Challenging the hegemons: the power of Asian alliances

Shortly after the 2016 American presidential election, the Indo-Pacific heard the first alarm bells ring on the style of Donald Trump.

Following his victory, Trump, a product of Western democracy’s unpredictability, received a congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen. By even speaking to her, a hairline crack was injected into the long-standing One China Policy that had been a ballast of Asian and global politics for almost 40 years.

Since then, the region has been on a roller coaster ride, ranging from brinkmanship on the Korean Peninsula to rescuing the Obama-inspired Trans-Pacific Partnership after Trump’s abrupt withdrawal.

Amid all this came US hostility against China and increasing talk of a new Cold War.

The overriding Asian realisation is that unpredictability will remain a central factor in American politics. Therefore, the region needs to a find a better way to deal with it.

The US security umbrella which has given stability for so many decades will not be there forever and is already springing leaks. This truth remains regardless of who wins November’s presidential election.  Four years on, in 2024, American policy could undergo another sea change, as yet unknown.

Should Joseph Biden take over the US presidency next year, the tone of the American relationship with China may soften but, most probably, the substance will not. Current policymaking has strong bipartisan support in Washington.

Biden is a more values-based politician who prefers engagement to confrontation. He is less transactional,   indicating that issues such as the Xinjiang prison camps and illegal South China Sea military bases will remain on the agenda and will be less likely to be traded off. Human rights and international law are pillars of his values, whereas they are less so with Trump.

Beijing’s current boundary-testing policies, whether with Indian troops in the Himalayas or Indonesian fishing boats in the South China Sea, are only bolstering Washington’s resolve.

America has now swapped Islamic terror for Communist China as the most serious threat to its own and global security, with defence, trade and other budgets being agreed accordingly. 

Yet Biden is more sensitive to Asia’s nuances than Trump. He is unlikely to push the issue of taking sides in that familiar American mantra that ‘you are either us or against us’. 

A Biden presidency would see US officials turning up at more regional meetings and framing the Indo-Pacific in a wider narrative than just the challenge from China. Another Trump administration would bolster polarisation. 

South Asian governments are already being drawn into the China camp while India is veering towards the US. With China pushing in and the US regarding India as an unreliable strategic ally, New Delhi needs to get smart and make some clever decisions.

The situation with pro-China Pakistan to the west and continuing skirmishes on the disputed Sino-Indian border are unlikely to change any time soon.

In Southeast Asia, if pressure continues from either the US or China to take sides, most governments will eventually choose their regional neighbour. China is geographically there. The US is not.

Unlike Europe, Southeast Asian countries have no predominant political, religious or cultural bond. Their shared interest is trade, development and wealth creation. On this, China has a good track record.

Northeast Asia, with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, makes up America’s success story of creating democracies in Asian societies. The US has bilateral defence arrangements with all three.

Asian Affairs has long argued that the Indo-Pacific needs to bury past grievances and cultural differences to forge a regional alliance that, over the next centuries, will see off any hegemonic power, be it China, Russia or any other.

Australia and Japan are leading efforts to create an alliance of like-minded governments. With increased Sino-American hostility this needs to be speeded up and there is now an urgency to lay down concrete institutional markers.

Among early steps could be Taiwan’s admission to the CPTPP, the revived version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and ending hostility between Japan and South Korea to begin forging a strategic alliance.

If France and Germany can do it just six years after the Holocaust ended, then surely Japan and South Korea can more than 70 years after their hostilities. Then, once momentum is underway, Asian governments can take more control over their destiny.

Instead of asking what impact the next US presidential election will have on Asian lives, the question could be turned around to ask: what impact will a strengthened Asia have on whoever wins the White House?

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