Southeast Asia, China, and Trumpian foreign policy in 2019

A survey titled, ‘State of Southeast Asia: 2019’ conducted by the ASEAN Studies Centre (between November 18 and December 5, 2018 and released on January 7, 2019) at the think-tank Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute came up with some interesting findings. The sample size of the survey was over 1,000 and consisted of policy makers, academics, business persons, and members of civil society from the region.

It would be fair to say that some of the findings of the survey were along expected lines. Some of the key points highlighted are as follows:

According to the survey, China’s economic clout and influence in South East Asia is steadily rising, and it is miles ahead of other competitors. Even in the strategic domain, Washington’s influence pales in comparison to that of Beijing’s. As far as economic influence in South East Asia is concerned, a staggering 73 percent of respondents subscribed to the view that China does not have much competition. A strong reiteration of this point is the level of bilateral trade between China and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), which comfortable surpassed $500 billion in 2017. After China, it is not the US, but ASEAN which has maximum economic clout in the region. If one were to look at the strategic and political sphere, 45% of respondents opined that China is the most influential player in South East Asia, followed by the US at 30 percent.

Second, China’s increasing influence does not imply that it is popular in South East Asia. In fact, a large percentage of the respondents expressed the opinion that China’s lack of integration with global institutions is not a very positive omen. South East Asian nations also have clear reservations with regard to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 50% of respondents believed that the project would increase ASEAN countries dependence upon China, and there were serious apprehensions, with one third of respondents raising question marks with regard to the transparency of the project. A small percentage of respondents (16%) also felt that the BRI was bound to fail. Many ASEAN countries have been alluding to some of the shortcomings of the BRI, of course none was as vocal as Malaysian Premier Mahathir Mohammad. In the survey, respondents from Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines expressed the view that their countries should be cautious with regard to the BRI. Interestingly, even respondents from Cambodia, a country where China has made significant inroads, Japan is the most trusted country and not China.

Third, US isolationism, especially under Trump, has led to an increasing disillusionment with Washington DC in the region. The current administration has been aggressive on China, and it has sought to take forward former US President Barack Obama’s vision of ‘Pivot to Asia’ in the form of the Indo-Pacific Narrative. Senior voices within the Trump Administration, including current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have been trying to give a push to the Indo-Pacific Narrative and reaching out to South East Asian Countries. In July for instance, while addressing the Indo-Pacific Economic Forum at the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington, Pompeo said that the US was going to invest $113 million in new U.S. initiatives in areas like the digital economy, energy, and infrastructure. Pompeo also stated that these funds were a ‘down payment on a new era in U.S. economic commitment to peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region’. Pompeo’s address was followed by a visit to South East Asia (Singapore and Indonesia), where he met with leaders from a number of ASEAN countries.

On December 31, 2018, the US also signed the ARIA (Asia Reassurance Initiative Act), which sought to outline increased US economic and security involvement in the Indo-Pacific region. ARIA has flagged US concerns with regard to China’s expansionist tendencies in South East Asia. Other key strategic issues, such as nuclear disarmament on the Korean Peninsula, have also been highlighted.

The Trump Administration has also earmarked $1.5 billion for a variety of programs in East and South East Asia.

Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) led to a lot of disappointment in the region, with allies like Singapore putting forward their views. Speaking at the ANZ Forum in November 2018, Former Prime Minister of Singapore, Goh Chok Thong stated:

…It is still a superpower but it has become less benign and generous. Its unilateral actions in many areas have hurt allies, friends and rivals alike […] America First is diminishing the global stature, moral leadership and influence of the US.

This view was also echoed by a number of experts who commented on the finding of the survey.

The Former Singapore PM also made the point that Asia needed to recalibrate its policies in order to adjust to the new world order.

ASEAN

What is clearly evident is that ASEAN needs to build a new vision which is in sync with the changing geopolitical situation. While Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohammad, by scrapping Chinese projects and referring to a new sort of colonialism emerging out of China’s BRI project, has taken an important step in this direction, it remains to be seen whether other countries in the region can also play their role in helping ASEAN weave its own narrative. For a long time now, countries have been dependent upon both the US and China, and have thought in terms of choices, but there has never really been a concerted effort to create an independent narrative.

What ASEAN actually needs is a narrative where it does not shy away from taking an independent stance, and where it is also willing to take a stand on issues of global relevance. One such issue is the Rohingya Issue. Apart from Malaysia and Indonesia, none of the other members of ASEAN has taken a clear stand. In the past, many ASEAN countries thought that they could refrain from commenting on contentious issues. Respondents to the survey felt that ASEAN states should be more involved in the Rohingya Issue.

The United States and other countries which are wary of Chinese influence should come up with a feasible alternative. So far, while members of the Trump Administration have repeatedly raised the red flag with regard to China’s hegemonic tendencies, and predatory economics as has been discussed earlier, it has not made the required commitment. While the Trump Administration has not been able to pose a serious challenge to Beijing, it remains to be seen if the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act is effective.

It is also important for Washington, and other countries, not to look at Chinese involvement from a zero-sum approach. Perhaps it is time to adopt a more pragmatic and far sighted approach. If Japan and China can work together in the Belt and Road Initiative, as well as other important infrastructural initiatives in South East Asia, and India and China can work together in capacity-building projects in Afghanistan, the possibility of US and China finding common ground in South East Asia should not be totally ruled out. Amidst all the bilateral tensions, recent conversation between US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, and statements emanating from both sides are encouraging.

Conclusion

An isolationist Washington DC and a hegemonic Beijing are certainly not good news, not just for ASEAN, but for other regions as well. The survey has outlined some of the key challenges for ASEAN, but it is time now to look for solutions. Hopefully, countries within the region will shape an effective narrative, and be less dependent upon the outside world. The survey is important in highlighting some broad trends but policy makers in Washington as well as South East Asia need to come up with some pragmatic solutions to ensure that Beijing does not have a free run.

100 years after World War 1

In the five weeks since the Germans first requested peace negotiations, half a million casualties had been added to the war’s toll. As the delegates talked, Germany continued to collapse from within: inspired by the Russian Revolution, workers and soldiers were forming soviets, or councils. Bavaria proclaimed itself a socialist republic; a soviet took over in Cologne.

And:

But can we really say that the war was won? If ever there was a conflict that both sides lost, this was it. For one thing, it didn’t have to happen. There were rivalries among Europe’s major powers, but in June, 1914, they were getting along amicably. None openly claimed part of another’s territory. Germany was Britain’s largest trading partner. The royal families of Britain, Germany, and Russia were closely related, and King George V and his cousins Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II had all recently been together for the wedding of Wilhelm’s daughter in Berlin.

There is more here. Isolationism, or non-interventionism, often sounds good to American libertarians when World War I is brought up and discussed. And who can blame us? I think, though, that non-interventionism is one of the least libertarian positions you could take on matters of foreign policy.

I got an email the other day from an (American) economist who said that he wasn’t an isolationist because he favored free trade and open migration. Instead, he resolutely trotted out the same old dogma that he was a non-interventionist. I’ve got to bury this cognitive failure on the part of American libertarians.

Quad: The way ahead and the key challenges

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) consisting of India, Australia, Japan, and the US has been pitching in favor of a ‘Free and Fair Indo-Pacific’ ever since the first meeting between representatives of member states in November 2017.

Shinzo Abe, the current Prime Minister of Japan, actually proposed this arrangement about a decade ago. Diplomatic engagement began, and joint military exercises were even held, but a change in guard in Australia, as well as Chinese complaints to member states, resulted in the end of the arrangement. Given the increasing focus on the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region and the strengthening of strategic ties between all four countries, reticence was finally shed and representatives of the four countries met in November 2017, on the eve of the East Asia Summit in Manila. The main aim of the alliance, thus in other ways, has been to check China’s assertiveness, especially in the South China Sea, and democracy has been one of the key binding factors between the Quad. The U.S. State Department, after the meeting in November 2017, issued a statement that the United States is “committed to deepening cooperation, which rests on a foundation of shared democratic values and principles.”

More recently, the joint statement issued after the meeting between Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in February 2018, reiterated the point about a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Said the joint statement between both countries: Continue reading

Is Trump turning the US into the Biggest Loser?

US President Donald Trump has been quick to change his stance on complex issues like US relations with other countries, including China. Trump has also been unpredictable in his approach towards important multilateral organizations like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and US ties with important allies in the Indo-Pacific, especially Japan and South Korea.

The most recent instance of Trump yet again changing his views was his statement on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) during the Davos Summit, saying that the US was open to a rethink, provided the provisions were fair. While the US pulled out of the TPP agreement much to the chagrin of other signatories, eleven countries (they are, in alphabetical order, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam) have agreed on signing the deal in March in Chile.

While speaking at Davos, Trump said that the US was not averse to negotiating trade deals with its TPP partners. In an interview with CNBC, on the eve of his address, the US President had said:

….we would do TPP if we were able to make a substantially better deal. The deal was terrible, the way it was structured was terrible. If we did a substantially better deal, I would be open to TPP.

The US President sensed the pitch at Davos, which was firmly in favor of globalization and a more open economic world order. During his address, while speaking of American interests, Trump made it a point to state that watching out for US interests did not imply that his administration would prefer America to become more insular. Said the US President:

America First does not mean America alone. When the United States grows, so does the world. American prosperity has created countless jobs all around the globe and the drive for excellence, creativity, and innovation in the US has led to important discoveries that help people everywhere live more prosperous and far healthier lives.

Mr Trump is not the only world leader to have won competitive elections by appealing to insularity, only to realize that economic interdependence between countries today is incredibly entrenched. For instance, Indian PM Narendra Modi, while arguing in favour of globalization, had said:

Instead of globalization, the power of protectionism is putting its head up.

Modi had gone to the extent of saying that inward looking tendencies were an important challenge, arguing that:

 …such tendencies can’t be considered lesser risk than terrorism or climate change.

Interestingly, Modi’s remarks on globalisation were welcomed by the Chinese, with the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hua Chunying, arguing in favour of China and India working together to promote globalisation. Said Hua:

China would like to enhance coordination and cooperation with all countries including India to steer the economic globalisation towards benefiting world economic growth and well-being of all countries.

Last year in his address at the Davos Summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping had spoken in favour of globalization, saying:

Pursuing protectionism is like locking oneself in a dark room […] Wind and rain may be kept outside, but so is light and air.

While some flexibility is welcome, excessive unpredictability and Trump’s woolly approach on serious issues is confusing the outside world. A business-like approach is good to an extent, but to deal with complex geostrategic issues purely from the prism of US short-term financial interests as opposed to long term geopolitical interests is a disastrous idea.

Every country has to watch its own interests, and the US is no exception, and there is absolutely no doubt that domestic public opinion cannot be ignored. Yet if the US wants to be a leader, it cannot be as transactional as Trump. US dreams of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” – a key aim of the US Defense Strategy – will remain a mere dream if the US sends confusing signals to its allies in the region and is not willing to take a clear leadership role. While the Strategy identifies China as a threat, Trump’s continuous somersaults on relations with US allies are only emboldening Beijing.

While it is unfair to single out Trump for being insular he has been the mascot for inward looking protectionist economic policies and an anti-immigration sentiment. While the US President did tell the global audience at Davos that “America First does not mean America alone,” it will indeed end up alone if he does not start thinking like a US President.

Currently he is thinking purely like the head of a company, and running a business is different from running a country, which has long sought to be the flag bearer of democratic, liberal values and globalization. While Trump’s isolationism and short sightedness may cause some discomfort for other countries, and groupings like the TPP, the latter will find other alternatives as has been the case with the signatories of the TPP, and America will be the bigger loser.

Unilateralism is not isolationism

One of the most frequent characterizations of US foreign policy in the 18th and 19th centuries is that it was isolationist. In 1796, when he decided not to run for a third presidential term, George Washington wrote (possibly with the help of Alexander Hamilton) a farewell address to public life. In one of the most quoted parts of this speech, Washington said that “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” Quite similarly, in 1821 John Quincy Adams warned that the United States should not “[go] abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” We can also cite Thomas Jefferson, who in 1799 declared that “Commerce with all nations, alliance with none, should be our motto.” Finally, in 1823 James Monroe declared (with great help from the aforementioned John Quincy Adams) that “The political system of the allied powers [of Europe] is essentially different (…) from that of America.”

In short, it is by all the above (and other) quotations that historians often classify American foreign policy in the 18th and 19th centuries as isolationist. This trend, it follows, was altered in World War I by Woodrow Wilson, who broke away from traditional isolationism to lead the United States to fight in Europe. More than that: at the end of the war, in his 14 Points, Wilson proposed the creation of the League of Nations, a permanent multilateral international organization, with the objective of promoting the collective security of the member countries. The Wilsonian tendency was reversed by Republicans in the 1920s and 1930s, mainly because they refused to join the League of Nations, opting for isolationism. However, Woodrow Wilson’s proposal was retaken by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in World War II. The United States defeated the enemy forces in Europe and the Pacific and in the end war was one of the main founders of the United Nations, an international organization created to replace the League of Nations. Since then the United States has predominantly adopted Woodrow Wilson’s perspective and avoided the isolationism of the Founding Fathers and of the Republican presidents of the interwar period. Only ultra-conservatives believe and advocate that the US should retake the foreign policy of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, and James Monroe. However, all this evaluation already starts flawed when it characterizes American foreign policy in the 18th and 19th centuries as an isolationist. To explain why, we can differentiate two terms: isolationism and unilaterialism.

Predominantly, US foreign policy in the 18th and 19th centuries followed George Washington’s advice “to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” However, it should be noted at the same time that this foreign policy followed Thomas Jefferson’s advice to establish “commerce with all nations.” In other words, despite the lack of permanent alliances with other countries (particularly European ones), what the United States did not lack in that period was a growing trade with other parts of the world, in addition to regular diplomatic contact (although not characterized by permanent alliances). To call this isolation is to force language too much. There are many historical examples of countries that have actually isolated themselves from the rest of the world: Japan between the 17th and 19th centuries, China between the 15th and 19th centuries, Paraguay from 1811 to 1844, and more recently North Korea are just a few. US foreign policy in the 18th and 19th centuries would be better characterized as unilateralist or non-interventionist. This means simply that the US didn’t subject its international relations to foreign authority.

There was no US isolation before the 20th century. What happened was a policy of avoiding permanent alliances. Meanwhile, the country had no problem with expanding its diplomatic contacts and its international trade (although some economic protectionism was practiced, but I leave this subject to another time). The same can be said about the attitude taken by the presidents in the interwar period: not participating in the League of Nations did not mean isolation from the rest of the world, quite the opposite: the US actively participated in the economy and international politics at that time. It just did not do this through the international organization proposed by Woodrow Wilson. It is perfectly possible to participate actively in international relations unilaterally, i.e. without the formation of permanent or binding alliances with multilateral international organizations.

Confusing the terms isolation and unilateralism may just be an oversight or an evaluation error. But it can also be a purposeful strategy. Confusing the terms may hide an undeclared requirement (or assumption): the only accepted international participation is that made through multilateral international organizations such as the League of Nations or the United Nations. No other is good enough. In this way, those who characterize US foreign policy before Woodrow Wilson as isolationist are severely limiting the possibilities for US international participation.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Sectarianism and the New Shiism
  2. Why Islamic State Militants Care So Much About Sykes-Picot
  3. The Bullshistory of “Sykes-Picot”
  4. Never Alone: Let’s Retire the Word “Isolationism”
  5. Morals and the Free Society: On Cultural Group Selection
  6. The Creeping Militarization of American Culture

From the Comments: Why care about Syrians?

Dr Gibson notes:

I’d say the “big question” makes no sense. Surely some Syrians would be better off under ISIS and some under Assad.

And there’s a bigger question: who the hell cares? Few if any of us Americans have enough information to judge this issue nor should we. We have our own fish to fry. The Washington politicians have done incalculable damage with their ceaseless meddling in the affairs of the Middle East and elsewhere. Let the Syrians and their immediate neighbors sort this out.

I wanted to draw this excellent comment out for two reasons. Reason number one has to do with Dr Gibson’s first paragraph. Questions rarely make sense (which is why you ask people for help), but suppose you asked whether Syrians would be better off under capitalism or socialism. Some Syrians would be better off under socialism than capitalism, but that doesn’t mean it’s just as good as capitalism. Right? One of those systems is better for far more people than the other, and as an individual don’t you have a moral duty to support the more just system in some form or other? These are questions that libertarians, especially libertarians in the United States, should be asking themselves more often than not. There is a disturbing tendency among this faction of libertarians to lean in the direction of nationalist parochialism when it comes to matters outside of our borders. This brings me to reason number two for highlighting Dr Gibson’s (quite excellent) comment: Reminding libertarians and classical liberals that our creed is an international (and a humble) one.

War refugees represent the humblest of our species. The UN estimates that the war has affected nearly 12 million Syrians so far and, of course, that doesn’t include all of the people outside of Syria’s borders who have been affected. Russians, Europeans, North Americans, Syria’s immediate neighbors, and East Africans have all been affected by the ongoing war. How could you not be interested, especially from an individualist point of view?

I think the problem of the American libertarian’s parochialist nationalism stems from Murray Rothbard’s Cold War-era writings. Unlike F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, who were both big supporters of more international cooperation (but who both saw the glaring flaws in organizations like the UN and what is now the EU), Rothbard’s writings on foreign affairs were heavily influenced by the fact that the world was dominated by two superpowers and that the government he lived under used lies and deceit to counter Moscow’s power plays. Rothbard’s world of bi-polar geopolitics is long gone. It doesn’t exist. It will not exist again in my lifetime. Ours is a world of multipolarity. Yet somehow Rothbard’s writings on foreign affairs (which descended into outright incoherence near the end of his life) still have a profound impact on the American libertarian movement.

Much of my work here at NOL is dedicated to eviscerating this long-expired mindset from the American libertarian movement. Isolationism is nationalist, plain and simple (just pay attention to the rhetoric of libertarians like Justin Raimondo or Doug Bandow if you need more convincing), but Warren’s point about Washington’s meddling in the affairs of other states remains pertinent. So perhaps a different question to ask (even if it doesn’t make sense) is what a more internationalist-minded, in the vein of Hayek and Mises and Adam Smith, US foreign policy would look like. (I’ve been asking this question for a while now.)