The Financial Times’ Gideon Rachman has written an excellent new book, Easternization: Asia’s Rise and America’s Decline from Obama to Trump. “The central issue,” Rachman argues, “is how the rise in Asian economic power is changing world politics” and we need to “understand how the governing elites of the big global powers see their roles in the world and the challenges facing them.”
Rachman’s analysis is fair, objective, and cogent. The implications of Rachman’s work for the United States are dangerous—especially since most policymakers are indifferent to Asia’s rise outside of a purely economic “everybody wins” point of view.
No, not everyone wins. They can’t.
Western Hegemony on the Wane
The process of Easternization began when economic power started shifting from the West toward the East in the postwar period. With the opening of China to world trade, this process accelerated. As the Cold War came to a close in the early 1990s, the push for more globalization (what President George H. W. Bush called “the new world order”) began in earnest. What began as a massive increase in wealth in Asia has now become a seismic shift of geopolitical power.
Before the economic explosion in Asia, as Rachman documents, the West tended to shape world events. Western countries, first in Europe and then the United States, were able to lead the world because of their monopoly on economic and military power, as well as technological innovation. Yet, thanks to the massive transfer of wealth eastward, “the West’s centuries-long domination of world affairs is now coming to a close,” and the great advantages that the West has enjoyed over the East “are fast eroding.”
Throughout his tenure in office, President Barack Obama and his defenders intimated that America’s decline was natural and inevitable and, in any case. well underway. Rather than waste time and resources fighting it, the Obamians believed that they needed merely to manage America’s decline. We on the Right understandably were annoyed and concerned by such unwarranted defeatism. Those of us who voted for Donald Trump understood that innovative change was needed in our political system, to reverse the decline. Yet, the mere election of Donald Trump, in my view, has not been enough to stem the patterns of Easternization.
Reality repeatedly has sent America’s post-Cold War presidents (George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and now, Donald Trump) wake-up calls to begin focusing more intensely on Asia. Each time, those post-Cold War presidents have hit the proverbial snooze button. Instead, they opted mindlessly to continue the free trade policies that allowed China to sap America’s economic might and build up their own.
During former President George H.W. Bush’s presidency, we had to respond to the Chinese Communist Party’s brutal massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square. Beijing faced some sanctions, but in the end the Bush Administration squandered a key opportunity to press for real change in China. Bill Clinton faced both a North Korean nuclear weapons scare in 1994 and the Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1996, when China looked poised to invade long-time American ally, Taiwan. In 2001, George W. Bush had to face China after they forced down a United States Navy E-3 spy plane flying near Hainan Island.. As these events continued and, even escalated, we ought to have seen a shift in policy. Yet, the greedy free traders in America used their influence and access to get presidents to back down.
30 Years of Economic Warfare
In the first nine months of the Trump Administration, Asia has become a topic of concern again. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump spoke forcefully about holding China (and other Asian states) accountable for unfair trade practices that damaged America’s economy and harmed American workers. During the transition, Trump ruffled feathers when he accepted a congratulatory phone call from President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan—disturbing the Chinese leadership, which views Taiwan as nothing more than a breakaway province. Of course, we’ve had to contend with the ticking time bomb that is the North Korean nuclear situation. And, there remains the irksome unfair Chinese trade practices that have persisted for more than 30 years.
During that time, China has practiced a form of economic warfare against the United States; it has used our free trade practices as a weapon against us. Thanks to these practices, America’s trade imbalance with China runs at around $347 billion. Although the U.S. economy remains the largest in the world (in GDP terms), China’s is now the second-largest and closing in fast. In terms of purchasing power parity, China became the largest economy in the world in 2014—the same year that America distracted itself with reigniting its age-old obsession with the Russian bear. We should be focusing on China’s rise, not Russia’s inexorable decline.
China’s economic growth has fueled an astonishing military modernization. The Chinese military is now a truly potent force that is rising to challenge the Western-led international order in Asia. While China’s technological capabilities remain subordinated to the West (theirs is a highly imitative rather than innovative technological capability), the Chinese are gaining on the West, thanks in large part to their cyber theft and industrial espionage capabilities directed against Western businesses, academic institutions, and governments.
It is only a matter of time, however, before China’s supreme economic prowess coalesces into dominant technological innovation. In fact, the accounting firm KPMG has long speculated that the next great innovation hub would be in China rather than the United States, given how far China has developed its technological capabilities.
Who Lost (to) China?
You can thank the free traders for this. The one group of influential people who were totally opposed to the kind of free trade that has empowered China were led by Steve Bannon, the chief economic nationalist in the United States today. Unfortunately, the economic nationalists have mostly been removed from the Trump Administration. Meanwhile, the faction that benefits most from maintaining the status quo with China, the billionaires who comprise Trump’s economic policy team, now have the ear of the president. And, the military leadership in the Trump Administration is more concerned with the War in Afghanistan and Russian irredentism in Europe than with China’s economic warfare.
Bannon still maintains a firm grasp on the reality of the world we’re facing: unless drastic action is taken to reverse the trend of Easternization through trade protectionism and an increased military focus on Asia, the United States will become a middle-rate power in a Chinese-dominated world.
“The strength of regional support for a continued strong U.S. role makes America’s determination to push back against Chinese hegemony both morally defensible and strategically feasible,” Rachman writes.
Yet, the pull of Easternization is great. The inability to push back against unfair trading practices will only ensure that any American resistance to Chinese hegemony will miss the mark, as the four post-Cold War presidents all have. Although Rachman believes that continued trade with China will mitigate the potential for future war, it’s more likely that Bannon’s view of restricted trade with China will provide the means for the United States to slow China’s rise and deter a future war.
Each day that the United States fails to reform its trade policies is another day that Americans (other than the upper 20 percent of wage earners) are left in the lurch. And the stronger China becomes, the more interested it will be in toppling America’s position as the global hegemon. So barring a serious course correction, it really is only a matter of time before Easternization permanently diminishes America’s power and standing in the world. Once that happens, there will be no going back.
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