The worldwide surge of populist politics set off by the revolution in information and computer technology (ICT) has not spared the United States. Even a casual consideration of the possible outcomes of November’s general elections must conclude that the Republican Party candidate, Donald J. Trump—whom the sober New York Times excoriates as “a man who dwells in bigotry, bluster and false promises”—has a reasonable chance of winning the American presidency.
Trump—a wheeling-and-dealing real-estate billionaire who came to national politics from “reality television”—speaks the confusion, anger and despair of white working-class Americans who are losing their livelihoods to outsourcing and mass immigration.
Everywhere among the representative democracies, anti-system politicians like Trump are emerging. Charismatic personalities are bypassing the party organizations and reaching out directly to mass electorates through the social media. (The Times notes that Trump has nearly 12 million followers on Twitter.)
Brash “independents” are overthrowing dynastic political families. Electoral radicals are rising: anti-free trade; anti-immigrant; anti-foreign.
Nativists voted Britain out of the idealist European Union. In Germany, anti-migrant sentiment consigned Premier Merkel’s ruling party to defeat in recent local elections. In France, the racist Marine Le Pen is expected to contest next year’s presidential election. In Greece, neo-Nazis are gearing up.
US in despair
Americans increasingly despair of a new world they themselves have done so much to create. An academic notes that whole sectors of the economy have been devastated by liberalized trade agreements Washington itself had conceived and negotiated.
Inequality is increasing in a society that prides itself in being egalitarian. Collectively, the top 300,000 Americans—the notorious 0.01 percent of the US population—enjoy almost as much income as the bottom 150 million of their fellow citizens. The Times says American poverty “is deeper than in all other wealthy countries.”
The US still wields the greatest influence on global affairs—whether militarily, economically, or culturally. But even America cannot act unilaterally any longer.
Great wall of Trump
Will the United States turn inward—away from its engagements in the world to its problems at home?
East Asians have a vested interest in ensuring the US keeps up its role as the fulcrum of the regional power balance, in which a risen China is beginning to count.
Trump has vowed that he, as President, would stop illegal migration by building a southern wall he would then get Mexico to pay for. But even Hillary Clinton as president is likely to retreat from grand foreign-policy initiatives. Already, electoral opinion has forced her to repudiate President Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that, as Secretary of State, she had championed.
The TPP agreement among 12 Pacific Rim countries—excluding China—objectifies Washington’s “pivot to the Asia Pacific” after focusing on the Middle East for 15 years.
During that period, competitive power centers have been rising in relative importance—in Asia, Latin America, even Africa. Ultimately, the US must adapt to a multilateral, post-western globe.
In that new world, an assertive Beijing will be a key player. China has been growing faster than the global community had thought possible. Now only the US is ahead in GDP terms; and the Americans themselves expect China’s productivity to catch up by 2025.
China’s feat of poverty reduction has been remarkable. In 1990, the UN’s Millennium Development Goal (MDG) had reported 61 percent of the Chinese in “extreme poverty.” This year the MDG reports “just four percent are still extremely poor.”
Already, Beijing is beginning to claim that, for the emerging countries, China’s post-Maoist development model—“the fusion of the market and strong government”—is an attractive alternative to America’s boom-and-bust, winner-take-all capitalism.
Right now China’s foreign-policy aim seems to be to limit American access to the China Sea; erode the credibility of Washington’s security guarantees to its East Asian allies; and ease the United States out of Southeast Asia.
President Xi Jinping wants President Obama to acknowledge China’s arrival as a great power—with a rightful role in “shaping new global rules and norms.”
In China-US relations, Xi wants to build “strategic reassurance,” respect for each other’s “core interests,” and recognition of each other’s “spheres of influence.”
These negotiating demands will mean—unavoidably—some cutback in US influence: some recession in the activist strategy the US has followed in the West Pacific since the 1890s.
No single voice
We must expect the China Sea tensions to continue, because their root cause is Beijing’s perceived need to break out from under the strategic dominance of the Western allies.
The contest for primacy on the China Sea is just beginning. And China is likely to keep the initiative—especially since the Asean states are unable to speak with one voice, even on issues vital to their maritime hinterland.
Beijing can turn on and off tensions over disputed islets, resource-exploration projects and the passage of military craft, particularly through the Taiwan Strait.
North Korea’s nukes
Another complex issue between Washington and Beijing is North Korea’s nuclear program. In middle September, Pyongyang was readying its fifth underground nuclear test, in a series designed to master the technology to mount a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile.
American analysts speculate that Beijing sees living with a nuclear Pyongyang as preferable to the potential chaos of North Korea as a collapsed state.
The emergence of the volatile Trump has destabilized not just American politics but politics among America’s friends in the world as well.
Even Manila is scrambling to broaden its foreign ties, as a hedge against any weakening in US security commitments. Newly elected President Duterte is seeking closer relations with Beijing and Moscow in a strategy his Cabinet describes as a “rebalancing” or “re-calibration” of Philippine foreign policy.
On the Philippine dispute with China over some South China Sea islets, Mr. Duterte has agreed to the bilateral talks Beijing insists on—since its Asean brethren—wary of offending Beijing—can give Manila no more than perfunctory moral support.
Meanwhile, four weeks before the polls, Trump lags by only five percentage points—a far from safe lead for the moderate Mrs. Clinton in such a volatile setting.
Living with China
Over the foreseeable future, we in East Asia must live with a China driving for great-power status—a Japan nurturing a resurgent nationalism—and an America asserting its Asia-Pacific role.
Among these facts of regional life in coming decades, the US-China relationship is the most crucial. The real race may no longer be coercive and military, but economic and cultural. And the ultimate winner could be the social system everyday people judge to be the best for them.
In global politics, tensions in the new countries should continue between democracy and authoritarianism.
From a democratic political center, we cannot expect the kind of focus, the unity, and the energy that an authoritarian system could sometimes generate in a developing country.
But democracy has a key advantage in that it can grow political stability of the kind the authoritarian regime can never approximate. Free elections and the rule of law make tremendous safety valves for political discontent.
In my view, the real threat to democracy in this new time is not so much the restoration of blatant authoritarian repression—such as many peoples experienced over much of the last century—as it is democracy’s loss of meaning and purpose.