The foreign policy of the sole superpower under the Trump administration, and even from the last two years of his predecessor’s reign, has been in disarray. There emerged on the global scene many hot spots creating the spectre of military confrontations. The US leaders did not come forward to prevent military clashes or civil strife and remained whimsical and impulsive in their policy decisions. President Donald Trump trumped on China and allies in every region from Europe to Middle East, South Asia to South East Asia and Pacific remaining embroiled in scolding allies, undermining multi-lateral pacts, encouraging populists and Eurosceptics and showing softness for the Kremlin, stoking trade wars with all the important countries.
USA aberrations in policy and practice
The USA military interventions in other country countries and long embroilment in wars, abandoning friends in the thick of a crisis or after achieving its objectives, have taken a heavy toll on its reputation as a reliable and trust worthy ally, and impacted its ability to shepherd and steer the international order for peace and security which it had so strenuously sustained over the past once century. By the start of the twentieth century, while on its way to achieving superpower status, the USA had subdued the Central America reducing the regional countries to vassal states but had to face defiance from some of them. Its aggression against the region continued until recent decades like the blockage of Cuba in 1962, Dominican Republic in 1965, mining of the Nicaraguan harbours in 1980, invasion of Grenada in 1983, Panama in 1989 and applying financial pressure to weaken Salvador Allende in Chile, and embargoing Nicaragua to undermine Sandinista Government.
The political peace and stability in the Middle East – Palestine, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and the Gulf region – despairingly remain a pipe dream. The situation in Afghanistan has been like a festering wound for the past 20 years. The recent peace initiative in Afghanistan is yet to reach fruition. The USA policy and the North Korean leader’s obsession with destructive nuclear weapons have compounded the peace process in that Peninsula. The North Koreans feel, quite understandably, that nothing would save their country from the second catastrophe except a huge stockpile of deterrent weapons. They have learnt the hard lesson that in this Hobbesian Jungle, one ought to be a lion than lamb. China and Russia have been counseling for dialogue with North Korea for the cessation of nuclear development programme in exchange for regime survival and economic aid. We recall this was the course followed by the earlier USA administrations headed by comparatively sensible leaders.
The USA policy in the troubled Arab world has been far from a wise intermediary power to promote international peace and security. Rather, its policy remains hinged to the unending Arab hostilities and rivalries resulting in further aggravation of the situation in the region; the Sunni and Shia rivalry in the entire Muslim world and compounding the Arab-Persian conflict particularly after the so called Islamic-American Summit in Riyadh in May 2017. The first casualty of this policy was the hard-negotiated Iran Nuclear Deal to the revulsion of the European Union, Russia, Germany and China and the subsequent clouds of war in the Gulf region brought forth a nightmarish situation for the neighbouring countries.
The European continent was considerably weakened by the wave of populism that boosted the credentials of nationalist political leaders, or the Eurosceptics. Though these nativist leaders failed to win general elections in Hungary, the Netherlands, France, Italy, and Germany, they considerably raised their stake to alternative leadership in the continent. The European leaders felt more perturbed by the equivocal and muddled policy of the new American administration on NATO, Trans-Atlantic Partnership, Paris Accord on Climate Change, North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Iran Nuclear Deal, World Trade Organization (WTO) regulations.
President Donald Trump’s soft corner for the nationalists in the continent and Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin created a wave of anxiety among the American allies from the European capitals to Ottawa to Canberra and encouraged the Russian leader to dilute the importance of the Minsk-II Agreement by strengthening his strategic stronghold in the Black Sea. Though the situation has undergone a slight improvement after the retraction of Donald Trump’s most rhetoric about many issues, the lingering fear of his unpredictability with his strange nocturnal rumblings on Twitter is there to keep stoking the European leaders’ concern and uncertainty about the USA commitment to their continent.
We recall the young Canadian leader’s bold suggestion in early 2018 that ‘the Trans-Atlantic Partnership and the North American Free Trade Agreement should be maintained and further strengthened even if the USA decides to opt out’. His Foreign Minister, Ms. Freeland went two steps farther, as Jonathan Kay quoted her in an article in the Foreign Affairs, saying “The fact that our friend and ally has come to question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership puts into sharper focus the need for the rest of us to set our own clear and sovereign course”.
The American Southeast Asian allies also have been thinking on the same lines to maintain the Trans-Pacific Partnership without the presence of the USA. What they were concerned with was that ‘Trump administration lacks an overarching approach to Asia, despite having sent a string of senior officials including Mattis, Tillerson, and Vice President Mike Pence, to visit the region. It has rejected the Obama administration’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ or ‘rebalance’, while putting nothing new as a policy’. The US laid back policy has given more space to China to strengthen its position as an alternative power to fill in the leadership vacuum.
The clash of cultural fault lines
The stepping back of the USA or the absence of a clear USA policy about the regional and international issues allowed greater political and economic space to China. The USA leaders were seeking comfort in the conviction that ‘as China grows richer and stronger, it will follow in the footsteps of Germany, Japan, and other countries that have undergone profound transformations and emerged as advanced liberal democracies’. In their view, ‘the magic cocktail of globalization, market-based consumerism, and integration into the rule-based international order would eventually lead China to become democratic at home and to develop into what former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick once described as a responsible stakeholder abroad’.
However, another scholar and writer R.R. Reno termed this Western illusion as ‘utopian globalism’, rather subscribing to what the known political scientist Samuel Huntington described the cultural fault lines as the defining feature of the post-Cold War world’. Though the argument of Huntington is usually recollected in the context of the incompatibility between the Western and Muslim civilizations, he had clearly viewed the widening gulf between the US-led West and the Chinese civilization ‘just as deep, enduring and consequential’.
We can well imagine how the competing American and Chinese strategic and cultural behaviors would shape on the global scene and how it would impact the international order. This takes us to an interview of the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kwan in 1999 asserting that “For America to be displaced, not in the world, but only in the western Pacific, by an Asian people long despised and dismissed with contempt as decadent, feeble, corrupt, and inept is emotionally very difficult to accept, and that the sense of cultural supremacy of the Americans will make this adjustment most difficult”.
We know the Chinese too are an equally proud people. The Chinese President, Xi Jinping in a speech in 2012 had declared China a great nation, asserting that ‘during the civilization and development process of more than 5000 years, the Chinese nation has made an indelible contribution to the advancement of mankind’. President Jinping has been quoted as having asserted in his book ‘Governance of China’, that ‘China’s continuous civilization is not equal to anything on earth, but a unique achievement in world history’. China has shown its will to use soft power. It reacted strongly to the installation of THAD in South Korea and closed 80% outlets of Lotte, a Japanese and South Korean joint company suspecting it has given land for the defence system. It stopped the import of the Norwegian fish after a Chinese dissident’s nomination for Nobel Prize, heavily taxed Mongolian transit trade after it hosted the Dalai Lama.
One could conveniently argue that these are generalized notions about cultural fault lines between the two powerful countries and do not fully reflect the complexities of the American and Chinese societies. This is fair enough. However, there is no denying the fact that cultural fault lines, or the civilizational incompatibility combined with the well-entrenched cultural pride or superiority complexes that take hold of the two nations, are phenomenally strong factors that would potentially compound or recalibrate the Sino-American relationship in the South East Asia and Pacific or elsewhere, and negatively impact attempts at any understanding and compromise between the two powerful nations of the world.
Thus, the question of peace, security and stability in Southeast Asia and elsewhere would be dependent on how China and the USA are going to strike a balancing compromise between their competing understanding of the world affairs and also between their conflicting global political, economic and strategic interests. Given its policy of restraint, China would be amenable to maintain, at least in the coming two decades, a working and mutually accommodative relationship with the USA, if the latter agrees to respect the former’s sensitivity to the core issues of One-China policy, South China Sea islands, Hong Kong, North Korea, OBRI, bilateral trade and the currency controversy.