Asian allies’ harsh realism about America’s direction must collide with the return of intransigent American unilateralism.

Three perspectives on the present and future of America’s Asian policy have been heard in Washington in recent weeks.

They came during a state visit to the US capital by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida; in statements by the former head of Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bilahari Kausikan; and from an article co-written by Matt Pottinger, former President Donald Trump’s deputy national security adviser, and Mike Gallagher, a retired Republican congressman and former chairman of the House Select Committee on China.

Close US allies in Asia offered their views on how best to manage relations between Washington and Beijing.

But Pottinger and Gallagher seek to triumph in a moment at the end of history, with a Churchillian and Reagan moment, over China, in a new cold war. His scenario for the future of US-China relations, if Trump accepts it, should open the eyes of all foreign ministries in the Asia-Pacific.

Kishida and Kausikan, while both stressing America’s residual strengths in its regional presence, are frank about their misgivings about America’s direction.

Speaking before the US Congress, Kishida spoke of America’s “loneliness and exhaustion” in global leadership. He said he detected “an undercurrent of doubt” among Americans about their role in the world. As allies are asked to do more, Japan has changed its “own mentality,” he said. Tokyo, a once “reticent” ally, was now “looking at the world.”

Kausikan, in addition to emphasizing the importance of the US as a bilateral economic partner for Southeast Asian countries, lamented the American tendency to see the region “as a blank sheet on which to project its own hopes and fears”.

Americans often think, he said, that “if the region is not ‘free,’ it will turn “red”; if Southeast Asian Muslims are not “moderate” (i.e. pro-Western, they must be conspiring against terrorism); if “democracy” does not advance, it must be in “retreat”; and, more recently, if Southeast Asia does not align with the US, it will likely be falling under Chinese rule.”

Presidents Nixon and Ford, Henry Kissinger and détente are briefly dismissed as “that spectacle of the 70s”.

This same binary framework, Kausikan noted, plagued the US in Vietnam. Therefore, “it is not the best frame of mind to try to understand the nature of US-China competition.”

In their joint statement, Kishida and Biden stressed the need for continued dialogue with Beijing, “the importance of candid communication with the People’s Republic of China, including at the leadership level,” and looked forward to working with China “whenever possible in areas of common interest”.

And it is this emphasis on common interests that Kausikan wants to be emphasized in American diplomacy in Southeast Asia. He specifically took aim at the American assumption of “common values, real or imagined,” saying “it is a mistake to think that your values ​​are the only valid ones. It should be no consolation to you that China makes parallel mistakes.”

A key message was the need to prioritize interests over values ​​and dialogue on the “demonization” of China. He also advises the US not to demonize itself, pointing to its creativity and resilience in large corporations, universities and research labs, and on Wall Street.

In contrast to this tone of harsh realism, Pottinger and Gallagher, in their Foreign Affairs article, largely repudiated President Biden’s China policy.

They have established a political path that can only lead to armed conflicts. The recipe is so radical that Trump himself is unlikely to follow it.

Still, there are familiar refrains.

The US would expand its military presence in Asia, and the US should “openly declare that the dispute is a cold war”, since “US policymakers’ squeamishness regarding the term ‘cold war’ causes them to ignore the way it can mobilize society. A cold war provides an identifiable framework that Americans can use to guide their own decisions.”

They call for “a president-led generational effort to restore U.S. primacy in Asia,” as many have done before. They want an increase in defense spending to 4 or 5 percent of GDP and new energy devoted to military recruitment.

But they destroy Biden’s “controlled competition” policy with China. Instead, they believe that the US “should win” this existential struggle. Therefore, China must give in and give up on “trying to prevail in a hot or cold war with the US and its friends”

The Chinese people would then “explore new models of development and governance”, a policy that sounds like an attempt at regime change.

To get there, Washington must adopt policies that “feel uncomfortably confrontational.” China’s access to Western technology must be “cut off” and the US must pierce China’s “great firewall” to “disseminate truthful information within China.”

Along the way, Presidents Nixon and Ford, Henry Kissinger and détente are briefly dismissed as “that spectacle of the 70s”. The end of the Cold War peace dividend is lamented. The story is biased and the prescription dangerous.

There is a barely concealed panic in his analysis. It is a US-China policy unbalanced by illusions, where America manages to remain first, and where Clark Kent is entering a phone booth in Manhattan, and soon Superman will emerge to the rescue in the Taiwan Strait and the Sea of South China, saving America once again.

Analysis by James Curran of the Financial Review.


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