Once upon a time, security problems in Asia were predictable: containing communism, preventing proliferation, deterring North Korea, keeping the sea lanes open, and reassuring friends and allies. These had stable, reliable solutions, primarily in the form of the San Francisco system, a robust liberal international order, American military supremacy, Washington’s network of bilateral alliances and diplomatic legerdemain in awkward cases, such as Taiwan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Everything has changed. The primary pillar of the post-war security order in Asia – the United States – has shifted from the ‘solution’ column to the ‘problem’ column. This is entirely because of President Donald Trump, whose ‘America First’ agenda, disdain for multilateralism, transactionality and other personal characteristics make it impossible for world leaders to plan. The result: security problems in Asia are now unpredictable and tried-and-tested solutions are unreliable.
The madman theory
And, yet, there are grounds for hope. Who would have predicted, just two years ago, that North Korean president Kim Jong-un and South Korean president Moon Jae-in would have strolled across the border at the DMZ, hand in hand? Who would have predicted dialogue leading to a now cancelled, but still potential Kim-Trump summit? Who would have anticipated the calm that has descended upon the potentially explosive South China Sea? Future historians could credit Trump for at least some of this. By living – not merely acting out – Thomas Schelling’s ‘madman theory’, Trump may well have scared Kim Jong-un into rethinking his nuclear ambitions and his aversion to international engagement. He may have persuaded Chinese president Xi Jinping that China’s interests are best served by taking on the stabilising, defender-of-the-status-quo role that Trump has abandoned. He may have re-energised everyone else’s commitment to multilateralism and the rule of law.
Such predictions seem foolish in such a fluid context. However, it may be helpful to note the following points.
The US foreign and defence establishments have not abandoned their commitment to the pillars of post-war order in Asia; they are simply hunkered down, weathering Hurricane Donald. When the storm passes, they will be well positioned for business as usual. The other countries of the Asia-Pacific know this. To a first approximation, everyone is biding time.
- If rescheduled, a Kim-Trump summit may bear fruit, fall apart in the most spectacular way or fail to come off entirely. The latter two possibilities are extremely dangerous. But the goalposts have shifted. Kim’s rhetorical willingness to commit both internationally and domestically to a denuclearised Korean peninsula in principle will increase the costs of intransigence. This is hopeful.
- The South China Sea is a good-news story. Careful observers will notice that China is fully complying with the July 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration that effectively undercut China’s expansive claims. China no longer talks about the Nine-Dash Line;
it no longer actively enforces its jurisdiction over waters more than 12 nautical miles from features that it claims; and it has ceased to complain about the freedom of navigation patrols of the United States, Australia or other countries as violations of China’s ‘sovereignty’ or ‘rights’ and instead complains about them as threats to ‘peace’, ‘stability’ and ‘security’. Although China is completing its pre-programmed construction of military infrastructure on its seven artificial islands, it has apparently abandoned plans for imposing the Air Defense Identification Zone for which this military infrastructure was necessary, and it has ended its land reclamation. For domestic political reasons, the regime will never admit that the Permanent Court ruling was legitimate – but as a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and as a country whose interests depend crucially upon its avoiding being seen as an outlaw state, it has evidently realised that it has an overwhelming interest in playing nice. One can only hope that the Trump administration recognises this and resists the temptation to push China into a corner.
- Taiwan is emerging as the most serious long-term security issue in the region. Beijing is stepping up its efforts to isolate Taiwan and is sending increasingly blunt signals that demonstrations of independence will not be tolerated. There are reasons to worry that Xi Jinping has made the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland one of his legacy goals. The Trump administration has upgraded its contacts with Taiwan and authorised the sale of advanced weapons, but many wonder whether it would be willing to throw Taiwan under the bus in return for Beijing’s help in solving the North Korea problem.
What can the G7 do in the face of all this? The right question, perhaps, is what can the G6 do? The United States has become unpredictable and unreliable. It may help on some issues; it may hurt on others. At such a time it is imperative that everyone else in the group maintain a united front in support of a rule-governed international order and the peaceful settlement of disputes.