Saturday, August 27, 2016

For the first time in 500 years, Asia is in the ascendant. The West, tired, overstretched and in stately decline, is gradually becoming a bystander on the margins

With China's accession to the title of world's largest economy, there is growing anxiety in the West about how to retain influence and primacy, not just in Asia, but globally.

China would have the world believe it has nothing to fear. But the recent display of histrionics after an international court of arbitration ruled that China's expansive claims in the South China Sea had no basis in law, has fuelled this anxiety. China sent bombers aloft over disputed islands and threatened to declare an Air Defense Zone -- and then did not.

But the larger point is that for the first time in 500 years, Asia is in the ascendant. The West, tired, overstretched and in stately decline, is gradually becoming a bystander on the margins. Sure, to quote U.S. President Barack Obama, the U.S. might still be the "greatest nation on earth," but Republican Party presidential nominee Donald Trump may strike closer to the truth when he says he aims to "make America great again."

The metrics of geopolitical power are subjective. Asia now spends more on weapons than Europe does, but Asia's armed forces have less experience projecting power. The majority of wars that afflict the world are being fought in the Middle East and Africa, mostly entangling the West, not Asia, where peace generally reigns despite protracted internal conflicts on the margins.

All the same, the West is rattled, afraid on the one hand that it may be too late to contain China, and on the other worried that it stands to lose out commercially once confrontation ensues. Such is the handwringing that preoccupies Gideon Rachman, international affairs columnist for the Financial Times, whose new book, "Easternization: War and Peace in the Asian Century," is intended as a wake-up call to Western policymakers.

The "easternization" concept poses an important question. How does the West manage the inevitable shift in the world's center of economic and, eventually, political gravity to the East? This trend, after all, has been an evolving reality for almost two decades. What will a world overshadowed by Chinese capital, Chinese lending institutions, Chinese-built infrastructure, and Chinese technology look like? Is Huawei the Apple of tomorrow? Will the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank launched by China in 2014 supplant the World Bank that the U.S. launched to help rebuild the world after World War II?

The problem is that exhorting former Western powers and alliances to bulk up and confront a rising China plays into arcane containment strategies that are more likely to provoke conflict. The Philippines was encouraged to take its case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague, and was financially supported in doing so by Western governments eager to check China's emerging primacy. Using the cloak of rule of law does not make this strategy any less apparent.

China is on the cusp of projecting more than military-backed power. Its tech companies are producing services like Wechat, Weibo and Didi for consumers that rival and in some cases outsmart their Western counterparts like Uber, Facebook and Twitter. Chinese state media broadcaster CCTV has put in place a global network of news gathering that is well financed and producing deeper coverage of news in Africa, the Americas and Asia than either CNN or the BBC.

Much of China's current trajectory looks like America's rise to industrial power in the last century. Often it seems that China is reading from an American playbook from the 1960s by ignoring the rules and insisting on treating everyone bilaterally. It is only with the rise of China that Washington has started favoring multilateral forums in Asia for critical trade and security issues - preferably excluding China. The Trans-Pacific Partnership that is the cornerstone of Obama's so-called "pivot to Asia" does not include China.

Like the U.S., China's military sees potential scope for operating globally. A senior People's Liberation Army officer wrote recently that he envisaged China's next war on land - not in Asia, but perhaps in Africa or the Middle East where China has valuable resource access and increasing numbers of workers to protect.

But is the West really so threatened by the rise of powers in the East? Would a more militarily capable Japan, together with a unified Korea, not help maintain a balance of security in the East without having to rely on the U.S.?

For one thing, there is no parallel as yet with the transatlantic alliance, for all its woes. Frankly, it stretches credulity to imagine Russia and China sustaining a deep strategic embrace, as Rachman hints at in his book. The two countries have tried to shape a Eurasian strategy over the past 15 years through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an attempted Asian version of the NATO alliance, which Chinese officials say is deeply mired in mutual suspicion between Moscow and Beijing. Japan is also problematic because the horrors of the Pacific War are still fresh in the collective memories of people in China and the Koreas.

India is touted as a coming global power, and indeed provides hope for those who fear easternization that it will help check China's ambitions. Much comfort in the West is drawn from India's democracy, even though some of the values that underpin the way India is governed are thoroughly illiberal. But India is for now a fair weather ally, its foreign policy still shackled to Nehruvian principles that lay stress on the near neighborhood and the security of the subcontinent rather than Asia writ large.

A visceral fear is that China, along with a more nationalistic Japan, a more assertive South Korea and an aggrieved Russia, will interfere with and reset the institutional center of gravity established by the Western powers after World War II through the Bretton Woods institutions. China is already the second largest financial contributor to the United Nations after the U.S., and is keen to play a more proactive role on the Security Council instead of hiding behind Russia's positions.

But it was the launch of the AIIB in 2014, in which China has the majority stake, that really turned heads. In addition to its Asian membership, the U.S. was unable to prevent the U.K. and other European countries from joining, in what was a clear break with the postwar order laid down 70 years ago.

A pro-democracy protester in Hong Kong holds a portrait of Chinese human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, demanding his release. © Reuters

One of the biggest fears staked out in the easternization thesis is the decline of the primacy of the Western way of doing things, in the liberal notions that underpin humanitarianism, financial transparency and political discourse. The erosion of the power that supports these values is forcing the fringes of Europe, such as Turkey, as well as much of Africa and the Middle East, to look East. This is something of an overstatement, since English remains the primary language of commerce and diplomacy and global systems of exchange and standardization are all located in the West -- as Rachman puts it, "much of the world is still wired through the West."

For those of us in Asia, the central question is whether peace and security will prevail, whatever the dominant power equation and however the internet is controlled. Some fret that only with continued U.S. dominance is peace assured. China is doing a bad job of convincing us otherwise with its aggressive posturing in the South China Sea and table-thumping tactics at regional multilateral forums.

Longer term, the answer is that Asia needs to replicate the interlocking framework of alliances and agreements that still underwrites peace and security on either side of the Atlantic. China needs to be drawn in, not excluded -- and yes, that may mean China needs to be in the lead, however scary that appears to be in the region, or in Washington, Brussels and other Western capitals.

But for this to happen, Asia needs to extricate itself completely from the lingering post-colonial order that casts all issues of sovereignty and security in a Western strategic frame. We may not need to wait much longer, for the larger problem highlighted in easternization is not so much the rise of the East but the decline of the West.

Michael Vatikiotis is Asia regional director at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.

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