates, will fall to 21%, with Asia’s share rising to a commanding 48.1%.
But don’t rush out to begin that crash course in Mandarin and exchange your dollars for yuan quite yet. The showdown between Beijing and Washington is unlikely to play out exactly as the Chinese hope and Americans fear.
The Decline of the United States
On a visit to Beijing in October 2016, in the presence of the Chinese leadership, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared, “America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow.” He went on to imagine a new axis of Russia, China, and the Philippines arrayed against the arrogance of American power.
Talk about shockers. The Philippines has traditionally been a cornerstone of U.S. influence in Asia, a place for Washington to station troops, dock ships, and, in the post-9/11 era, send military advisors to help suppress a Muslim insurgency. Moreover, Manila had gone toe to toe with Beijing over disputed islands in the South China Sea, even submitting its case to an international tribunal for arbitration. But that was before Duterte became president in May 2016 and labeled President Obama, who took a dim view of Duterte’s gruesome record of extrajudicial killings, a “son of a whore.”
The apparent defection of the Philippines was the coup de grâce for one of the Obama administration’s most heralded foreign policy efforts aimed at staving off American decline. In October 2011, just before the Arab Spring broke out, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton authored an article in Foreign Policy laying out what would become known as the “Pacific pivot.” The United States, at the time, was fitfully trying to extricate itself from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thanks to imports from Mexico and Canada, as well as investments in shale fracking and sustainable energy, Washington was no longer quite so dependent on Middle Eastern oil. The Obama administration felt that it might finally put the failures of the Bush years behind it and turn to new horizons.
The Pacific pivot should have been called the Willie Sutton policy. When Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he replied, “That’s where the money is.” So, too, with Asia. It contains four of the top 11 economies in the world: China’s, Japan’s, India’s, and South Korea’s. With the United States focused on losing bets in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen, China has been cornering this rich Asian market. By now, it has become the leading trading partner for South Korea, Japan, Australia, and virtually all of Southeast Asia.
To recapture its edge in the region, the Obama administration promoted a free trade compact known as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). U.S. negotiators managed to achieve the near impossible by getting a dozen disparate countries on the same page while leaving China out of the picture. But Congress proved, at best, lukewarm on the deal. And sentiment among the American public ran even colder — so cold, in fact, that one of its chief architects, Hillary Clinton, fearing that the trade agreement might take her presidential bid down in flames, came out against it in 2016. Withdrawing from the TPP would, of course, be one of Donald Trump’s first acts as president.
The United States, in fact, faces more than just an economic challenge in Asia. Washington had long considered the Pacific to be an “American lake.” It currently has 375,000 military and civilian personnel stationed within the Pacific Command’s ambit and devotes roughly half its naval capacity to Pacific waters. It maintains treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, as well as dozens of military bases in the region. But China, after more than a decade of double-digit increases in military spending, has begun pushing back against American pretensions to be the only Pacific power around. It has developed new weapons to deny the U.S. military access to its coastal waters and has come to excel at cyberwarfare, vacuuming up huge amounts of confidential data by hacking into U.S. government agencies. Meanwhile, in the world of spy versus spy, China has managed to plug leaks on its end by jailing or killing more than a dozen U.S. intelligence assets.
Even before the ascension of Donald Trump, the Pentagon’s effort to pivot eastward had come up short. For all its overwhelming military edge, Washington has increasingly found itself unable to dictate outcomes through force anywhere in the Greater Middle East. The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and turmoil in Yemen and Libya have all continued to bedevil the U.S. military.
In the meantime, the Obama administration made some token rearrangements of its forces in the Pacific, sold some high-tech weaponry to its allies in the region, and threw some brush-back pitches at Beijing. But in the end, as with so many of Obama’s initiatives, the Pacific pivot proved largely aspirational. The U.S. never really pivoted out of the Greater Middle East.
As a presidential candidate, Trump was content to bluster about Chinese threats, even as he also threatened to withdraw the U.S. nuclear umbrella from both Tokyo and Seoul. He demanded that U.S. allies pony up more money for American help and protection, while offering no new ways of anchoring the United States in the Pacific.
Now in the Oval Office, Trump has sent mixed signals. He’s repaired relations with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, but he’s also been pushing a major rise in the Pentagon budget. And what country would be the target of those additional tens of billions of dollars in military spending? The U.S. Navy certainly doesn’t need a 350-ship force to counter the Islamic State. Trump has welcomed the election of South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, but also insists that he wants to renegotiate “bad” trade and security deals with South Korea. He has tried to bully North Korea, but has also held out the possibility of meeting personally with that “pretty smart cookie,” Kim Jong-un.
Thanks to his erratic pronouncements, even though it’s early in Trump’s term, American influence in the region is already dropping as inexorably as the president’s approval ratings at home. Add to this mix a president who only wants big wins but doesn’t see the likelihood of that happening in Asia and you have the definition of decline.
That decline has, in recent years, often been calculated in terms of approaching horizons: when North Korean missiles can reach the West Coast; when China’s military spending pulls closer to the Pentagon’s; when Japan and South Korea, like the Philippines, begin to reconsider their allegiances. Now, in the Trump era, add one more item to the list: when Asia faces an incompetent, corrupt, and self-defeating administration in Washington.
The way seems clear enough for China, the strongest country in Asia, to fill the potential vacuum. But, as they say, the best-laid plans oft do go astray.
The Weakness of Asia
Japan is the incredible shrinking country. Between 2010 and 2015, the population of America’s most steadfast ally in the Pacific dropped by a million people to just over 127 million. As a result of a strikingly low fertility rate and negligible immigration, there could, according to official projections, be only 85-95 million Japanese by 2050. By 2135, after living in a fossilized society, the last Japanese, at the age of 118, could breathe his or her final breath. This worst-case scenario, as spelled out by former trade negotiator Clyde Prestowitz in his recent book Japan Restored, is perhaps far-fetched, but Japan is nevertheless on a path toward what looks like national seppuku: ritual suicide by attrition.
Ah, well, that’s Japan, you might think. It’s been in a fiscal funk since its economic bubble burst back in 1990. But the rise, stagnation, and shrinkage of that country remains a cautionary tale for all the other lands that have followed its path of export-led and state-facilitated growth.
After all, South Korea has entered its own period of diminished economic expectations, with anemic growth, widening inequality, and pervasive corporate corruption. Young South Koreans, facing the prospect of unemployment or poorly compensated contract labor, refer to their country as “Hell Choson,” a play on the Choson dynasty that ruled from 1392 to 1897. Taiwan, another member of the “flying geese of industrialization” responsible for Asia’s tremendous economic growth, faces a strikingly similar set of problems, according to economist Frank Hsiao, including “low and stagnating wage rates, increasing income inequality, the hollowing out of domestic industries, and languishing exports.”
Some of the shine is even wearing off China’s economic miracle. The days of annual double-digit growth in its gross national product are long past. Officials are happy now if they can cite growth figures closer to 7% (and even those are believed to be overstated). The Chinese labor force has been contracting since 2012. Strikes and labor protests increased dramatically in 2016, while unrest continues in China’s westernmost provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet. The government’s official anti-corruption campaign, despite netting some highly placed individuals, has only driven the corrupt into more discrete forms of graft.
Meanwhile, it’s not only Japan that faces a demographic crisis. The fertility rates of both Taiwan (1.12) and South Korea (1.25) are even lower than Japan’s (1.41), while China’s (1.6) is only a bit higher. None of them is close to the replacement rate of 2.1. Approaching 2050, all four countries will have to dig deep to pay the retirement benefits and healthcare costs of all the industrious workers currently outperforming their counterparts elsewhere in the world. What was once called “Japan passing” — investors skipping that country in search of better opportunities elsewhere in the region — is already morphing into “China passing.” Financial flows are also going to be affected by the rising waters of climate change, which, later in the century, will threaten major cities like Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
Predicting the coming supremacy of the East has been a veritable cottage industry in the West, and its stock is still rising as China’s One Belt, One Road venture, meant to tie the vast Eurasian continent together, goes head to head with Trump’s “my way or the highway.” The future, however, promises to be far messier than China or its boosters imagine. Demographics, corruption, and reduced economic growth — not to mention environmental degradation and the declining legitimacy of its ruling party’s ideology — are by no means the only problems that Beijing faces.
Asia’s New Nationalism
The United States once billed itself as the antidote to nationalism in Asia. After World War II, it established a permanent military presence across the region to prevent the resurgence of Japanese militarism. It portrayed itself as a neutral party, with no territorial ambitions. It restored the island of Okinawa to Japan in 1972. It refused to take sides in several island disputes in the region. In this way, its liberal internationalism squared off against the illiberal Communisms of China, North Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.
Both these supranational ideologies, which flourished in the region during the Cold War, have entered hospice care in the twenty-first century. Communism has functionally disappeared from the region, replaced by nationalisms of varying degrees of intensity. Xi Jinping’s China and Kim Jong-un’s North Korea are hardly the only places where nationalism has taken root.
In Japan, for instance, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is busy trying to rebuild the very militarism that the United States once professed to despise. A succession of U.S. administrations has aided and abetted this right-wing nationalist effort to dispense with the country’s post-World War II “peace constitution” and push the Japanese Self-Defense Forces onto the offensive.
Nationalist leaders, meanwhile, have assumed power throughout Southeast Asia: the murderous president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte; the former military commander, now prime minister of Thailand, Prayuth Chan-ocha; and the corrupt Najib Razak, prime minister of Malaysia. Even more ominously, nationalism has taken hold in South Asia, particularly in India, which recently replaced Great Britain as the world’s sixth largest economy and where Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made Hindu exceptionalism the heart and soul of his ruling party.
One obvious result of this rising nationalism has been escalating arms imports across the region. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, India became the world’s largest arms importer in 2012-2016. During that period, Southeast Asia’s arms imports rose by more than 6%, with Vietnam jumping to 10th place globally. In 2012, for the first time, Asia surpassed Europe in overall military spending.
Both the nationalist rhetoric and those weapons imports are certainly linked to regional perceptions of the waxing and waning of great powers. To reinforce their claims to the South China Sea and several other disputed territories, countries in the region feel the need to arm themselves in the face of a newly aggressive China and a perennially distracted United States.
At the moment, those two countries are cooperating in one key area: pouring money into the kind of military hardware that could someday lead to a catastrophic showdown. This reality has led ever more foreign policy analysts to invoke the “Thucydides trap,” in which a rising power like Athens (read: China) takes on the hitherto dominant power Sparta (read: America) in a long, debilitating conflict like the Peloponnesian War (read: World War III).
But the conflicts in Asia may, in fact, shape up quite differently. Movements for greater self-determination are undercutting the reach of both the rising and the reigning superpower. Consider the contrasting examples of Myanmar and South Korea.
China is the largest investor in Myanmar, and at one time the two countries were as thick as thieves. But relations between them have grown tense. In 2011, the new civilian-led government in Myanmar stopped work on the Myitsone dam, one of a number of mega-projects financed by Beijing. “Plenty of Burmese blame China for helping to prop up the military junta,” writes journalist Tom Miller in his new book, China’s Asian Dream. Newly enfranchised, the Burmese have taken aim at projects like Myitsone, where 90% of the electricity generated would have gone to China. Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi must now decide between permanently mothballing the dam, which would require paying back the $800 million owed Chinese financiers, or going forward with a deeply unpopular project she previously opposed.
The example of Myanmar is not unique. Sri Lanka has recently swung away from China and back toward India. Filipino President Duterte has recently edged back toward a United States led by Donald Trump, who has praised the Philippine leader’s drug war (despite its massive human rights violations). Vietnam is perennially suspicious of China’s geopolitical intentions, but anti-Chinese sentiment has also been building in Laos, Indonesia, and Malaysia. One Belt, One Road might outstrip the Marshall Plan in size, but it lacks the underlying regional political solidarity that ensured the latter’s success.
And yet China is not alone in feeling a backlash in the region. In South Korea, for instance, a decade of conservative rule came to a crashing end with the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye on corruption charges, a hastily organized election, and the victory of progressive Moon Jae-in. The new South Korean leader is no firebrand, so don’t expect a dramatic break with Washington. South Korea has been subservient to the United States for too long to risk that any time soon. Moon has, however, promised to take another look at the missile defense system — the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) — that the United States worked so hard to deploy in South Korea before he took office. The new president also wants to mend fences with China, the country’s largest trading partner, and revive a more cooperative relationship with North Korea as well.
Meanwhile, in Japan, opposition from politicians, activists, and ordinary citizens in Okinawa has blocked a plan hammered out in Tokyo and Washington to close an old U.S. military base in the city of Futenma, only to build a replacement elsewhere on the island. Okinawa is where America houses a good deal of its Pacific firepower. The refusal of Okinawan inhabitants to support the construction of the new base has not only scrambled the Pacific plans of both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton but given new legitimacy to the idea of withdrawing U.S. forces from Japan and South Korea to a secondary tier of islands like Guam.
The growing willingness of Asian countries to put their own interests above those of their putative patrons has also made it more difficult for the region to find common ground. “Asia is not remotely cohesive,” writes Jessica Mathews of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There is no ‘East’ comparable to the ‘West.’ Though the region is integrating economically, it is riven by active conflicts, bitter historical memories, and deep cultural divisions.”
Past as Prologue?
If liberal internationalism no longer appeals to U.S. allies in Asia — or, indeed, to the new leadership in Washington — it might be easy enough to assume that the future will be a replay of the past: the return to a Sinocentric universe that prevailed for 1,000 years or more in the region. Instead of local satraps loaded with gifts visiting an emperor in Beijing, the leaders of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and the Philippines will build dams and ports and pipelines with Chinese money and then repatriate much of the proceeds to that country.
As it happens, though, the intensification of nationalism in Asia has greatly complicated this picture and may leave leaders like Duterte playing Beijing off against Washington, or striking out on their own, or perhaps seeking help from India — or even Saudi Arabia, which has made a bid for greater influence among Muslim-majority countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. If the rise of China has caused much anxiety in the West, so has the possibility that no country will become dominant in Asia in the wake of U.S. decline and that a new kind of chaos will descend on the region.
“The idea of a multipolar world, without dominant powers and guided solely by the rule of law, is theoretically attractive,” Financial Times journalist Gideon Rachman writes in his recent book Easternization. But he adds, “I fear that just such a multipolar world is already emerging and proving to be unstable and dangerous: the ‘rules’ are very hard to enforce without a dominant power in the background.”
For years, Asia has contemplated an alternative to both Chinese and American hegemony. Following the example of the European Union, politicians and scholars have imagined a future of economic and political integration. But the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and similar efforts continue to fall far short of the EU ideal (which itself looks increasingly shaky and fragmented).
In other words, despite all those dreams of Asia’s glittering future, it’s unlikely to resemble the peaceful prosperity of Europe, nor is it likely to see a continuation of U.S. hegemony or a repeat of the China-centered system of centuries past. It’s likely, however, to involve population decline, economic contraction, heightened nationalism, and rising waters — a future, in short, filled with troubles and dangers of every sort.
Although Washington still commands considerable power in the region, it could stand back, Trump-like, and just watch everything unravel. Or, alongside Beijing, it could make a serious investment in a new organization of security and economic cooperation, in which the United States and China would be equal partners, the region could have its collective say, and the new nationalism would be deprived of its major raison d’être.
Without such a supranational vision that could bring the region together around the twin threats of climate change and economic inequality, one thing is essentially guaranteed. The Asia to come won’t look shiny and new like some Hollywood movie. The future may not look like Asia at all, but more like Europe circa 1913, at the edge of conflict and cataclysm.