by Chas Freeman
I attended my first PPI gathering in 1997 at Larry Hull’s place in Agate Beach, Oregon. I remember Bob Maynard politely but pointedly questioning my prediction that Pacific Asia was about to make a comeback as the global center of economic gravity. He made some good, cautionary points. A week later, much of Asia was laid low by financial crisis. Straight-lining the present into the future is usually a mistake.
But the central role of the region in the global geoeconomic balance is now not just a reality but a bit of a cliché. It can also be a distraction that impedes consideration of other changes in the world order, how they relate to each other, and what is happening in other parts of the Eurasian landmass.
Geopolitics frames political risk and determines patterns of trade and investment. The geopolitical order in the Asia-Pacific is in the midst of significant evolution. I want very briefly to review the global context in which this change is taking place.
For four and a half centuries – beginning with Columbus’s touchdown in the Americas and Vasco da Gama’s opening of sea routes to India – European nations and their empires held sway throughout the world, including in East Asia and the Pacific. But as the twentieth century unfolded, war hollowed out European imperialism. In the Asia-Pacific, Japan moved to dominate the region, America counterattacked and displaced its dominance, European and American colonies became independent nations, and China was reborn. During the Cold War, the Asia-Pacific was an exclusive American sphere of political, economic, and military influence. American dominance was seen by most as key to stability. At the turn of this century, it began to crumble.
Under the Trump administration, the United States has now turned decisively against the multilateral institutions, alliances, partnerships, and policies that constituted the Pax Americana and the Washington consensus. For almost three-quarters of a century these served to limit warfare, promote economic growth at home and abroad, and foster cooperative problem-solving under American leadership. Peace, continued rapid rates of economic growth, and the world’s capacity to halt and reverse the degradation of the global commons are all now in doubt. Everyone is hedging against the rising uncertainty. The global arms market is livelier and more profitable than ever.
It matters that the world and its regions are no longer partitioned between two superpowers. In the new world disorder that has followed the Cold War, the “world island” – the Eurasian landmass – has five distinct parts:
- Two ocean-bounded subcontinents – Europe and South Asia,
- The sprawling northern expanse of the Russian Federation,
- The Islamic realms of West and Central Asia and North Africa, and, finally,
- The mainland of East Asia and islands of the Pacific.
China’s “belt and road initiative” and similar schemes by Japan, Korea, and others propose to link these geopolitical zones in new ways. But each part of the supercontinent has its own dynamic. And, with the notable exception of the Asia-Pacific, each has evolved a distinctive state system that seems likely to last for some time. The Asia-Pacific is in uncertain transition. No one knows whether it will echo the patterns that now rule the four other parts of Eurasia or take its own course.
Most in the Asia-Pacific would probably prefer a framework for cooperative security and multinational cooperation similar to that in Europe. But no one believes that the preconditions for such community-building are present in today’s Asia.
And no nation now aspires to create the sort of imperial order represented by the Russian Federation. Moscow controls one-sixth of the world’s territory. It rules over a hundred ethnic groups. This is what Japan sought to impose on the Asia-Pacific 86 years ago. To put this model in place now, China or India would have to gamble on succeeding where Japan failed. But none of the region’s current or potential great powers – China, India, Indonesia, or Japan – shows any desire to attempt this. Militarist fantasies of regional conquest are a China-as-bogeyman budget-builder. They have traction mainly in the minds of DOD-funded think-wankers in Washington.
In West Asia, unlike the Asia-Pacific, rivalry between local great powers mixes geopolitics with theology. It has produced a Cold War-style partition sustained by proxy wars and violent clashes between client states and protectorates of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Like Cold War Americans, Sunni Arabs regard non-alignment as immoral and are willing to go to considerable lengths to punish it. (Ask the State of Qatar about this!) This is not a pattern likely to take hold in East Asia.
The pattern of geopolitics in South Asia seems more relevant. There a single regional superpower is checked by a strong lesser power with external backing. Pakistan has enough inherent strength and support from interested external parties – especially China – to deny India the free hand in its near abroad that it would otherwise command. A regional nuclear stand-off is part of this balance. To the extent that rising Indian power pushes against India’s neighbors, they find ways to resist. The same dynamic is at play between China and its neighbors.
In theory, Japan might seek American backing for an independent role in balancing and checking China, much as Pakistan uses its relationship with China to balance and check India. But Japan was emasculated and subordinated to America by its defeat in World War II. Japanese foreign policy continues to embody risk-aversion born of post-traumatic stress disorder. Tokyo’s response to the shifting power balances in its region, including the rising power of both Koreas as well as China, and the decline of Russia and, lately, the United States has been halting and slow. But no one should count Japan out as a great power in its own right.
Seventy-two years after the United States displaced it as the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific, Japan is moving toward becoming what it calls “a normal country.” By this it means a country that can work with others in the region to pursue security and other policies that leverage American power but are not solely dependent on it. Notwithstanding Article 9 of its US-dictated constitution, Japan has managed to rebuild formidable military capabilities. It is becoming an arms exporter and a source of military aid for countries with disputes with China. Japan is exploring investment in India’s defense industries. And it is trying to pick up the regional rule-setting role that the United States cast aside when it abandoned TPP.
Regional balance in the Asia-Pacific must be grounded in the policies and capabilities of the nations there. America has been a great power in the Asia-Pacific since the mid-nineteenth century. Americans see China as an increasingly potent peer competitor for influence there. Washington has become fixated on preserving its post-World War II primacy in the region. America’s efforts to retard rebalancing by the nations of the Asia-Pacific inadvertently discourage regional initiatives that might substitute self-reliance for dependence on U.S. political, economic, or military protection.. The U.S. insistence on primacy also assures that regional quarrels — even those in which Americans have little or no intrinsic interest — now almost immediately become zero-sum interactions between the United States and China.
Such trans-Pacific rivalries complicate the resolution or management of potential flashpoints in the Western Pacific like Taiwan, the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands, competing claims by littoral states to land features in the South China Sea, and north Korea’s paranoia about regime change. These are issues between regional powers that now nonetheless carry with them clear risks of another trans-Pacific war involving the use of nuclear weapons, this time by both sides, not just Americans. Unthinkable as the consequences of such a war would be, military planners in Beijing, Pyongyang, and Washington are well along in contingency planning for one.
But, whatever happens in the military sphere, the growth and consolidation of an increasingly Sino-centric economic order in the Western Pacific seem likely to continue. China is still growing much faster than most other countries, though slower than in the recent past. It is increasingly innovative. China’s power is waxing as America’s wanes and Japan’s stagnates. Beijing is irked by India but sees it as falling well short of being a peer competitor. China doesn’t want a war and judges that time and continued self-strengthening will inevitably gain it the respect and deference it craves.
This judgment has been reinforced by recent developments on this side of the Pacific. The United States – the only country that poses a comprehensive military challenge to China – has the least competent government in its 241-year history. Washington’s deliberative processes are suspended or gridlocked, its tax revenues frozen, and its budget sequestered. America’s armed forces are generously funded but busy making enemies and losing wars in strategically insignificant places. The United States is slashing the capabilities of its civilian foreign affairs departments and agencies. It is increasingly out of sync with its allies and trading partners and isolated at international gatherings. It has dropped out of TPP and no longer seeks even to participate in writing the rules for international trade and investment in the Asia-Pacific or anywhere else.
Asians have been trying to figure out American strategy in the Asia-Pacific. So far they’ve failed. Washington is looking for threats to deter, not gains to be made through problem solving. America wants to retain its strategic preeminence in the region, but its means of doing so consists of tactical responses to potentially explosive developments on China’s periphery, beginning with north Korea’s fielding of a nuclear deterrent.
The Kim dynasty has ample reason to see the United States as an existential threat. The family objective has been to persuade Washington to make a credible commitment not to try to depose it. But three generations of Kims have elaborated the cruelest and most despised totalitarian society the world has yet seen. Perhaps, with the right deal between the Kim and Trump families, Americans could be persuaded to accept the Kim regime as an unpleasant reality. They cannot be made to endorse it or to commit to keeping it in power.
In June 1950, Kim Il-sung tried to seize the entire Korea Peninsula by force. For two-thirds of a century, the United States has helped south Koreans deter him, his son, and his grandson from trying again. But deterrence in Korea works two ways. North Korea long ago made Seoul hostage to massed artillery. Over the course of nearly five decades – from their capture of the USS Pueblo in 1968 to their sinking of a south Korean naval vessel in 2010 – the Kims have repeatedly shown that, even when they carry out egregious provocations, they can deter south Korea and the United States from using force to punish them.
Kim Jong-un has taken note of what happened to Ukraine after it gave up its nuclear weapons. He has studied the fate of Col. Qaddhafi and watched U.S. politicians try to undo the Iran nuclear deal. He is convinced that only a fully functioning nuclear deterrent can protect his country from apparently implacable American hostility. He will not stand down from building such a deterrent, no matter how tough the sanctions imposed on his country may be. There is no basis for believing that anyone who might succeed him in power in Pyongyang disagrees with him about this. North Korea is determined to be able to parry any U.S. attempt at regime change by showing that it can retaliate by devastating the American homeland.
The result of decades of fumbled diplomacy by all parties in Korea is nuclear checkmate. The denuclearization of Korea is no longer possible. Neither is a U.S. takedown of the Kim regime. There will be occasional clashes along the 38th Parallel as there have been in the past, but there will be no war, no breakthrough, no peace, and – most sadly – no relaxation of tensions. What there may be is the return of nuclear weapons to south Korea, either deployed by the United States or independently developed by south Koreans to counter their northern compatriots.
For decades, south Korea and Japan have had to live with the disturbing possibility that, if provoked, north Korea might use weapons of mass destruction against them. The United States is about to be in the same unpleasant position. Coercive disarmament of north Korea is infeasible, but it should be possible to ensure that Pyongyang does not export its nuclear and missile technology to others. Focusing on this as soon as possible is in the interest of China, Japan, Russia, south Korea, and the United States as well as the global community.
Japan is the home of U.S. bases and a prime target of north Korean missiles. This gives it an even stronger interest in the stability of the Korean Peninsula and the containment of north Korean belligerence than China. Despite slow economic growth and adverse demographic trends, Japan clearly has the potential to exercise a great deal more power in its region than it has done in recent decades. American bases in Japan remain a reliable platform for U.S. trans-global power projection. But, as Japan emerges from its post-war eclipse, it is ceasing to exhibit unquestioning allegiance to American policy. As issues arise, to gain Japanese support, the United States must show that it is factoring in Japanese interests.
Japan will be under increasing pressure to develop an independent nuclear deterrent of its own. Washington will need to find ways to convince both Japanese and anyone inclined to attack Japan that, to defend Japan, Americans will risk nuclear attack on our homeland.
Washington has made a commitment to back Japan’s continued administration of the uninhabited and strategically insignificant but symbolically important Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands. The contest between China and Japan over these barren rocks in the East China Sea is less about who actually controls them than it is about whether their disposition should be seen as legally settled. Japan claims there is no dispute about this. China is determined to prove that there is, but, for reasons related to Taiwan, wants to defer trying to resolve it.
China and Japan are both militarily highly capable great powers. Theirs is a dangerous confrontation even without the threatened involvement of the United States. So far, both sides have been appropriately cautious, avoiding violent clashes. There is every reason to expect that this caution will continue. That is a good thing. Both China and Japan would lose a great deal from any armed conflict between them. For its part, the United States should do what it can to avoid being dragged into a war with China in defense of Japanese territorial claims that it does not itself espouse.
The South China Sea attracts more headlines and burns more testosterone in the United States than the Sino-Japanese face-off. It shouldn’t. China and the United States are each offended by the statements and actions of the other, but neither wants a fight. China has belatedly joined others in establishing a permanent presence in the formerly uninhabited Spratly Islands. The United States is not attempting to dislodge it. The naval games of chicken now taking place there are not about China’s claims to islands and reefs. They are about whether the U.S. Navy can still make and enforce the rules in China’s near seas. The stakes are far from trivial but not high enough for either side to go to war with the other. Barring an accident, they won’t. In the meantime, the huffing and puffing on both sides is good for their naval budgets, if nothing else.
The main driver of the current arms race and the most likely cause of war between the United States and China remains the one least often mentioned – Taiwan. The island’s continued separation from the rest of China is the direct result of U.S. intervention in a Chinese civil war. Beijing’s inability to bring Taiwan to heel is an ongoing reminder of China’s past humiliation by foreigners. Its patience on this unfinished nationalist business reflects its desire to avoid war with America. But the deferral of any push to resolve the issue has been aided by the Communist Party’s official view that some form of reunification is just a matter of time.
This makes it ominous that negotiated reunification now seems increasingly implausible. The election of an anti-reunification, pro-independence government in Taiwan has halted cross-Strait rapprochement. The mercurial pronouncements of the Trump administration have raised questions about whether China can count on Washington to live up to past understandings about Taiwan. Beijing now has the capacity to devastate Taiwan militarily regardless of opposition by the U.S. armed forces. This gives China politico-military options it didn’t have.
Meanwhile, China’s appeal as a society is ebbing as its politics become ever more illiberal and authoritarian. Beijing has reverted to conflating loyalty to the Communist Party with patriotic devotion to China. This does not sit well with Chinese not yet ruled by Beijing, whether in Hong Kong or Taiwan. The “one country, two systems” framework was supposed to guarantee political autonomy and socioeconomic diversity within a reunified China. Ever fewer believe it can.
The Chinese Communist Party will celebrate its hundredth anniversary in 2021, only four years from now. Some Chinese see this as a logical target date for ending the division of their country once and for all. China’s ability to use force continues to improve, even as Taiwanese resistance to the idea of peaceful reunification grows. China’s sticks are bigger, but its carrots are less sweet. The only way for Beijing to achieve unification at present would be to squeeze Taiwan and make it an offer it could not refuse.
A military confrontation between Beijing and Taipei would produce a geopolitical earthquake in northeast Asia and enormous tension, perhaps even a war, between China and the United States. Some in both countries seem unfazed by this. A crisis is not inevitable, but there is a risk that Xi Jinping’s second term as China’s leader, from 2018 to 2023, could see the Taiwan issue come to a head.
Let me conclude. I was asked to speak about geopolitics, not economic risks in the region. Everyone recognizes the perils a financial crisis or sudden slowdown in the Chinese economy would present. Pardon me if I mention just two other uncertainties before standing down.
The greatest risks at present arise from the sudden economic nationalism and erratic decision-making of the United States, which is every Asia-Pacific nation’s third or fourth largest trading partner. In his inaugural address, President Trump declared that: “protection will lead to prosperity and strength.” This is a bet that many believe could go very badly wrong.
Meanwhile, Chinese policymakers want continued rapid growth as well as meaningful reform in their economy. No one believes they can have both. This fall’s Party Congress promises to give Xi Jinping the authority to choose. His choice will inspire the economic work conference that will follow the Congress. Xi’s decision (or his failure to decide) will shape not just China’s future but those of other economies throughout the region and the world.
To sum up: in the global and regional geopolitics of the new world disorder there are more moving parts than ever before and the Asia-Pacific sub-region presents more uncertainties than others. (And I have not had time to mention, let alone address the current drift toward war between Indian and Chinese forces on the Sikkim-Bhutan-China border.) The United States no longer calls the shots. It’s not clear that, if it did, the current administration would know where to aim them. No other country is in line to succeed America as manager of the international system or guarantor of stability in the Asia-Pacific. The 21st is nobody’s century. Each region is doing its own thing.
It has been said that, if you expect the worst, you’ll never be disappointed.. But, as I see it, in East Asia and the Pacific we should view the future with apprehensive optimism — tempered with vigilant realism.
This speech was delivered July 27, 2017 in Toronto. Republished, with permission, from chasfreeman.net. Copyright Chas Freeman.