Commentary: Leadership in Asia, competition for a liberal world order

Beijing is determined to shape a global order in which its interests are respected because of its disproportionate power relative to its neighbours, says James R Keith.

What will a new global order look like, from China’s perspective? (Photo: AFP/Karim Jaafar)

WASHINGTON: The essential question of leadership in Asia comes into focus as we reflect on China’s ambitious aspirations enunciated at the 19th Communist Party Congress and on the heels of President Donald Trump’s long trek through Asia this month.

The question was put succinctly by Singapore Prime Minister Lee during his visit to the United States, when he asked an American business audience: “Do you still believe that you have the most to gain from an interdependent world, open exchanges, and multilateral roles?”

The Chinese have an answer to the Prime Minister’s question. Beijing is nothing if not determined to shape the world order.

The component pieces of a “new normal” in the world from China’s point of view do not mesh with the long-standing liberal order that is the foundation for the global, rules-based economy.


China’s mechanisms for increasing its influence and working towards its vision of the new normal, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road initiative, could contribute productively to the global economy and the quality of life in countries along China’s borders.

But there is no guarantee and it may not be the most likely outcome if China chooses a less than fully transparent approach.

US and other foreign engagement with China and participation in China’s outreach in the region can, for example, help shape infrastructure investments to do more to expand local economies and make them more efficient, rather than subordinate them to China’s.

President Xi has rejected explicitly the western model of political and social development in favour of his devotion to China’s idiosyncratic path that takes much from western capitalism but leavens it with Xi’s version of the Chinese dream.

“Socialism with Chinese characteristics” is no euphemism in today’s China.  Marx and Lenin are an integral part of President Xi’s world view, one that is decidedly illiberal in its contest of a democratic, capitalist model for social and economic organisation.

A slogan in a Beijing street reads “Promote Xi’s thought of socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era, making it a lively practice in Beijing”. (Photo: AFP/Greg Baker) 

China’s actions forecast a world in which its prerogatives are respected based on its disproportionate power relative to its neighbours.

Rather than cede some authority to the institutions of the liberal order for the greater good of the global community of nations, China is taking an illiberal approach based on a self-assessment of sufficient power and influence to achieve its ends through the exercise of political will. Chinese policies in the South China Sea, on intellectual property, or on management of the global internet are cases in point.

To be fair, that is Beijing’s view of US practice, which incorrectly assumes the US is not committed to the rule of law as a foundation for the liberal world order.

And in my view this growing disconnect between US and Chinese governments informed Prime Minister Lee’s question to his American audience earlier this fall.

Implicit in his question, which arose because of doubts sowed by the Trump Administration, was the answer most of America’s friends and allies in the region hope to hear: Yes, America is essential to a global order characterised by peace, security, transparency, accountability and the rule of law.

At the Economic Club of Washington DC, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, “But the external world is moving, Asia is dynamic and America … you not only have a role to play, it’s really your game to lose. Don’t lose it.”


Again, it is not China alone that has raised doubts, but the Trump Administration as well. If China has of late been more assertive in the projection of its model as one that others should ideally emulate or at the minimum respect, the US, President Trump’s recent travel to the region notwithstanding, is perceived to be distancing itself from its commitments in Asia and beyond.

And therefore underlying the Prime Minister’s question is an even larger one: What would the world look like if the United States were to withdraw from or ignore the international institutions and mechanisms that comprise the liberal world order?

The United States and Asian nations share vital national interests in an orderly expansion of trade and investment that can only come about against the backdrop of a stable and peaceful region.

US engagement in East Asia has been the number one factor in the preservation of the stability and peace enjoyed in the period of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

US-China relations have been a critical part of that engagement. The relationship has so far weathered a shift in emphasis towards greater competition and less cooperation. We should not take that success for granted.

And it usually goes unstated, but needs to be said now: US-China competition without an overarching economic, trade, and investment component is primarily characterised by contending security interests that also reflect competing views of the present liberal world order, the rule of law, and the role of civil society.

President Trump withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership shortly after his inauguration. (Photo: AFP/Robyn Beck)

The Trump Administration has turned away from some of the tools to advance this effort, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It is an urgent priority for US leaders to identify and implement new means of advancing our economic and trade cooperation in East Asia to replace those it has put aside.

As the APEC and East Asia Summit made abundantly clear, President Trump’s journey through Asia did not reassure its friends and allies in the region that the US has a comprehensive, realistic plan for US leadership in Asia and the political will to carry out such a plan.

Both China and the US face domestic challenges and contradictions that will be difficult to resolve in the years ahead; neither country can easily afford the added burden of bilateral divergence trending toward destabilisation.

US friends and allies in the region have sent a clear signal to President Trump: Stay engaged in the region, not only in security terms but also through economic and people-to-people ties.

The months ahead will tell if the Trump Administration has heard that message and responds adequately.

It is not an exaggeration to suggest that Asian as well as American peace, stability, and prosperity depend heavily on the response.

James R Keith is managing director of McLarty Associates. During his 31-year career as a US diplomat previously, he had served in positions including Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for China and US Ambassador to Malaysia.

Source: CNA/sl

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