The Pacific region is asserting itself as the new center of the world. A new center where China has the upper hand because of a coherent strategy.
In the 20th century, the world was centered on the Atlantic; now it is the Pacific. It is the focus for world capitalism as well as the center of geopolitical risks. Half the world’s population live in the Pacific area and it generates 60% of global production. It is also the region where there has been a spectacular rise in tension – over sovereignty of the South China Sea and over North Korea’s arms program which involves the proliferation of its nuclear and ballistic missiles.
For the first time, the 21-country APEC summit that took place in Port Moresby, capital of New Guinea, ended without a joint declaration, which shows that rivalry between the USA and China has worsened.
There is a new Cold War being waged over control of the Pacific area, just as Europe was the main bone of contention between the Western bloc and the Soviet empire after World War II. It is a global confrontation. First of all, it is about trade, with Washington’s introduction of import taxes on 250 billion dollars’ worth of Chinese imports, to which Beijing retaliated by pushing forward its plan for an Asian free-trade area. Secondly, it is about technology: the USA wants to hamper the Made in China 2025 plan and the two countries are in fierce competition in the key sectors of space, cyber-space and artificial intelligence. Thirdly, there is a military aspect involving control of the South China Sea and the preservation of Taiwan’s independence. Finally, it has a strategic dimension: the spread of the Chinese model of political authoritarianism and the state capitalism of Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand.
China has got the upper hand because of a coherent strategy. It is based on the tightening of the Communist Party’s domestic monopoly, as shown in the normalization of Hong Kong – in defiance of the agreements signed with the UK –the setting-up of a system for digital control of the population, the construction of a huge seawall, taking control of key areas, and bringing traditional allies of the USA into its own camp. The embodiment of this is to be seen in the Philippines under Rodrigo Duarte, where Xi Jinping was given a triumphal welcome on his state visit – a visit which resulted in 24 billion dollars’ worth of finance from China, notably in common oil and gas exploration in the the South China Sea, thus reinforcing China’s claims over it. However, China’s economy is probably not at a stage where it can take on such an over-expansion of empire, and it might well be that Xi Jinping is making the same mistake as Kaiser Wilhem II by engaging too hastily in a head-on confrontation with the dominant power.
For the USA, awareness of the Chinese threat is done a disservice by erratic strategy. Withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership has undermined the economic and commercial containment of China within Asia. Protectionist measures, an avowed closeness to Vladimir Putin, and the impromptu overtures made to North Korea which have resulted in Kim Jong-un cocking a snook at Donald Trump in Singapore, have weakened the USA’s relationship with its key allies, Japan and South Korea. The guarantee of security provided by the USA, already weakened by the purely virtual nature of the “pivot to Asia” announced by Barack Obama, is even more haphazard in the Pacific than it is in Europe.
The emergence of a multi-polar work and the de-Westernization of the international system, is substantiated by the fact that resistance to China’s expansion of its empire is taking place in Asia, for China is no longer a source of inspiration – it is feared. Relations with the USA are on a bilateral basis, as was the case in the rapprochement with Vietnam, which opened its ports to US Navy ships in return for the ending the embargo on its arms sales. But the fundamental change is in the creation of an Asian axis against China, formed by the democratic front of India and Japan and their rapprochement with Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and Malaysia.
This is being accompanied by massive new investment in defense as a counter to China’s military force. A real arms race has begun, which will see expenditure on weaponry in the Asia-Pacific area exceed that of the USA by 2029. It is highly paradoxical to see the USA dismantling their strategic alliances and Europe becoming divided just at a time when Asia is attempting to unite – economically and strategically – in order to put up resistance to the Chinese menace.
(Column published in Le Figaro, 26th November 2018)