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.
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.