Written by Paul McGarr
By almost any measure, the United States remains the globe’s pre-eminent economic and military power. Yet, in the wake of a bitter and tumultuous presidential election, America stands deeply divided. Hazy campaign pledges to ‘Make America Great Again’ have collided with the reality of a new administration dogged by controversy, mired in conspiracism, and struggling to shake off a burgeoning reputation for ineptitude and incompetence. The familiar notion of a secure and stable Pax Americana, or as Henry Luce proclaimed in his seminal essay, published in Life magazine in February 1941, the progressive internationalism of an ‘American century,’ suddenly appears fragile and imperiled. Hangovers from the financial crisis of 2008 in the form of a spiraling federal deficit, de-industrialization, persistent joblessness, and blue-collar alienation, have eroded faith in liberal, free-market capitalism. In marked contrast, many Asian states weathered the 2008 financial storm comparatively well. Some commentators have suggested that within a few decades, China could surpass the US as the world’s largest economy. The strategic locus of power in Asia is shifting too, as the United States’ old commercial rivals have transformed into new competitors in the security arena. Above all, China has started to flex its military muscle, expanding the range and striking power of its fledgling blue water navy, and developing missile and satellite technology that threatens the militarization of space.
Reflecting perceptions of an inexorable shift in the balance of global power and influence from West to East, the twenty-first century has come to be characterised as the ‘Asian Century.’ It is as well to remember that such appreciations of increasing Asian political and economic ascendancy speak more of a process of renaissance than they do of arrival. At the end of the eighteenth century, prior to the onset of a western industrial revolution that stimulated European colonialism, China and India alone produced half the world’s output. Recent studies have suggested that by 2050, 3 billion Asians might again generate a majority of global GDP.
To a considerable extent, the history of Luce’s ‘American century’ is intertwined with that of Asia. The year 1898 was a watershed in the United States’ journey to global preeminence. Then, in a brief and one-sided war, a brash America turned outwards and mobilised its industrial might to crush an exhausted and atrophying Spanish colonial state. Assuming control of territories spanning the Pacific, US resolve to challenge European influence in the region inaugurated a century of deep American engagement. Frequently turbulent and traumatic, America’s foray in Asia began with a brutal and enervating guerilla conflict in the Philippines, and encompassed a second, catastrophic military intervention in Vietnam, half a century later. In between, a power struggle with imperial Japan culminated in a Pacific War that affirmed American hegemony, and ushered in a period of US nation-building in East and South East Asia. The subsequent prosecution of a Cold War against communism, that turned hot in Korea, floundered in the quagmire of Vietnam, and prompted bouts of introspection driven by imperial hubris, underpinned America’s regional commitment.
Now, for the first time in its modern history, the future of North America’s relationship with Asia is uncertain. An upsurge in nationalism on both sides of the Pacific has called into question the capacity, and will, of the United States to sustain its influence across the region. In Canada, Prime Minster Trudeau’s emphasis on ‘cross-Pacific profit’ has drawn criticism for subordinating issues of national security. President Obama’s much-heralded ‘pivot’ to Asia polarised opinion at home and abroad, garnering support and suspicion in equal measure. Hillary Clinton’s electoral defeat last November witnessed the eclipse of a presidential candidate that had championed transnational collaboration and endorsed the concept of ‘America’s Pacific century’. As Obama’s Secretary of State, it was Clinton who argued that the United States’ interests would be best served by, ‘a substantially increased investment — diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise — in the Asia-Pacific region.’
In contrast, Donald Trump’s strident campaign rhetoric alarmed America’s Asian allies. The leitmotif of ‘America First’, with its echoes of 1930s isolationism, was suggestive of US retrenchment and an ambivalent attitude to established alliances. Trump’s suggestion that Japan and South Korea should assume greater responsibility for their own national security, and consider developing independent nuclear deterrents, called into question a US military commitment to East Asia stretching back to 1945. Asian misgivings multiplied following President Trump’s repudiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and pledge to revisit the ‘dumb deals’ negotiated by his predecessor, most notably during an acerbic and much publicized telephone conversation with the Australian premier, Malcolm Turnbull. The credibility of US regional leadership and its commitment to long-standing regional allies appeared questionable. At the same time, attempts by Trump to cultivate positive ties with states such as India have run into problems. Indians have reacted badly to restrictions placed on H-1B visa programs that offered a gateway for skilled workers, principally from the IT service industry, to US jobs. Likewise, the large Indian community in the United States has expressed disquiet at the anti-immigrant sentiment associated with Trump and a spike in incidents of hate-crime directed at foreign nationals.
The Trump administration’s iconoclastic approach to America’s relations with the Asia-Pacific region has led many political commentators to speculate whether China might profit by moving to occupy the strategic terrain vacated by the US? Or, in an ‘Asian century,’ is it possible to fashion a Pax Pacifica that would accommodate the political and economic aspirations of the regions rising powers and keep America engaged? How might that function? How could it be constructed? These are pressing questions that demand our urgent attention. In more historical terms, what lessons might usefully be drawn from a close study of the United States’ interaction with Asia during an earlier ‘American century’? And how might this help us to understand the impact and likely consequences of Donald Trump’s regional policy? More specifically, can the interrogation of previous US interventions in Asia shed light on the strategies adopted by established allies confronted by a less accommodating American partner? Ultimately, in what ways can the US presence in the region be seen to have accelerated or retarded the prospect of an impending ‘Asian century’?
Only by critically reappraising the socio-political, economic, and strategic legacy of the United States’ relationships with a broad range of Asian-Pacific states, from the Philippines to Pakistan, and from India to Iran, can we hope to arrive at meaningful answers to such pertinent questions. By bringing together leading scholars from across the globe to historicise and debate North America’s association with Asia, this symposium, convened by the University of Nottingham’s Department of American & Canadian Studies, in association with the Institute of Asia & Pacific Studies, seeks to make sense of the present by reaching back into the past.
This article forms part of the IAPS Dialogue series on America in the ‘Asian Century’, a free, one-day symposium organised by the Department of American & Canadian Studies and the Institute of Asia and Pacific Studies at the University of Nottingham on Tuesday 14th March, 2017. For tickets and further information, please follow this link.
Paul McGarr is Assistant Professor in US Foreign Policy in the Department of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham. His first book, The Cold War in South Asia, 1945-1965, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013. He tweets @paul_mcgarr. All images belong to the author unless otherwise stated.