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Phasing out the US (dis)order in the Asia Pacific

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Military caps are seen before a House Armed Services Committee hearing on ‘Military Assessment of the Security Challenges in the Indo-Asia-Pacific Region’ on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., US, 26 April 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Yuri Gripas).

In Brief

It is widely held that there is qualitative distinction between the benign, liberal US global order prevailing in the Asia Pacific, and a potentially threatening and malign Chinese imperialist order. This perspective is quite hallucinatory.


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To cite the most egregious example, the Vietnam War, apart from its bloody savagery, was fought with cultural arrogance. It was during the Vietnam War that the Kafkaesque term ‘body count’ was coined, whereby the number of corpses from battles were tallied up and transmitted to the Pentagon. Much forgotten was the US war in neighbouring Laos where an estimated 10 per cent of the population were killed and 25 per cent, mostly civilians, were made refugees.

Also widely ignored are the origins of the US presence in the Asia Pacific. John Hay, US Secretary of State from 1898 to 1905, expressed his vision that while ‘the Mediterranean was the ocean of the past and the Atlantic the ocean of the present, the Pacific is the ocean of the future’. When the Spanish-American War (1898-1899) broke out, Hay ensured that the US also obtained Spain’s colony in the Philippines. As even The Economist, a notoriously pro-US newspaper, points out, ‘The generals in the Philippine campaign had nearly all earned their spurs fighting Native Americans; in the tropics they applied the same genocidal techniques of terror, atrocities and native reservations’.

By no means has US foreign policy in the Asia Pacific been invariably malign. On balance, the US presence in the Asia Pacific has ultimately been positive. The US occupation contributed significantly to the economic reconstruction of Japan. There can also be no doubt that US aid, the opening of its market and technology transfers contributed mightily to the economic rise of Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. This was further enhanced by former president Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to Mao Zedong in Beijing and eventually the restoration of diplomatic relations between the United States and China. As Kishore Mahbubani argues, ASEAN owes its successful existence in good part to the collaborative, rather than conflictual, relationship between the United States and China.

But that was then and now is now. In the second half of the 20th century, the US’ main rival in the Asia Pacific, as elsewhere, was the Soviet Union. The Sino–Soviet split in 1960 allowed the United States to consider China a potential ally in the Cold War, paving the way for Nixon’s visit.

But the 21st century has witnessed the spectacular re-emergence of China as a global power. China’s economic growth has had a most positive effect in China itself — especially the massive reduction in poverty for an estimated 700 million — and for the world. Following the great financial crisis of 2007, China has been an engine of global growth. Its aid, trade and investments in Asia, Africa and Latin America have been significant.

As awesome as China’s rise has been, it has also generated considerable anxiety, including — or perhaps especially — among Asian nations. In contrast to the US that has a whole network of both formal and informal alliances in the Asia Pacific, China only has one: North Korea. Asian nations are increasingly faced with the thorny dilemma: while China is their major economic partner, the United States is their major strategic partner.  

The greatest geopolitical threat to the world is China and the US falling into the so-called Thucydides trap of war, which for Asia Pacific countries would require making a choice between allying with either China or the United States. Following the early 20th century pattern in Europe, the Asia Pacific risks becoming the terrain of great power military conflict.

There are many frailties and tensions in the Asia Pacific landscape. The drama unfolding on the Korean peninsula vividly illustrates how the United States may be aggravating these tensions, rather than mitigating or resolving them. By seeking to bring its allies Japan and South Korea into a confrontation with China and North Korea, Washington is playing with potentially explosive fire in Northeast Asia. The current situation of continued US military domination and presumed political leadership in the Asia Pacific is unsustainable.

Instead, Washington should take a leaf out of the post-World War II history book. While the US ‘saved’ Europe in both World War I and World War II, after World War II it provided strategic, economic and moral support to allow and encourage European governments themselves to build the post-war European edifice, especially through Franco–German reconciliation and collaboration.

Ideally, the US should phase out its military presence, while providing leadership in trade and global economic governance — in other words, the opposite of the present situation. Recognising that while at times the US presence in Asia was malign, at others benign, and that on balance it was positive, the time has come to turn the page and open a new volume in the Asia Pacific’s narrative. The construction of the 21st century Asia Pacific must be left to Asia-Pacific nations.

This process must be undertaken incrementally over the long term. A sudden impulsive US departure from the Asia Pacific region would create a perilous vacuum. Major geopolitical great power transitions have almost invariably involved war. In the process of dismantling the US-led Asia Pacific order, a new 21st century edifice with solid foundations should be constructed by the Asia Pacific itself, though with the US’ benevolent support. This seems the only viable course for peace.

Jean-Pierre Lehmann is Emeritus Professor of International Political Economy at IMD, Switzerland, founder of the Evian Group, and Visiting Professor at Hong Kong University. You can follow him on Twitter at @JP_Lehmann.

5 responses to “Phasing out the US (dis)order in the Asia Pacific”

  1. I highly commend the author for this excellent post with bold and a way that does not necessarily bind to the conventionally political-correct view (presumably the main stream and dominant Western view and probably not so West views in many quarters in the world).
    It requires courage, wisdom and foresight, as well as true independence in thinking and writing.
    I also appreciate the fact that the East Asia Forum allows the post to be presented on its forum.
    Imagine how many voices are there for a call to abolish NATO, except for an interesting president of the most powerful country on earth?
    Nowadays the phrase ‘pivot to Asia’ is not heard so often as it used to be following the change of the president in the US. Yet calling for ‘the US should phase out its military presence’ is so fresh and rare.

  2. It should be added, the period of relative begin US leadership was not the result of a super power keeping a overwhelming military alliance off of the US coast. Have anyone ever wondered what US would have become, if at earlier stages of US another superpower kept the same kind of alliance wrapping US coast, while it interfered during US civil war, transshipped a confederate remnant to a US territory and kept it there for 70 yrs so that it becomes essentially another entity? Would it have empowered more militaristic and radical, nationalistic voices in US and results in completely another US?

    That said, the external negative pressures on more moderate voices in China should be separated from inner workings of China itself. The inner social and political movements inside China is of concern, should be and must be properly addressed and engaged with in proper ways. That, however, is separate from the external security issues.

  3. US policy towards Asia Pacific is very important,; the previous Barack Obama government has strategic policy towards Asia pacific region considering balance of power shifted towards AP, more than 50per cent of world GDP would come from AP. I believe his policy was to rebalance military power in favour of Asia Pacific as compared to West in the ratio of 60:40, TPP was also part of his strategy policy on the economic side. However he could not execute his strategy mainly because of Arab Spring, Ukraine issue etc. The current administratio’s foreign policy is totally confusing, on one side Mr. President has Steve Bannon an inward looking strategist on other side James Mattis who supports importance of foreign policy. Exiting from TPP was the biggest mistake of current administration considering china’s “one belt one road” initiative is not just world economic model but a future political model. US exit from AP; ceasing of its global leadership role, exiting from the climate accord, transactional based approaches with allies and other economies etc. will only make world more insecure. The current situation demands US strong foreign policy and global leadership.

  4. ‘By seeking to bring its allies Japan and South Korea into a confrontation with China and North Korea, Washington is playing with potentially explosive fire in Northeast Asia. The current situation of continued US military domination and presumed political leadership in the Asia Pacific is unsustainable.’

    It is not Washington’s fault that China chose to claim the Senkakus in 1971 for the first time in Chinese history. It is not Washington’s fault that China is expanding into the South China Sea. It is not Washington’s fault that China invented a claim to Taiwan and is seeking to annex it. It is not Washington fault that China nurses a long-held dream of annexing Okinawa. It is not Washington’s fault that China is playing territorial expansion games across the Himal. The problem in Asia is not “Washington” but hegemonic territorial expansion by China. That is not going to go away if Washington leaves.

    For those of us in Taiwan, Washington’s presence means that Taiwan remains a free democracy. What should Taiwan and Japan do to handle the very real war threat from China if Washington’s military exits the region?

    • Thank you Lintong, Eric and Deepak for your constructive comments. Michael, I am not sure where you are coming from or where you are trying to get to. Where to start? The Senkaku or Diaoyu you refer to are claimed not only by PRC but also by Taiwan. Taiwan becoming a democracy (admirable) had very little to do with the US. After 1949 US chose to support dictator Chiang Kaishek rather than dictator Mao Zedong. Taiwan became a democracy almost ten years after Washington had ceased recognising Taipei and had moved its diplomatic representation to Beijing. The main point however regarding the supposedly “benign” pax Americana is that American wars and invasions in Asia have resulted in millions of deaths, millions permanently maimed, millions of refugees. As Viet Thanh Nguyen (an American scholar of Vietnamese origin) writes in his engrossing book (which I highly recommend to you), Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, American wars in Asia are not so much “discrete events”, but rather “war is a continuum”. Or, as he also puts it, “Americans have a bad habit of invading other countries”. China may or may not have evil imperialist intentions. The US can be judged on the basis of its deeds and their catastrophic consequences. JPL

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