An Age of Uncertainty (Final)
Here it is, the last installment of the China series. We’ve covered a wide range of topics from the effects of catastrophic air pollution to the guiding principles of the Communist Party of China, and many things in between. To wrap up the series, let’s look at the state of international politics in the Pacific, how they got to where they are, and where they may be going.
As it stands today, the US’ influence in the Eastern Pacific is in a relative decline. While some news outlets would suggest that this is mainly the result of President Trump, the reality is more complicated. It’s true that Donald Trump has had a large and significant impact on the US’ influence in the East Pacific, but he is just accelerating something that had already started.
Since George W. Bush’s presidency, the US has been working to shore up our regional influence in Asia in a consistent way. But this management has not been without trials. Throughout President Barrack Obama’s presidency, the management of US-Asian interests was much more reactive than previous presidents.
Originally, the Obama Administration sought to build a mutually respectful relationship with the region’s other superpower, China. Unfortunately, US allies saw Obama’s announcement that the US would “respect China’s core interest” as tacit approval for an expansionist China. Not too long after that 2009 announcement, territorial disputes in the South China Sea began to get more confrontational, as China began to aggressively press its claims on disputed islands.
In 2011, with the South China Sea situation getting out of hand, the administration announced a ‘rebalance’ to Asia, which translated as more US military deployments in Australia. This move created two problems. The first was that our increased military presence unnerved the Chinese. The second problem came in the reversal; to the Chinese, there shouldn’t have been any big issue with them pressing territorial claims, since they’ve been pretty clear about the South China Sea being a core interest. The lesson learned? Be cautious with the Americans. The situation was not made any better in 2013 when the Obama Administration agreed to China’s New Model of Great Power Relations, which had a similar sentiment to the 2009 statement.
As China and the US attempted to sort out their fraught relationship, allied countries in the region, such as Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, were forced to incorporate a changeable US into their decision-making.
On top of the diplomatic issue above, other factors have reduced the US’ influence in the Eastern Pacific. Aside from being the year Obama was elected, 2008 is remembered as the official start of the Great Recession. For us in America, the recession hit the general economy pretty hard and many could no longer maintain their desired standard of living. But we weren’t unique; after all the recession was global. In the Eastern Pacific, the US financial crisis caused an outflow of foreign investments and a reduction in trade surpluses with the US and Europe. Due to the size of our recession, our trade partners in Asia (including allies and rivals alike) were faced with declining business. Additionally, there were many Asian firms that had either invested or lent money to the US firms going bankrupt, which, combined with the reduced business, created larger revenue deficits. In combination with other more complicated and country-specific factors, countries in the Eastern Pacific were plunged into recession alongside the US.
While being plunged into a recession by your trade partner’s irresponsible businesses could give pause to any country, the Eastern Pacific has a social barrier to US influence. In countries with a history of US interference, such as South Korea, Japan, China, and the Philippines, it is not uncommon to find some degree of anti-Americanism. Just like getting mugged can make you remember your neighborhood isn’t the safest, the global recession reminded many Eastern Pacific countries of the painful memories given to them by the US.
On the whole, the last ten years of relations in the Eastern Pacific region can be viewed as an inconsistent use of existing policy. So how does Donald Trump figure in all of this? Like Obama, Trump has been inconsistent in his application of policy in the Eastern Pacific and Eastern Asia. Particularly regarding China, Trump has made strong declarations but has often been forced to backpedal. In a break from previous presidents, Trump has been far more confrontational in diplomatic relations; the clearest example of this is with North Korea. That said, his use of threats in negotiations have caused uncertainty with China, Japan, and South Korea. Whether he is threatening to sanction Chinese currency or expressing a favorable view on a nuclear South Korea, Trump is consistently inconsistent in his stances.
With renewed inconsistencies in US policy and a healthy dose of unpredictable behavior, Trump has precipitated a shift in East Asian relations. By pulling the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, the US has lost the chance to reassert economic dominance in the region. Coupled with his confrontational statements regarding security issues, Trump has demonstrated that he won’t reliably be the voice for regional calm and stability.
In light of Trump’s performance, China has emerged as the ‘adult’ in the room. Since Trump took office, Xi Jinping has rebranded China as a voice for calm and a regional leader that East Asia can rely on. Following the US’ withdrawal from the TPP, China pitched an alternative agreement targeted at TPP signatories. In addition, China’s aggressive pursuit of its One Belt, One Road infrastructure initiative seeks to elevate China to a more important position in the global trade order. Since 2015, incidents in the South China Sea have been on the decline because China has taken a more diplomatic approach to pressing its claims. And, despite being friendlier with North Korea, Xi Jinping has shown China to be relatively more cooperative with economic sanctions, as well as a moderating presence in confrontations with North Korea.
Altogether, the most recent developments in the diplomatic relations have created a tense situation in the Eastern Pacific. From a cynical standpoint, the US should expect to see its ability to influence regional events decline at an increasing rate. By contrast, China will likely continue to gain influence in the region simply by maintaining consistent positions on existing and future issues. Looking forward, declining US influence will make future initiatives, from making trade deals to gaining more allies, more difficult and costly to achieve. Given his response to Trump, China, and by extension Xi Jinping, has the greatest potential gain from a less influential US.
I personally think that Trump’s actions are mainly just going to damage the US’ credibility and attractiveness as a diplomatic partner for the foreseeable future. This belief is based on the fact that countries will continue pursuing diplomatic agreements with or without the US and are not going to simply start over when the US decides it will participate again.
And with that, this series comes to a close. Despite the wide range of topics covered, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of China’s domestic politics and diplomatic relations. As we move onto new topics next time, I encourage you to seek out the nuance and complexity lurking behind politicized events.
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