Would Trump Push Asian Nations Toward China?
Throughout the past decade, the United States, in the view of most Asians, has gone from acting like an overbearing hegemon to being an enfeebled superpower. For the first time since the end of World War II, America’s primacy in Asia can no longer be taken for granted, especially as an ascendant China rapidly dominates the region’s economic sphere, while aggressively chipping away at American naval supremacy in the Western Pacific. On the one hand, this tectonic shift in the regional geopolitical landscape is part of what pundits like Fareed Zakaria call the “rise of the rest” phenomenon. Amid rapid economic growth and industrialization, gigantic Asian nations like China are beginning to reconstitute their place in the world order. Quite naturally, there will have to be some readjustments in the pecking order.
Yet China’s growing assertiveness is also a reflection of America’s own predicament. The Great Recession of 2008 hasn’t only undermined the economic foundations of America’s power, but it has also been accompanied by a perilous polarization in American politics, which reached a fever pitch in 2013. Senator Ted Cruz orchestrated the shutdown of the nation’s capital amid an ideological squabble over fiscal policy. President Obama, who has been keen on re-balancing America’s foreign policy to Asia, had to nix a series of high-profile summits and state visits in Asia.
Quite uncharacteristically, some of Asia’s most prominent leaders began to vent their frustrations over America’s dysfunctional politics. "While politically we understand the reason for the president's decision, of course it is disappointing for all those involved," a Bruneian foreign ministry official lamented, as it became clear that Obama was cancelling his highly-anticipated visit to the tiny kingdom for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was more emphatic when declared, “America has to continue to be engaged in this region because it plays a very important role which no other country can replace, not China, not Japan, not any other power."
Asian countries were essentially telling America to get its own house in order lest others will fill in the vacuum. In fact, China, led by President Xi Jinping, made the most out of Obama’s no-show, launching one major economic initiative after the other to woo countries across the region. Quietly, the Asian juggernaut also kicked off a reclamation and construction spree across contested waters, building artificial islands, dual-purpose facilities, and massive airstrips capable of hosting most advanced aircrafts. In the words of Admiral Harry Harris, head of the US Pacific Command, China began “changing the operational landscape" in the South China Sea, the world’s most important waterway.
The Obama administration’s much-vaunted Sunnylands summit with Southeast Asian nations was part of a desperately urgent maneuver to re-assert American leadership in Asia and push back against China’s assertiveness. However, the rise of a demagogic, isolationist leader like Donald Trump, who is cruising towards the White House, is seriously undermining America’s image across Asia. With his policy pronouncements and polarizing rhetoric, the real estate mogul is undermining America’s long-held claim to exceptionalism and benign leadership.
Soft Power Disaster
In Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, Harvard University professor Joseph Nye deftly underlined the centrality of the power of attraction to maintaining American global leadership. In the era of “rise of the rest”, it seems almost inevitable that America’s outsized dominance in the international system is bound to diminish overtime. But America’s relative decline in ‘hard power’ can be more than compensated by its ability to maintain a robust ‘soft power’, that is to say the usage of persuasion and attraction—through pro-active diplomacy and elegant multilateralism—in shaping the international order, Nye argued.