Is it still the United States, or is it already China, that is the most powerful nation in the world?
No doubt China is still way behind the United States in terms of military strength and sophistication of weaponry, but that is not all that makes up power. The test to power is whether one has the ability to control or influence the behavior of others and to shape how events take place.
On this basis, China is now a global hegemon, not just a regional one, and it has eclipsed the United States as the world's most influential nation. And that presents both a problem and opportunity for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
In the following paragraphs, China's current aggrandizement is described and counterpointed by signs of rapid US decline under Donald Trump's leadership. This is followed through with a reflection on how Asean should respond to the resulting new world order.
How Did It Happen?
China's rise did not happen overnight: It has been going on for decades, since the late 1970s when its first modernizing leader, Deng Xiaoping, embraced globalization and opened the country's economy to foreign investors. Given China's meteoric economic growth and the increasing sophistication of its military establishment, the sixty-four-dollar question has always been whether China's rise will be benign or it will lead to a global war, or at least to a baleful disruption of the international order.
There were other questions: whether China could manage a soft landing for its overheated economy, and whether it could avoid a bursting of its economic bubble. There was also the question of whether widespread social unrest as a result of labor inefficiency will lead to the demise of the Communist Party.
These questions have been laid to rest: Not only has China managed the kinks in its economy, it has deployed the unique financial strength to gain global political advantage. And it has coped with the economy's "tech and labor shocks" by creating jobs designed for the sole purpose of alleviating social unrest, and which have nothing to do with the market.
The day is not far, according to a widely held view, when China wields the heftiest economy in the world. It is driving hard to become a world leader in technology – in space technology and artificial intelligence.
To be sure, if war should break out between the United States and China, the United States would prevail, but China could inflict such a heavy toll on American forces that the cost of victory would be unacceptable to the American people. For the day is past when the Chinese military was a bulky, land-bound force. The Chinese military today is leaner, meaner, more professional, much more high-tech and oriented to air and sea battles.
Moreover, in the likely theatres of armed conflict – the South China Sea, the East Sea and the Korean Peninsula – China would enjoy a huge geographical advantage and would be fighting with desperate ferocity because from its point of view, the stakes would be existential, which would not be the case with the United States.
On the other hand, the United States has been in gradual but unmistakable decline since it frittered away precious military resources waging wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That decline was severely accented by the global financial and economic crisis of 2008, which also marked the year when the rest of the Western world began to fade under the bloom of emerging markets, such as the BRICS countries. (Why Indonesia has not been taken into that emerging group, somebody please tell me.)
Since the 2008 Crisis
Thus, when an expert on geopolitics like Wolfgang Ischinger of the Munich Security Conference says the world today is on the brink of the Post-Western Age, I suspect he must have been asleep for the better part of a decade. The Post-Western Age has been there since the global crisis of 2008, or earlier.
And its corroboration grows more pervasive as the days go by: Brexit, the centrifugal forces within the European Union, the rise of populism and the retreat of democracy in most of Europe, the Russian push-back against NATO expansion, the EU quarrel with Turkey, the Eurozone crisis, and of course Donald Trump.
Normally the president of the United States is the undisputed leader and moving spirit of the Western world. But not since Trump moved into the White House. He has personally done more damage to American prestige and capacity to shape the global environment than Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Kim Jung-un combined. With him at the helm of the US government, America has no need for enemies. He will destroy the nation from within, if left unchecked.
What has he done? For starters, he had barely warmed his seat in the Oval Office when he ripped the United States away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Perhaps he thought that the pullout would effectively kill the partnership, but the 11 other members decided to carry on by themselves, exposing the United States as not all that essential for the viability of this massive free-trade platform.
Moreover, it weakened the United States' hand in dealing with Canada and Mexico, its partners in the three-member North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) that are also TPP members. If the TPP succeeds, Canada and Mexico are sure to survive the demolition of Nafta, which the Trump administration is trying to renegotiate in iron-fisted style. The collapse of Nafta will maul many an American multinational within an inch of its life.
Early Asean, Asian Response
In Asean, the US pullout from the TPP has irritated friends such as TPP members Vietnam and Singapore and pushed American credibility to a low ebb. It has also created a vacuum that China is gladly filling.
President Xi has been quick to pirouette as the champion of free multilateral trade and globalization, jostling to step up negotiations toward the 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). This partnership would involve all 10 Asean countries, plus China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
The successful conclusion of the RCEP would leave the United States holding a pathetically empty bag: It has no answer to the RCEP and it has no compensation for being out in the cold from the TPP. It has lost its leverage in Nafta. And it has no answer to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative.
The AIIB is a Beijing-based multilateral development bank initially capitalized at $100 billion and designed to fund the building of infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific region. It already has 56 member states, with 24 more poised to join in the months ahead. Current members include three Asean states – Brunei, Myanmar and Singapore – as well as US allies such as Australia, Germany, Norway, South Korea and the United Kingdom.
The bank should have an important role in the OBOR initiative, on the basis of the idea that the historic Silk Road that runs across Central Asia could be given an adrenaline shot of development through infrastructure development supported by Chinese financiers. The building of land-based infrastructure will face many problems, not the least of which is the meager economic capacity of Central Asian states. Thus, the need for a more lucrative maritime component, the building and renovation of infrastructure on the sea routes stretching from coastal China through Southeast Asia to the Indian Ocean rim, then on to Africa, the Middle East and Europe.
This Maritime Silk Road, so much more economically promising than its landlocked counterpart, is also a perfect match to Indonesia's Maritime Fulcrum strategy. In fact, it is a perfect match for Asean's strategy of interconnectivity. There will be problems, of course, including China's tendency to use economic linkages as brazen political leverage – but if everyone involved exercised patience and prudence, there is no reason these problems cannot be resolved.
Once these problems are resolved, China's reserves of more than $3 trillion, now manacled to unproductive US debt, would be unleashed in a way that will tremendously benefit China in terms of financial profit and global political influence.
America's Downward Path
Meanwhile, what has the United States been busy at? In spite of his much-tweeted bromance with President Xi, Trump has blustered his way to the brink of a trade war with the Asian economic titan. In shotgun-blast fashion, the United States has carried out an array of provocations: It has argued that the World Trade Organization should not grant China market-economy status, investigated alleged Chinese dumping of aluminum sheets, probed China's practices in relation to intellectual property rights, sanctioned Chinese organizations and individuals that had traded with North Korea, and suspended the Comprehensive Economic Dialogue between the two countries, thereby making it almost hopeless for both sides to amicably resolve any of their disputes.
The two sides know that a full-blown trade war would be extremely damaging to both but Trump, without any sense of strategy, can be reckless. China however, has strategic patience, knowing that in the long run, it already has the inside track. Let us hope China's strategic patience and the counsel of the saner elements in Trump's circle of advisers could save the global economy from the ravages of a trade war between its two biggest economies.
Much worse than a trade war would be a shooting war, possibly a nuclear war, triggered by a preemptive strike by the United States against a North Korea that seems to be increasingly capable of hitting American territory with nuclear-armed missiles. The clear and present danger is that with an unpredictably impulsive President Trump in control of the US nuclear buttons, the preemptive strike could be premature and unnecessary.
One of the idiosyncrasies of Trump is that he believes in making one-sided deals, but not in diplomacy. For example, in Syria he has allowed Iran, Russia and Turkey to marginalize the United States from the political process that would determine the future of Syria in the wake of the expulsion of Islamic State from the country. And that was after carrying out an air strike campaign that cost the American taxpayer some $14 billion, and deploying some 2,000 special forces troops to train and advise the Syrian Democratic Forces militia. This is a case where so much US military power was unleashed without any political or diplomatic follow-up.
In Yemen, the United States continues to supply Saudi Arabia with deadly munitions in spite of an international uproar that the Saudi-led coalition is bombing civilian populations and facilities with impunity. This has gifted the Iran-backed Houthi rebels a huge propaganda advantage, while tens of thousands of civilians die or starve. At the same time, international observers see the Trump administration as complicit in the perpetration of a blatant violation of international laws on war.
As to Iran itself, Trump has threatened to scuttle the nuclear agreement between that country and the five nuclear states (United States, Britain, Russia, France and China) plus Germany. Called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA), it has the effect of making it nearly impossible for Iran to surreptitiously develop a nuclear weapon for at least 15 years. As a first step towards scrapping that deal and negotiating a better one from the point of view of Trump, he is moving to decertify Iran's compliance with the provisions of the agreement.
That mistake will only give Iran justification for reneging on its part of the agreement, and restore the nuclear threat ruled out by the treaty. It will infuriate the other signatories – Britain, Russia, France and China – and the United States will be under pressure to mend fences with them. US credibility, already badly tattered by the country's pullout from the TPP, will hit rock bottom. In any case, Trump deceives himself in believing that decertification will coerce Iran to renegotiate the JCPA, as the United States cannot unilaterally impose the sanctions that the other signatories have lifted.
Today, Iran is in turmoil as people take to the streets to protest against the government over their economic plight, corruption and other issues that are yet unclear. Trump has tweeted support for the protesters, which is a gift to the government as it lends credence to the claim that the upheaval is the handiwork of foreign forces.
Fueling Terrorist Propaganda
As if Trump has not done enough damage to US diplomacy, he inflicts one more gaping wound – by announcing recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Jerusalem is sacred not only to Jews but also Christians and Muslims, especially Muslims embittered by Israeli occupation of their ancestral homes. This decision is a knockout punch on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and registers as intensity 9 on the Richter scale of international politics.
Apart from writing finis to US pretensions of being an honest broker in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, it also has the effect of isolating both the United States and Israel from the international community, as evidenced by the United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning the US demarche on Jerusalem. The lopsided damning vote, 128 to nine, with 35 abstentions, took place in defiance of threats by the Trump administration of withholding aid to countries voting for the resolution.
The most profound injury this debacle has inflicted on world security however, is a resurgence of the jihadist propaganda line that the West, particularly the United States, is waging war against Islam. The capacity of Islamic State to recruit new fighters, recently diminished by its defeats in Iraq and Syria, now finds new strength as a sense of outrage on the Jerusalem issue spreads throughout the Muslim world. Among the beneficiaries of this grotesquerie are Islamic State, Al Qaeda and the terror groups in Mindanao, in the southern Philippines.
Naturally, China again, is quick to exploit Trump's brainlessness: It has offered to host a peace symposium between Palestinians and Israelis, while trumpeting its support for an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. On this issue, so crucial to peace in the Middle East, China now stands squarely on a high moral ground where the United States once stood.
The slump in US global leadership coincides with a weakening of the national fabric as the Trump administration cozies up to a white supremacist political base and pampers the extremely wealthy 1 percent of American society. This has resulted in a divided United States that many countries will find difficult to trust and to support in its foreign policy initiatives.
What Should Asean Do?
What Asean needs to do should be fairly obvious to a dispassionate observer. It must change. While it should hasten its economic consolidation through the Asean Economic Community, it must also evolve its politics in the face of the much-altered geopolitical situation in the Asia-Pacific (now called Indo-Pacific) region.
Asean must face up to the reality of a Chinese hegemon without being swallowed by it. And Asean must find ways of compensating for the fact of life that the United States, which once built up the Asian trading economies through American consumerism, and which gifted the region with a military presence that translated into Pax Americana, is now largely history.
Asean must therefore ensure that its signals to the international community do not betray political timidity or internal discord in the face of China's remorseless assertiveness. This means that in the ongoing negotiations toward a code of conduct in the South China Sea, the Asean panel should push for a legally binding agreement. If China stands pat against this, then Asean must secure an offsetting concession or a particular language in the agreement that ensures China's compliance. At any rate, it should not look as if Asean simply caved in.
Asean will never earn universal respect until it achieves and maintains a stature based on a correct moral stand on issues. The grouping is thus called upon to address the issue of good governance, particularly human rights. At the very least, Asean must urgently address the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar as a matter of collective moral responsibility, instead of resorting to a "pragmatic" silence on this issue.
In recent times, Asean senior officials have admitted with a fair amount of concern that dialogue partners often set the agenda in Asean meetings where they are participants. This should be immediately and tactfully stopped – by changing the procedure for proposing, evaluating and deciding on projects.
The decision-making of Asean today is such that each and every member has veto power over any project, initiative or administrative measure supported by the nine other members. This is an anachronism and a recipe for paralysis at a time when the bloc needs to move swiftly on emerging concerns and threats. There should be certain decisions that can already be implemented if they have the support of at least seven members.
Also badly needed is a strengthening of the Asean Secretariat and empowerment of the Asean Secretary General to act and speak on behalf of the bloc. Complementary to this would be a streamlining of the myriad Asean meetings to ease the demand for the secretariat's administrative and other contributions to these meetings.
With so many Asean bodies carrying out an array of projects, there have been quite a lot of duplication of efforts. Asean should take time to rationalize all the activities of the many Asean and Asean-led bodies so that these achieve synergy instead of enduring costly duplication.
Cold War Ruse
Above all, Asean must finally get its geopolitics right. In this regard, it would be a mistake for the bloc to put much stock on the so-called Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, proposed by Japan and now supported by the United States and Australia, with India finally drawn in to complete the foursome.
The Quad's avowed purpose is to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific region, one that respects international law and "rules-based order," but this is a poor disguise for its Cold War character. Its real purpose is to contain China – but it is today a half-hearted effort and it will take many precious years before it evolves into a semblance of NATO in this part of the world.
No, there can be no countervailing ballast to China in the Indo-Pacific except an Asean-built regional architecture that has fully matured, one in which China itself is engaged and where the United States remains an important contributor, but with neither of these two powers dictating the regional agenda. This is the "centrality" that Asean has always aspired for, a centrality that is today largely hype and a formality but which can become a concrete reality if Asean member states are willing to earn it.
That means they will have to consolidate a principled stand on every global and regional issue, and speak with one voice on these issues, including and especially the South China Sea.
Asean must support China when the latter champions free trade and takes initiatives on climate change. With prudence and circumspection, it should help China shape its Maritime Silk Road venture to fit into the Asean connectivity program. But it should oppose China diplomatically and not be complicit when China grabs maritime territory and militarizes the South China Sea. And Asean should, as it once did, proactively support constructive dialogue between South Korea and North Korea. And it should call down both Kim Jung-un and Donald Trump when they talk thrash to each other about the size of their nuclear launch buttons.
These are some of the things that Asean should do if it is to be faithful to its own "centrality."
Meanwhile, the global situation is fluid: Chinese hegemony is still being shaped by the pressures of its own internal problems and by the actions of other nations, including Asean nations. The United States will not disappear. It will survive the Trump presidency and will probably stage a resurgence under better leadership, but not a full comeback to what it once was.
Power is being redistributed among nations and groups of nations and Asean should actively participate in that global corrective undertaking. But to be able to do that, it must change. It must become more united, coherent and proactive – so that its claim to being an "Asean Community in a global community of nations" will become finally a working reality, and not just another publicity tagline. Otherwise its member states will eventually morph into vassals of the emperor in Beijing.
Jamil Maidan Flores is a Jakarta-based writer whose interests include philosophy and foreign policy. The views expressed here are his own. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.