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.
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.
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 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.”
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
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 cyber warfare, 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.
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.
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 fossilised society, the last Japanese, at the age of 118, could breathe his or her final breath. This worst-case scenario, as spelt 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 remain a cautionary tale for all the other lands that have followed its path of export-led and state-facilitated growth.
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 labour force has been contracting since 2012. Strikes and labour 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.
Asia’s New Nationalism
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.
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).
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 anytime soon. Moon has, however, promised to take another look at the missile defence 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.
Past as Prologue?
“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.”
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.
John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus and the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands.