In recent months, the U.S. academic world has been consumed by endless debates on whether U.S. influence is waning in world affairs as it faces a self-confident and increasingly belligerent China, the new kid on the block with growing economic muscle and rising military ascendancy.
A recent round of discussions under the auspices of New York's Asia Society between two contemporary thinkers, Ian Bremmer, a respected political scientist and president of the Eurasia Group, a political risk research and consulting firm, and former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a China expert and the present chairman of Asia Society's Policy Institute, provided some interesting insights into the roles of the U.S. and China in the global arena.
Contrary to many doomsday soothsayers who predict that the decline of the U.S. as the world's superpower was programed and that it was making way for China, Bremmer argued that the U.S. will continue its dominant world role despite global challenges. But Bremmer also called for a complete review of the U.S.'s international role following what he described as its "incoherent and prohibitively expensive foreign policy strategy since the end of the Cold War."
Washington has not had a well-defined foreign policy strategy since the Soviet Union's collapse, but now it was time for the U.S. to take a look at the options and make a choice.
"American politicians have the ability to lead in foreign policy, if they want to," Bremmer said, adding that young Americans did not want to get involved in foreign adventures.
Public opinion in America does play an important role in the formulation of official foreign policy unlike in China where public opinion can easily be influenced or even controlled.
Rudd, who has also written a study report called "The Future of U.S.-China Relations under Xi Jinping," the Chinese president, maintained that China is now a significantly more important trading partner than the U.S. for every country in Asia, including every single American military ally and strategic partner.
Bremmer contended that without U.S. leadership, the chaos in the world would be far worse. Of course, since the U.S. cannot be everywhere and do everything, it will have to make adjustments in its "responsibilities." It will have to do more in Asia, by virtue of its pivot, requiring the rebalancing of its forces, and do less in the Middle East where the situation is too complex and perilous for both the U.S. and China. The Chinese, deeply worried by the deadly cocktail of politics and religious extremism in the Middle East, have their own problems with the Uighur discontent in the restive Xinjiang province. The Muslim Uighur population is ethnically closer to Central Asia than to Han Chinese with their homeland being taken over by China in 1949.
U.S. foreign policy has been largely reactive since the Soviet Union's collapse, and this view is widely shared by many U.S. experts and U.S. allies. Merely reacting to issues, which reflects an ad hoc approach in the increasingly dangerous and unstable geopolitical environment, is not an option for the world's only superpower.
As foreign policy lethargy creeps into the administration in Washington, with the two parties and their respective candidates preparing to contest the presidential election, China, for its part, has been making some smart moves aimed at weaning away allies and important regional players from the U.S. like its recent launching of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) caused some trepidations in North America because most U.S. allies, including Britain which touts its "special relationship" with Washington, joined the AIIB. Bremmer argued that China should have waited for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to be finalized before launching the AIIB to first see how the TPP progressed. If the AIIB failed, it would create problems for China. Indeed, some U.S. experts even doubt China's ability to handle "capitalist assets with a communist approach."
China is meanwhile being typecast as a big bully in the South China Sea where the countries in the region, particularly Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan have claims to gas and oil-rich islands that China claims as its own because of "historical reasons." These countries, feeling threatened by China's belligerent posturing, want to see a stronger U.S. presence in the region, much to China's vexation.
One key to counter China's global influence lies in preventing Russia from joining hands with the former. Thus, Washington would be advised not to slam the door against Russia, and talk to it, despite the Ukrainian crisis, on issues such as Syria and Iraq.
By flexing its muscles, China is losing goodwill in much of Asia, sowing seeds of deep distrust of Chinese intentions in the region as the huge arch stretching from India through Southeast Asia to Japan is distrustful of China's moves. If provoked, these countries would rush to form new mutual defense alliances against China, which could become Asia's Beelzebub.
The perception that the absence of a strong U.S. leadership could plunge the world, including Asia, into utter chaos is not unfounded. For many, the worrying factor is that without U.S. leadership, China will fill in this vacuum, but this does not mean that U.S. allies and pro-U.S. institutions will be led by China, though they will appear weaker and less cohesive.
The big test for the U.S. will be the 12-member TPP, which needs to be pushed in a focused manner. Before two-term U.S. President Barack Obama rides into the sunset in some 15 months, he needs to surmount the hurdles in the way of ironing out the TPP, which can provide a fillip to reviving U.S. economic ties with Asia as the U.S. is viewed today as more of a military power and less of an economic force. China, on the other hand, is viewed as an economic power, though it can easily lose this status if it engages in reckless military adventurism against its neighbors.
Foreign policy, hitherto treated as a stepchild, should be high on the next U.S. president's agenda. Regardless of whether the next president is a Republican or a Democrat, the leader of the world's strongest nation needs to lead in world affairs. While the U.S. does have the potential to lead on the foreign policy front, the next president must be resolute and willing to do so.
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New York-based op-ed contributor, expert on foreign affairs and global economics