China doesn’t have the economic ability, societal will or political transparency to lead the current world order. Even the Chinese would concede that an open, liberal post-World War II system led by the Xi Jinping government, instead of America and Asian allies such as Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, would collapse. This is because additional, unambiguous liberalization threatens the entire communist house of cards, particularly the Chinese system of a controlled market economy with iron-fist-rule.
It’s under this cloud of inconsistency that the former US administration conceived its policy of a pivot towards Asia. While it achieved the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, which should’ve been ratified by the Trump administration, the use of the word “pivot” was a poor choice. Most of all, actions towards Asia, the most geopolitically important region in the 21st century, have spurred the current crisis with North Korea and China’s continued rivalry and historic hatred towards Japan.
Outside of sanctions that will take years to implement, and cyber attacks on North Korean missiles, not much can be done to stop the Kim Jong-un regime’s development of an ICBM unless China – Asia’s most important nation – intervenes. That seems unlikely since trade between China and North Korea has dramatically surged since the mutual belligerence began immediately after Trump’s inauguration.
Former US president Barack Obama’s “strategic patience” with North Korea was an abject failure, and the crisis can be laid at the doorstep of Obama, Ben Rhodes, Susan Rice, John Brennan, and other US national security officials who did nothing while Kim armed his country and threatened the entire Korean Peninsula and Chinese stability. What this means is US leadership is without equal in Asia, and while the pivot was ill-conceived, no other country, and certainly not Asean, has the economic, military, intelligence or diplomatic reach to deter North Korea or ultimately win a war against them the way the US won in Iraq (please read Dr Victor Davis Hanson’s Savior Generals, Chapter Five on General David Petraeus for verification of the US’s victory).
Xi offered a vision of the world that he can’t replicate after seven decades of US leadership.
The Pivot by Kurt Campbell and The End of the Asian Century by Michael Auslin both detail the dangers that lie ahead because of the pivot and the risks that will need to be managed, otherwise the region could see failure on the scale of WWII. Both books illustrate the need for leadership to ensure continued prosperity and peace in Asia. What’s fascinating about the Chinese, though, is how they speak out of both sides of their collective, governmental mouths.
At the World Economic Forum in January, President Xi assured the audience that China was ready to lead the liberal order built and protected by the US while offering a “strong defense of globalization.” That speech was a smokescreen cloaked in a myth. Xi isn’t prepared to offer communist China as an alternative to the US or a way to stop the erosion of that order. Further, Xi didn’t say what the Chinese or their allies are prepared to do to ensure economic prosperity without environmental degradation, which the Chinese crave. Xi offered a vision of the world that he can’t replicate after seven decades of US leadership. While Beijing loves reminding the world of inconsistent American leadership that is in full retreat, Xi’s government offers no other consistent policy.
What should be American policy towards Asia is a consistent theme of not allowing any hegemonic power “exclusive control over Asia or the Pacific.” The tension over North Korea touches on the very cornerstone of US policy since the late 1700s. The biggest concern for Asia when it comes to security and the nuclear umbrella America provides is making sure the current administration balances its European, Middle Eastern and Asian strategic policies. When Asia was an afterthought (pre-WWII, Obama’s foreign policy retreat), then predictably self-determination in the negative takes over, as seen by the current North Korean belligerence and China militarizing the South China Sea.
America found out during WWII that the Pacific Ocean doesn’t ensure security. Therefore, Asia and America should solve the North Korean crisis with every diplomatic, intelligence and possibly military tools available. The economic tug-of-war taking place between China and the US over protectionism versus free trade pales in comparison if all of Asia doesn’t take its collective head out of the sand and once and for all deal with North Korea and eventually Chinese ambition. Xi allowing North Korea to thrive is a deeply flawed policy that will backfire on his government. Fortunately, US Vice President Mike Pence’s tour of Asia in April outlines the beginnings of a new security for Asia and US policy in general that pivots from that deeply flawed policy.
Now that the US pivot is a thing of the past, what should Asia look to accomplish during this time of nuclear crisis if the North Koreans develop an ICBM and the Chinese sit back and let their proxy do their dirty work for them. The strategic mess the US created is now Trump’s to clean up with “patience, prudence and perseverance,” according to Dr Robert Kaufman of Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy. Sending three US aircraft carriers to the Korean Peninsula reassures Asia of a US-led order the pivot lacked. Hard power beats lofty rhetoric every time. But the unforeseen threats of “economic stagnation, demographic pressures, unfinished political revolutions, the lack of regional unity and war” will have to be undertaken immediately by Asian nations without China being the leader of this coalition. Xi’s insistence that China is undergoing a “great rejuvenation” is just a Communist Party slogan for a Chinese-led order that is long on hegemonic ambition but short on contemporary leadership. The accommodation of strategic leadership will come into play once Asia-Pacific nations come together and check the rising Chinese influence that has been allowed by the false pivot under Obama. Until that occurs, realpolitik balancing under the current US-led order is the wisest way to move forward.