Commentaries

Yes, We Live in Interesting Times

The assumption of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States of America creates many new uncertainties for U.S. foreign policy, causing trepidation in many countries in the Asian region. Lack of knowledge in international relations and experience in statecraft by any American leader is a matter of concern for America's friends and foes alike, but to have someone now standing at the helm who has challenged U.S. foreign policy orthodoxies as much as the new president did while on the campaign trail, has many foreign leaders, economic and security planners, and analysts sitting on the edge of their seats. The fact that the previous administration is seen to have presided over its own foreign policy failures does not absolve the new one of responsibility; those failures will rather weigh heavily on its shoulders.

How does one “make America great again,” as promised by the Trump campaign slogan? Indeed, America must be made great again for Americans, before it can be great again for the world. Considering how some of the country's core institutions that used to underpin democracy and prosperity are in such poor condition, one may have to look further and deeper for where new hope may spring.

 On the international front, those who are dissatisfied with America's role as the world's top dog—a role it has played for seven decades—may seize the moment to try to build an alternative order. Those who have long predicted the decline of American power may find more arguments on their side. The greatest bastion of American influence—its soft power, more specifically attraction to its values as an open society—may yet become the greatest casualty of Trump's flawed logic and ideological biases.

Will Asia be greatly affected by the new situation? China's power and influence have been growing in Asia, and it is seen as the closest peer competitor to the United States. There is an alliance system, as well as new security partnerships that help preserve American interests. The United States' relationships in East Asia are based largely on interest congruence and convergence rather than coercion, and the healthy state of ties depends on continuing harmony of interests. If continuity in America's approach to its Asian relationships is too much to expect, a soft landing and a process of gradual adjustment would still be preferred.

Some articles in this issue of Asian Politics & Policy touch upon Washington's vital interests in the region.

David Leon, in his article “Economic Interdependence and International Conflict: Situating China's Economic and Military Rise,” examines how the rise of China in East Asia poses challenges to its relations with the United States. Notwithstanding recent developments where China's assertiveness in the South China Sea and the East China Sea has upset its neighbors, Leon paints a generally benign picture of China. He posits that China's foreign and trade policies have led it to “institutional enmeshment and economic engagement within an open global trading environment.” China's efforts to carve a place for itself at the rule-making table reflect a turn to global governance institutions rather than an attempt to undermine or distance from them. By so doing, Beijing's actions have thus lessened the likelihood of conflict in the region, Leon argues. If this were the case, I wonder whether the new U.S. government is prepared to concede more space for China to play a greater role in global governance institutions.

On a related theme, Michael Glosny in “Re-Examining China's Charm Offensive Toward Asia: How Much Reshaping of Regional Order?” looks at how Chinese analysts assess the outcomes of China's regional initiatives. The author argues that China reaped mixed results: it prevented other states from adopting balancing postures against itself, but over time, it failed to sustain East Asian support for its preferred vision of regional cooperation and trade liberalization. It moreover failed in shaping the regional security order, as even before the U.S. pivot, some countries had already started showing resistance to China's order-shaping overtures. An interesting insight into the dynamic of U.S.-China competition was this quote from the academic Zhang Yunling, referring to the situation prior to U.S. rebalance: “(W)ithout U.S. participation, regional relations had a great transformation, regional cooperation had great success, including an enormous increase in China's power and influence as a prominent change.” Against this argument, Glosny says, the “rebalance” presented a challenge for China's efforts to shape the region according to its preferences. My question is: will the new U.S. government persist in its rebalance to Asia?

“The Double-Edged Sword of Coercion: Cross-Strait Relations After the 2016 Taiwan Elections” is the title of Benjamin Schreer's contribution. Tsai Ing-wen's election as president of Taiwan restored the Democratic Progressive Party to power after a long spell of Kuomintang rule. Schreer predicts that cross-Strait ties will once more become a regional flashpoint but says any pessimism is premature. The People's Liberation Army's modernization and capability-building efforts continue to be directed at scenarios of preventing U.S. actions to defend Taiwan. Indeed, as soon as the new Taiwan leader took her oath, Beijing began to put pressure on her to respect the so-called 1992 Consensus as a condition for constructive ties. Schreer considers these coercive strategies by China to have backfired. While China may have succeeded in deterring Taiwan from declaring formal independence, it has been unable to compel the island into accepting unification on its terms. Then again, will a Trump presidency remain committed to the defense of Taiwan or, having crossed swords with Beijing on this issue even prior to taking office, will he urge Taipei to rely more on itself and build strategic links with other neighboring states?

Wilfred Wan, in “Beyond the Alliance: The Regional Value of U.S.-Japan Nuclear Cooperation” in turn makes the argument that due to the inextricable link of the nuclear issue to the stability of Northeast Asia, nuclear cooperation among the stakeholders can provide the foundation for more institutionalized cooperation in this Asian subregion. In contrast to ASEAN's close to 50 years of existence, regional cooperation mechanisms appear to elude the countries of Northeast Asia. For our author, however, the continuing dialogue on the nuclear issues “ensures a consistent agenda that lends itself well to regularized dialogue, if not among all its members then at least some.” How will the new U.S. government manage potential nuclear threats from North Korea? Will it support Northeast Asian multilateral institution-building efforts?

Our Praxis feature for this issue is the arbitration case filed by the Aquino government of the Philippines against China, challenging the latter's extensive 9-dash line claim and seeking legal validation of its own resource entitlements under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Many observers have noted the final ruling of the court, announced last July 12, 2016, as overwhelmingly in Manila's favor, and yet the legal victory itself cannot guarantee China's compliance for lack of an enforcement mechanism. APP Editor Aries Arugay and Guest Editor Lowell Bautista invited experts on international law and international relations to share with our readers their published analyses on the way forward for the Philippines and for the region in the South China Sea. Commentaries by James Kraska, Robert Beckman, Feng Zhang, Julian Ku, Christopher Mirasola, John Lee, and yours truly, were vetted by Praxis editors and selected as representative of the wide range of perspectives on this crucial issue. Will the election of Donald Trump fundamentally change how the United States defines its interests with respect to Chinese and other claims in the South China Sea?

For now, Asia watches and waits.

Read the original article at Wiley Online Library.