East Asia is where the Cold War first turned hot, and remained frozen for more than seven decades. Donald Trump’s election in the United States (US) timed with China’s military and economic expansion puts an end to status-quoist policies, as much of the architecture of the region (its values and institutions) now stands challenged. This article thus traces four new shifts in East Asian geopolitics.


Farewell to Liberal Hegemony


The US has always perceived itself as a ‘benevolent resident power’ in East Asia that took it upon itself to ensure order and provide economic security. During the Cold War this liberal agenda suited all the players including Communist China in 1971 (After the Kissinger-Nixon visit). As Japanese military power was restrained, political tensions between Japan and its neighbours were minimised and nuclear proliferation was curbed. According to G. John Ikenberry, American hegemony made Asian international relations “predictable” than it would be if it were a “free-standing superpower”. This rationale for the alliance network as a public good now stands challenged. China in the 21st century will have none of it. It has categorically stated, “Asian security is for Asians alone”, and that the “outdated” military alliances are not transparent and are aimed at containing its rise. But what stunned the world more, was when the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump in his inaugural address concurred, when he declared, “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow.” Thus the Trump administration, in Barry Posen’s words, is “a bit like hegemony without liberalism” as it no longer wishes to carry the mantle of a liberal hegemon or bear the burden of being a ‘policeman in the neighbourhood’. American allies like Japan now have to recalibrate their foreign policies (within and independent of the alliance) as these liberal values may not serve as the rationale of order and stability in the region.


The Making of a New International Order


The abandonment of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) by the Trump administration in a way is a sign of the politics that is catching up with changing economic realities. America was once the ‘hub’ in East Asia, that promised defence against Communist aggression and preferential access to its markets with allies in exchange for faithful political support. It held all the economic and political leverages to design its security environment. At present however, the Trump administration has realised that the economic conditions do not allow for the same politics to endure. It believes (however falsely) that much of Asia, especially China has gained at the cost of its own middle class and hence is ready to risk it all, even a trade war to ‘Make America Great Again’. Dismissive of the ability at reassuring its allies, or strategically gaining an upper hand with China when it comes to writing the trade rules in the region, President Trump and his advisers, see no point in continuing with the TPP (the economic counterpart to the Rebalance to Asia-Pacific) because it “sacrificed the US economy at the altar of bad foreign policy.”


For China this means that it can set up its own version of a geoeconomic and geopolitical foundation of an international order as announced recently in its first White Paper on its policies in the Asia-Pacific. It seeks to build a “new model of international relations” based on its principles of cooperative, common security. It has recognised “security and development are closely linked – main components of an entire regional structure – to ensure parallel development.” And over the years, it has consistently reinforced its identity as the ‘defender of globalisation’ as seen at Davos Summit in January 2017, at G20 Summit in November 2016 and previously at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in 2014 held at Beijing when it launched the Free Trade Area for Asia Pacific (FTAAP).  Through its flagship programmes like the Belt and Road Initiative (which promises connectivity, infrastructure, and investment opportunities) spanning continents, it seeks to reshape the international order with the economic and political leverages in its possession.


Kowtow or Get Knocked Over


While nobody intends on firing the first shots in East Asia, all nations are doing all they can to hedge against a conflict. China has a territorial dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands; a conflict of interest with the Republic of South Korea (ROK) over the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Defense missile system to deter North Korea; and views unification with Taiwan as a ‘core interest’. Alliances had become stronger and more integrated and defence budgets continued to rise. However in a surprisingly straightforward and assertive tone, China’s White Paper on the Asia-Pacific ordered, “…small and medium-sized countries need not and should not take sides among big countries.” Recently, it has even attempted several asymmetrical tactics at arm-twisting ROK preventing it from committing towards deployment of the system that according to China would destabilise the regional power balance.


China has expanded militarily and has in the past two months attempted to break out of the first island chain for the first time. On Christmas morning in 2016, Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force spotted China’s only aircraft carrier Liaoning cruising into Western Pacific Ocean, via the waterway between Okinawa and Miyakojima islands, and by December 28, China’s aircraft carrier passed outside Taiwan’s eastern ADIZ. Additionally, Chinese military conducted its first ever live-fire drills in the Bohai Sea close to the Korean Peninsula. And by January 2017, Liaoning had sailed across the Taiwan Straits, hailing it as the “new normal” as it intends to expand its military presence in the region. It views American bases, troop presence and military force as containing its rise and expansion. It announced, “We have to react swiftly if needed. Be brave to show force and actions speak louder than words.” It expects its neighbours to either kowtow or be prepared to get knocked over; and America’s allies are dependent on bilateral and trilateral mechanisms and signs of reassurances against such threats.


Devolving Power, Activating Allies


Japan, ROK and Taiwan have confidence in the US alliance system that has endured for more than five decades because of what Kent Calder terms “alliance equities” or “sunk investments”, which consist of the institutions, economic and military agreements, policy networks that cushion against any turbulence. While in his campaigns, Donald Trump demanded Asian allies pay up more in exchange for security and consider nuclear break-out; as the President, he has affirmed security commitments. Apart from discussing burden sharing, Asian allies would have to tackle three broad challenges in the domain of international trade, maritime security and nuclear deterrence with the new administration.


The first bilateral summit between President Trump and Japanese PM Abe (first between America and an Asian nation) has been scheduled for February 10; and this is coupled with the maiden visit of the new US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to ROK and Japan, before Trump’s scheduled visit. There is domestic pressure on Japanese leadership to dismiss the Reagan-era diatribes from the Trump administration against it being a ‘free rider’ despite paying $1.7 billion to host US troops. As well as seek a solution to the administration’s corporate coercion against Toyota and other Japanese automakers to manufacture and sell cars in the US instead via Mexico (where it manufactures approximately 1.12 million vehicles). To deter creeping Chinese maritime expansionism in the East China Sea or across the Taiwan Straits as well as North Korean nuclear and missile tests, both nations would have to build on the Alliance Coordination Mechanism as per the revised defence guidelines. The Trump administration would find respite in Japanese provisions for “collective self-defense” that enables it to come to America’s defence even when its own security is not at stake. Thus, Japan’s “proactive contribution to peace” policy under PM Abe could find synergy with President Trump’s policy of “peace through strength”. South Korea despite its domestic upheaval (as its president Park Geun-hye awaits the decision on impeachment) is an important ally for the Trump administration to deal with the North Korean crisis which involves all of the major countries in East Asia including Russia. In a phone conversation with acting South Korean PM Hwang Kyo Ahn, President Trump affirmed “iron clad commitment to the alliance”. The US-ROK alliance has moved towards incorporating Japan in trilateral talks and despite Japanese-Korean historical tensions, they recently conducted trilateral vice-ministerial dialogue and an integrated missile defence drill. By answering Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s congratulatory phone call, the Trump administration broke almost four decades of diplomatic protocol in a move towards destabilising its relations with China. American credibility and assurance to Taiwan at this juncture is imminent to preclude an accidental shot because of the prevailing uncertainty. Another potential ‘trump card’ would be Russia’s response which would depend on the olive branch offered by the new American administration. As M. D. Nalapat argues, “In reality, it makes sense to have Russia as a friend rather than remain a foe, and to invite Kim Jong-un to Washington, to cool down the latter’s suspicion that he is slated to be on the same conveyor to doom that Saddam and Gaddafi were, and which Bashar Assad declined to step onto.”


East Asia promises to look drastically different as: the US under President Trump decides to shed away the lofty liberal agenda and instead work towards promoting its own interests; China uses its charm offensive and seeks to expand its sphere of interest with more leverages at its disposal; and Asian countries seek to develop innovative, and probably, independent foreign policy pathways while coordinating policies to tackle regional security challenges. Only time can tell if a rocky boat in choppy waters in East Asia would make for smooth sailing.


[This analytical piece on East Asian Geopolitics complements the article series, entitled “Geopolitical Implications of the North Korea Crisis”, being published by the Science, Technology & Security forum.]


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.