Trump fiddles with phone as US burns out in Asia, and China gives a lesson in leadership
President’s Twitter rants and lack of a coherent strategy have seen confidence in US leadership plummet, and Beijing has not been slow to fill the void
“Of all manifestations of power, restraint impresses men the most,” warned Thucydides, who painfully observed the Peloponnesian war and the devastation of the Athenian empire.
Centuries from now, the world is likely to look back at the Donald Trump presidency as the beginning of a precipitous decline in America’s global influence. His midnight rants on Twitter, open hostility to the international liberal order, and lack of a coherent grand strategy has alienated friends and allies like never before.
In contrast, Beijing has deftly forged ahead with constructing an “Asia for Asians”, while luring the world with ambitious infrastructure projects that will transform globalisation in China’s image.
Meanwhile, US allies such as Japan, Australia and the European Union have openly expressed their willingness to fill the leadership vacuum by pushing for alternative trade, security and climate-related agreements.
To be fair, what we are witnessing is partly driven by a relative decline in the foundations of American power, primarily due to the meteoric rise of China and other major developing countries.
In the coming years, Beijing is expected not only to oversee the world’s largest economy, but also emerge as a leading global source of investment and technology. Even in the realm of military power, where the US holds a decisive edge, China is rapidly closing the gap.
According to a Rand Corporation study, Beijing is catching up in virtually every crucial area of military technology, while enjoying geographical advantage vis-à-vis crucial flashpoints such as the Taiwan Strait, South China Sea and Korean Peninsula.
Nonetheless, as Thucydides observed in ancient Greece, quality of leadership can define the fate of superpowers and the broader trajectory of history.
Throughout my conversations with senior officials and experts from American allied nations in Asia and Europe, I have seen nothing short of outright trepidation regarding the Trump presidency.
While the statements and actions of able officials such as US Defence Secretary James Mattis have been warmly received, there is still an excruciating clamour for a steady hand at the top.
Surveys show that global confidence in America’s leadership has collapsed in the past year alone. A Pew study reported an average 42 per cent decline among 37 surveyed nations.
An intensified “Russia-gate” investigation into members of Trump’s inner circle is expected to further distract an already wobbly administration.
Trump’s “America first” mantra has been interpreted as an unvarnished expression of unilateralism and isolationism by the global superpower. In response, many countries have found themselves either embracing China or veering away from America.
During his November trip to Asia, the US president struggled to secure a single major concession from either allies or rivals, namely China. Crucially, Trump was deeply isolated during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in Vietnam, where he openly called for bilateral trade agreements and lashed out at globalisation.
Aside from nixing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which deeply alienated regional allies and new friends such as Vietnam, Trump failed to propose any new economic initiative in the region.
In a blatant rebuke, allies such as Japan and Australia subsequently discussed a revitalised TPP deal, which excludes America yet upholds the principles of free trade. Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping extolled the virtues of an open global order.
The Chinese leader described globalisation as an “irreversible historical trend”, reiterating his country’s commitment to a “multilateral trading regime and practice”, which enables “developing members to benefit more from international trade and investment”.
In particular, China supports the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which covers 16 nations and aims to dramatically reduce tariff barriers across the Asia-Pacific. In fact, it’s here where Beijing’s greatest strength lies: commercial diplomacy.
Across Southeast Asia, China is increasingly seen as the next major driver of industrialisation and development, including among American treaty allies Thailand and the Philippines.
While Xi used the bully pulpit to promote globalisation during the Apec summit, China’s Premier Li Keqiang, in turn, offered concrete investment deals during his visit to Manila for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit just days after.
While Trump cut his visit to Manila short by 24 hours, Li extended his stay in the city by several days. He met and discussed multibillion-dollar infrastructure projects with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
Lured by China’s economic initiatives, the Filipino president leveraged his Asean chairmanship this year to deepen ties between Beijing and Southeast Asian nations. We may have finally found a glimpse of Pax Sinica in Asia.
Richard Javad Heydarian is an Asia-based scholar and the author of several books, including Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for Western Pacific and The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy.