Asia must overcome its timidity on the world stage as US power retreats

There has been a long-standing tendency to predict the demise of US global power. There was the humiliating US withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which prompted speculation that the United States would be less interested in maintaining an extended military presence in the absence of the cold-war superpower rivalry. Similar sentiments arose amid the operational fatigue of US military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq during the so-called “war on terror”, following the terrorist attacks of 2001. 

All of these developments prompted claims that the US was facing an “east of Suez” moment in its foreign policy (echoing the decision by Britain to downgrade its overseas military presence following the Suez crisis of 1956). 

Over the years, Asian powers have responded by “stepping up” and assuming the reins of leadership, amid fears of a US withdrawal from Asia. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is taking centre stage in the regional architecture, through such initiatives as the Asean Regional Forum and East Asia Summit; Japan is on a quest to emerge as a “normal” power through the reinterpretation of its constitutional restrictions on military deployment; and discussions for the eventual transfer of wartime operational control from the US to South Korea have been ongoing. 

US remains the top power in Asia – but for how long?

The latest claims of US retrenchment in Asia have come with the presidency of Donald Trump and his so-called “America first” agenda. Under his leadership, the US withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement and appeared fickle over its commitment to long-standing allies and value-oriented diplomacy (on defending human rights, the rule of law, and democracy promotion). The threat of a trade war between China and the US are the latest signs of the US being an erratic and at times unreliable power in Asia.

With the US in retreat and China on the rise, is a cold war on the way?

As in the past, these concerns have prompted regional powers to step up. South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s pivotal role in reviving the peace process on the Korean peninsula; the nascent rapprochement in the China-Japan relationship; and the revival of the China-Japan-South Korea trilateral summit are recent examples of this. 

Watch: North and South Korean leaders pledge peace

China’s love-hate relationship with Japan is love again. Ahem

Two lessons can be drawn from this. 

First, US power cannot be written off so easily. By its sheer economic, military and strategic weight in the international system, the US will continue to remain a power of consequence for the foreseeable future. The upcoming meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (if it takes place) is evidence of the continued importance of the US to the regional order in Asia. 

The rise of Trump and other anti-establishment politicians is evidence of the crisis of confidence in the West

A second and more important lesson is that while the US will continue to matter, its relative power will continue to recede. The so-called “unipolar moment” that emerged at the end of the cold war has passed as US global primacy is increasingly challenged by the rise of other regional and global powers. The rise of Trump and other anti-establishment politicians is itself evidence of the crisis of confidence in the West. 

In this context, Asian powers need to be prepared to emerge as more consequential stakeholders in the international system. While Asian powers are demonstrating a greater willingness to assume the reins of regional leadership, this phenomenon has yet to fully emerge on the world stage. 

A frequent allegation in this context is that Asian powers have been free-riders, particularly in the enforcement of global norms and the protection of global public goods. 

A case in point is their marginal role in trying to stabilise a region that has been the focal point for global instability: the Middle East. For instance, one would think that, as net importers of oil and gas, countries like China, Japan, India and South Korea would be front and centre in trying the salvage the Iran nuclear deal following the US withdrawal.

Middle East needs a new honest broker

Similarly, the fact that China, India and other Asian powers maintain cordial and close relations with both Israel and the Palestinians would seem to make them well suited to mediate in the conflict. This has become more pressing as the US has undermined its role as honest broker after the Trump administration relocated the US embassy to Jerusalem, as part of its official recognition of the divided city as the capital of Israel. However, Asian powers have generally maintained a marginal role in addressing these instabilities and the broader fault lines plaguing the Middle East.

To be sure, Asian powers have shown a willingness to be more engaged with the region in recent years. For instance, China proposed a four-point peace plan in 2013 to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, as one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, is also a party to the group of countries negotiating with Iran on its nuclear programme. China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” also encompasses the Middle East. 

Meanwhile, India has developed a more active “Look West” strategy to parallel its “Look East” policy, and Japan has promoted a “Corridor for Peace and Prosperity” to bring about reconciliation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Japan’s Self-Defence Forces have also been deployed to the region on several humanitarian and peacekeeping missions.   

China’s establishment of the country’s first overseas naval base in Djibouti last year (supplementing Japan’s existing facility in the country) also alludes to a projection of Asian power and influence into the region. 

What would Chinese hegemony look like? A lot like US leadership

Asia-led institutions have also included initiatives in the Middle East, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank financing port and broadband communication projects in Oman. 

The great unravelling of a US-led global order

However, despite these initiatives, Asian countries remain the least consequential of the external powers engaged with the Middle East. More often than not, Asia’s role has been limited to economic exchanges. With respect to strategic developments, Asian powers are, at worst, passive observers and, at best, largely reactive. This is illustrated by the fact that the most significant deployment of Asian military power comes during the evacuation of its nationals from regional conflicts, such as in Yemen, Iraq and Libya. 

Thus, while a definitive global power transition is under way – marked by US global retrenchment and the rise of other regional powers – one cannot write off US global power so easily. At the same time, gradual US retrenchment is creating a void for Asian powers to do more. 

Asian powers need to overcome their timidity on the world stage as they come to terms with their newfound status and responsibilities as major powers in the international system. 

Chietigj Bajpaee is a doctoral researcher in the Department of War Studies at Kings College London. He has worked with several public policy think tanks and risk consultancies in Europe, the US and Asia

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