Between two shores of the Pacific

There is a lot of discussion about geo-strategic assets between the two shores of the Pacific—especially the northern ones. Which is to say, that the fundamental principles of the Pax Americana are being modified, caused by an epochal conflict and an interminable post-war period. Our textbooks teach us that World War II began on September 1st 1939 when Gdansk fell to the Nazis. In Asia, few believe in this simplification, also because the clamor of weapons began earlier there with the Japanese bombing of Shanghai in 1931 and the invasion of Manchuria—in Northeast China—in 1937. The differences with Europe continue with the end of the conflict (the atomic bombs released on Japan three months after the fall of Berlin), and most importantly, they crystallize in antagonist positions steeped in rancor for the past and suspicion about the future. This situation bears the United States’ mark and the framework of the Cold War. For more than 60 years, Washington has gained an advantage from its victory. It was forced to reduce its political dominion, but maintained its military and economic control. Even the bloody conflicts in which it was protagonist—the carnage in Korea and disaster in Vietnam—only partially dented its maritime control and therefore contributed to maintaining its global vision. Until the 1970s, the political landscape was essentially tidy. The world was divided between two ideological blocks in East Asia as well, whose ambitions to convert the hostile counterpart were not dissimilar. This rigidity was caused by singular tensions, from the communist guerilla in the southeast to the Indochina Was, from the division of Korea to the brutal repression in Indonesia during the “year lived dangerously.” A clear picture was painted with incalculable deaths and suffering. On one hand, the US did not hesitate to sustain friendly regimes to contain the expansion of communist countries. On the other, these countries resorted to military actions and maintained rigid internal control. The first alliance included the US, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia after Sukarno. Obviously, the ex-British colonies of Australia and New Zealand were included among the friendly states. Japan’s democratic and pacifist conversion—imposed by the occupation—was the US’ most precious asset. The former enemy, converted into a controllable partner for political reasons, was the bridgehead for reparations, technology, and talent to distribute in Asia and ingratiate, making it forget the aggression born in the Land of the Rising Sun only a few years before. The mirror image is that of the socialist block: the USSR, China, North Korea, and the three Indochinese countries, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from the 1970s on.

It was at that time that a revision of US policies began. Worried about a Sino-Soviet expansion and a Vietnamese victory, the White House responded with a spectacular opening to China that ended increasingly dangerous military tensions. As often happens, it was a conservative president who guided a progressive operation. When interviewed about the opening to China—after being elected on a strongly anti-Soviet and ant-Chinese platform—President Nixon responded with the famous words: “my anti-communist credentials were so strong and deep-rooted that only I could establish trust in a communist country.” Since then “ping pong diplomacy” generated the historic rendezvous with Mao Ze Dong in Shanghai and the pragmatic relationship between the two countries, conflicting and forward-looking that still lasts today. In reality, Nixon and Kissinger, noting their tactical defeats, wanted to achieve a strategic victory: isolate Beijing from Moscow at very moment of the Soviet Union’s maximum expansion. In less than 20 years, their aspiration came to fruition. The antagonism seemed to end in 1989; indeed, the entire story seemed to end with the triumph of liberalism. China, with its new direction from Deng Xiao Ping, wanted to conform to the reason of development, relegating the utopia of egalitarianism to memory. China’s insertion into globalization was overwhelming, simultaneously cause and effect of extraordinary changes. Beijing’s “market socialism with Chinese characteristics” seemed like incomprehensible theoretical acrobatics. Instead, it was an unparalleled magnet for multinationals. The United States—along with Europe and Japan—favored the transfer of traditional productive activities inside the Great Wall. Multinationals and China benefitted, by then focused on defeating underdevelopment definitively. Today, General Motors produces more cars in China than Detroit. It seemed like a classic win-win situation, a happy outcome of the negotiations, as if globalization was a noble instrument of peace. Borders were more porous, visas were available, and trade advantageous for everyone. Even the most indefensible dictatorships—Marcos in the Philippines and Suharto in Indonesia—left the field to more presentable and progressively democratic regimes. The generals went back to their barracks because they were no longer needed. The need for competencies prevailed in government offices. Countries longed for development, not tensions. Even two pro-American bastions like South Korea and Taiwan changed their tune. Military despots were substituted with basically open regimes, with a strong and undeniable parliamentary dialectic. Only China was missing from the appeal to democracy (with the oddities of neighboring North Korea). People imagined that it was only a matter of time; they hoped that the emergence entrepreneurship and the consolidation of a middle class would lead to the demand for multiple parties. Access to different sources of information could have neutralized the censure; education presaged wellbeing and freedom. The Far East, therefore, seemed pointed toward a diffuse, controlled, and growing prosperity; the Pacific Ocean was supposed to become an immense lake where economic ascent finally occurred together with social redemption and without penalizing human rights. The Washington consensus provided the financial resources, while the savings of Chinese farmers financed consumption in middle class America. With the crisis, reality proved itself to be more brutal than in dreams; friction is more frequent than ideals. News from the Pacific frustrated hopes. Teeming with territorial claims, military movements, platform constructions, and increases in defense spending. Contradictions emerged that had never been soothed. In reality, the post-war period never ended. The day of reckoning was first frozen by the Cold War, and then sacrificed for economic reasons. The responsibility for the conflict was removed, and a veil of oblivion tried to erase the suffering in vain. Unlink Europe, there was no integration, no clamorous act of reparation, and no leader knelt down like Willi Brandt in Warsaw and Jerusalem. Politics delegated the silent and effective task of creating wealth to the economy. Backwardness remained the enemy of education, collaboration, trade, and probably democracy. The legacy of the past could only be defeated by opening borders; the suffering of populations could only be relieved with the injection of technology.  The United States, unable to prevent this, tried to manage it. Often ceding to the interests of big organization, they lowered the safety barriers, especially when it came to China. China’s accession to the WTO in 2001 was undeniably a key event in this century. After a long wait, China could take part in a world of equals, where it could make its political strength, dimensions, and its massive production capabilities count, without exception. It’s the biggest pearl in a string of Asian successes. Reconstruction brought Japan to the vertex of the global economy, the four Asian Tigers (South Korean, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore) demonstrated vigor and control, and the cases of ASEAN, albeit contradictory, allowed the imagination a free trade zone. The numbers are ready to certify this rebirth. The Pacific region continues to grow and stimulate economic recovery. Since 1970, the Pacific Rim’s trade flows have matched the Atlantic’s, and then surpassed them in 1984. According to the International Monetary Fund, in 2015 15.5 million containers will make waves in the Pacific Ocean transporting goods from Asia to the US, while 8.5 million will make the opposite journey. Together, it indicates almost double the value that traverses the Atlantic. It brings wellbeing, wealth, and employment. The middle class in Asia is the largest in the world; China’s reserves and those of its neighbors the most conspicuous, and illiteracy, endemic diseases, and malnutrition are increasingly memories of the past.

These affirmations have created a new situation that the United States must face. If the goal of governments is to strengthen themselves using economic force, success has smiled on all of the participants. Stronger nations can now allow themselves to reclaim political debts, neglected for years but never uncollectable. Ancient wounds are reemerging because they never healed. Nationalism provides the theoretical base that strengthens the contrasts, which is nothing new. Especially the three industrial powers in the north—China, Japan, and South Korea—are involved in specious controversies, too old to be credible. They conceal ancient enmities poorly. In reality, a true peace was never achieved. The memories are still fresh, only barely masked by economic integration. The shape the contrasts take are different and relatively secondary: from territorial claims to the Korean comfort women abused during the Japanese occupations; from the Toyota boycotts in China to visits to Shinto shrines in Japan. There is no political integration, let alone military, only economic interests. Even the southern half of Asia witnessed spectacular political twists. Vietnam has forgotten the war and sided with the US because Chinese pressure is too powerful to bear without help; the Philippines are repairing military bases, conceding them once again to US fleets. All of ASEAN (the southeast block comprising 10 countries and 600 million people) tends to renew friendships with Washington without ceasing talks with Beijing. The former capital guarantees security, the latter economic oxygen. China is the number one trading partner for all Asian countries—including faraway Australia. Furthermore, President Xi Jin Ping strung together a series of prestigious diplomatic successes. He signed an historic free trade agreement with Australia and South Korea, collected support for the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, launched the formation of the FTACC, the Free Trade Area of Asia-Pacific (signed by 21 APEC countries in November, including the US and Japan).

Therefore, the United States is facing an unprecedented, strategic double scenario: the growth of Asia and Chinese activism. They understand Asia’s value among global assets, more complex and dangerous that Europe’s or Latin America’s. The East is vital but less malleable because it’s stronger than it was in the past. China is conjugated to its multinationals, albeit in a marriage of pure interests. Japan is a loyal ally, but it can’t manage to escape stagnation, ageing, and public debt. ASEAN is still politically weak, patchy, fragile, and innervated by a strong Chinese diaspora. Hillary Clinton’s attempts to pivot to Asia, the fulcrum of a new equilibrium in the chess game, were not sufficient. Even negotiations over the Trans Pacific Partnership—the free trade agreement promoted by Washington—will be limited because they won’t include China and Russia, against whom it’s obviously directed. The situation is, therefore, more complex: it cannot be resolved with the movement of aircraft carriers or the reiteration of old alliances. The most insidious aspect is China’s, while all the others actors are pawns in a more complex game. Although important, the single states all contribute—with strength and the autonomy of non-protagonist actors— to define allegiances and advantages. Washington has not resolved the contradiction of calling China a competitive or strategic partner. Various administrations have debated the two extremes, without succeeding in containing the Asian power’s advances. Obama seems to have recognized the sterility of radical positions, both submissive and antagonistic. No course remains but to negotiate using blandishments and threats, muscles and agreements, shows of arms and diplomacy. At the end of his mandate he realized that he could best manage an inevitable decline. More than others, he interpreted Asia’s rise wisely, at this point unstoppable. Towards the end of his mandate he will have to convince his citizens that if excessive liberties were granted to the business world, it’s impossible to return to the starting point. He has a thankless task in the oval office: finding an advantage dialoging with faraway and perhaps hostile nations. At this point, with globalization prevailing, he will have to manage their success rather than his own country’s, a task that the United States hasn’t been used to for decades.