The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This is how a superpower commits suicide

President Trump gathered with world leaders on Nov. 13 at the ASEAN Summit in Manila. (Video: US Department of State)

Richard Javad Heydarian is an author focused on Asian geopolitics. He previously taught political science at De La Salle University and Ateneo De Manila University and served as a policy advisor at the Philippine House of Representatives.

MANILA, Philippines — During President Donald Trump’s first official Asia tour, the precipitous erosion of America’s decades-long hegemony in the region has been painfully apparent.

This is partially the structural byproduct of the rapid rise of China, which has openly called for a 21st century new regional order of “Asia for Asians.” Since 2013, the Asian powerhouse has rolled out an alluring package of development initiatives, which could potentially redraw the economic landscape of the region and beyond. With China emerging as the world’s economic engine, it is proactively reclaiming its historical place in the sun.

But it is also the byproduct of the tempestuous Trump presidency’s devastating impact on American standing in Asia. Both allies and rivals in the region have been perturbed by Trump’s “America first,” neo-isolationist foreign policy. His midnight tirades on Twitter, constant attacks on the liberal international order and push to dismantle the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement have collectively left America isolated even from some of its closest allies.

An effigy of President Trump was burned in Manila during a protest against President Trump's visit to the Philippines for the ASEAN summit on Nov. 13. (Video: entengi2/Instagram)

As an official from one of America’s key partners in the region put it to me earlier this year: “Is this how superpowers commit suicide?” It appears the answer is yes.

While America continues to maintain a significant military edge over its closest rivals, it’s gradually losing the main battle that is defining this century: trade and investment. Meanwhile, China is busy shaping the world in its own image with verve and vigor. In a surreal twist of events, a communist regime has now emerged as the unlikely guardian of globalization and multilateral diplomacy.

Soft power catastrophe 

Since Trump’s ascent to power, America’s standing in the world has experienced a virtual collapse. According to the Pew Research Center, international confidence in American leadership has declined significantly in the past year. This has been most acutely felt in the Asia-Pacific region, the new center of gravity in global geopolitics.

Among America’s Asian allies, such as South Korea and Japan, confidence in the American president’s ability to make the right judgment has dropped by as much as 71 percent and 54 percent, respectively. In Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, it dropped by 41 percent. This is nothing short of a disaster for American soft power.

Despite his tough talk, Trump struggled to secure any major concessions during his visit to China, which refused to budge on core economic and geopolitical areas of disagreement, particularly over North Korea and the South China Sea. Failing to impose his will on the host nation, Trump even ended up giving Beijing “great credit” for its ability to take “advantage of another country for the benefit of its own citizens.” Trump blamed his predecessors for America’s ballooning trade imbalance with China.

President Trump offered on Nov. 12 to mediate the dispute over the South China Sea, where five countries contest China's sweeping claims to the waterway. (Video: Reuters)

America was visibly isolated during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vietnam. The host country is among 11 other nations, including Japan, Australia and Singapore, who feel betrayed by Trump’s decision to withdraw from the TPP. Smaller Southeast Asian countries saw the trade pact as an opportunity to gain better access to the American market, while Japan and Australia viewed it as a crucial counterweight to China’s rising influence in the region.

American allies have repackaged and renamed the trade pact in hopes of resuscitating it. After all, many Asian governments expended considerable political capital to accede to the original TPP agreement amid domestic protectionist opposition. This, however, essentially leaves Washington with zero economic initiative on the table.

In short, allies have shown their willingness to move past America and actively construct a post-American world, partly to expand regional trade as well as to keep China’s rising influence in check. I spoke with a veteran American trade negotiator who said it seems highly unlikely that a post-Trump America will ever agree to join a retrofitted version of the TPP, which aims to radically alter the economic configuration of its member states. The U.S. Congress, by law and political tradition, will likely not agree to ratify a free trade agreement unless American negotiators have had a pivotal and sustained role in shaping its outcome. This means allies will have to either forego American participation in the so-called “TPP 11” down the road or, alternatively, effectively freeze negotiations until Washington changes its mind. That’s a lot of wasted time and strategic opportunity.

Pax Sinica

In contrast, Chinese President Xi Jinping, speaking at APEC, described globalization as an “irreversible historical trend.” He promoted a “multilateral trading regime and practice” to allow “developing members to benefit more from international trade and investment.” The statements echoed Xi’s high-profile speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, where he effectively presented China as the vanguard of the global economic order.

Back then, Xi assailed those who were “blaming economic globalization for the world’s problems.” The Chinese leader endorsed globalization as a “big ocean that you cannot escape from,” while criticizing protectionism as “locking oneself in a dark room.”

Those were not just empty words. China has forged ahead, winning over the region and the world with an all-consuming sense of purpose. Xi has helped established the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Shanghai-based New Development Bank as alternatives to the U.S.-dominated World Bank and International Monetary Fund, as well as the Japan-dominated Asian Development Bank.  

With the TPP in the doldrums, the Asia-Pacific region is placing a bet on the China-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement. The RCEP is seen as a more inclusive and flexible alternative; it places less stringent demands on its prospective member states and primarily focuses on reducing trade barriers among major economic blocs in the region.

To be fair, the fate of China-led economic initiatives, as well as that of RCEP, is far from assured. China’s record of investment across the region has, so far, been mixed at best. Moreover, the promotion of its autocratic model of development, coupled with its increasingly overt interference in the affairs of neighboring states, could threaten fledgling democracies in the region — not to mention China’s direct challenge to international law and regional security via aggressive occupation of disputed territories in the South China Sea, the world’s most important sea line of communication. Clearly, Beijing seeks to buy the acquiescence of its smaller neighbors through strategic deployment of its financial largesse.

Yet, absent any tangible economic alternatives from America and its allies, a growing number of regional states will have no choice but to accept Beijing’s economic offensive. What is at stake isn’t only American hegemony but also the autonomy of smaller states as well as the survival of a rules-based order in Asia.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.