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The End of the Asian Century Doesn’t Require U.S. Leadership


You wouldn’t know it from reading daily headlines, but—setting aside the wellspring of salacious rumors and accusations surrounding contacts between the campaign team for Donald Trump and the Russian government—arguably the most pressing foreign policy area for now-President Trump’s first term may very well rest in East Asia rather than Eastern Europe.

Image Courtesy of Korean Culture and Information Service, © 2013.

Over the past decade the United States has warily watched the growing Chinese economy and increased assertiveness in the South China Sea for clues as to whether or not China will seek to challenge U.S. prominence either regionally or globally. Still, despite a proliferation of pessimistic arguments regarding the ability of the United States and China to peacefully coexist, other scholars and observers have adopted a much more benign view.

Writing recently in the Wall Street Journal, to accompany a newly released book, Michael Auslin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has added his voice to an increasing number of analysts who argue that the United States has less to worry about with China and other potential rising powers than popularly believed. Auslin notes that “the more important Asia has become on the global stage, the more glaring have its flaws become. The region is deeply fractured, threatened by economic stagnation, political upheaval and flash point that could trigger new wars.”

Nevertheless, Auslin draws different conclusions from other scholars who are similarly optimistic about U.S. standing vis-à-vis China and other Asian countries. Although in agreement that a rising China may not be cause for alarm, Auslin interestingly argues that China’s relative weakness may also cause problems for the United States given that “in our more integrated global society…troubles [in Asia] could quickly become everyone else’s.”

The source of this divergence is Auslin’s push-back against what he sees as a “new U.S. pull towards isolationism,” which “has arrived just as Mr. Xi’s China is increasingly becoming a revisionist power, bristling at any resistance—especially American to its regional ambitions.”

This is a puzzling conclusion. It requires Auslin to argue that, despite the economic, demographic, political, and leadership challenges which Asian countries face, China not only maintains revisionist intentions in East Asia, but that the United States must take the lead in mitigating the effects of other regional challenges.

Although perhaps not an inherent logical fallacy, it is difficult to square the notion that China faces the aforementioned plethora of challenges and yet either still possesses revisionist intentions, or, if acted upon, that those intentions pose a threat to U.S. interests. The former do not necessarily preclude the latter’s existence, but if both are true then we should expect any revisionist intentions to have only a small chance at success. Put differently, the weaker Mr. Auslin wants to portray China as being, the less he can argue that China’s revisionist intentions matter.

Moreover, even if the economic, demographic, political, and leadership challenges that China has to deal with are surmountable, it does not follow that the United States will be drawn in to clean up any possible messes in Asia. Trump’s overtures to rethinking U.S. grand strategy may yet prove to have been over hyped, but his election has demonstrated that such views are not in and of themselves disqualifying in a presidential candidate.

Indeed, one potential interpretation of the unflinching loyalty that Trump’s electoral base has maintained towards an increasingly embattled executive is that the 2016 election was not an anomaly but rather the result of a growing displeasure amongst the general public with a globalist foreign policy agenda vis-à-vis the interconnected economic system.

If true, then Auslin’s arguments regarding the relative strength or weakness of China and other Asian countries may be essentially moot. Whether China has revisionist intentions and can act on them or not, the United States could ride out any insecurity in Asia by adopting a more restrained approach to their foreign policy and allowing Asian countries to sort their differences among themselves sans American interference.

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