The Passing of Pax Americana

The Trump administration’s mishandling of Covid-19 will hurry it along

By: B A Hamzah

This is the first of two articles today dealing with geopolitical change in Asia. The other is “Reshaping South Asian Politics” by Pakistani academic Salman Rafi Sheikh. 

The administration of Donald Trump has so badly botched its approach to the onset of Covid-19 that it will add to the administration’s earlier mistakes to bring on the passing of Pax Americana. The changing global power balance means redesigning the geopolitical chessboard.

World politics will be different after this pandemic is over – likely to be less free and less prosperous, with rising inter-state tensions among the big powers. The contemporary geopolitical environment may favor China over the US, which has spent the past three years making enemies of close friends. By effectively closing borders to the EU and not lifting a finger to help Italy and France during their mounting casualties from the virus, for example, Washington has in effect doubled down on Trump’s scorn over the 70-year-old North Atlantic Treaty Organization, leaving a broken foreign policy that will take years, if ever, to repair. 

With the US preoccupied domestically and with a State Department that has been decimated by staff losses and lack of direction from both the President and the Secretary of State, Chinese leader Xi Jinping is adroitly taking advantage of American oversights and lapses of attention, casting his country as the global leader in relief — despite being responsible for the outbreak in the first place by trying to cover it up. He is sending testing kits and medical personnel across the world to hard-hit European nations – although in some cases it appears the testing kits are faulty. It is clearly Beijing that has seized the lead while America dithers.

China has already begun to resume industrial production, with coal use back to 90 percent of 2019 volume. Property sales in 30 major cities are at 60 percent of normal levels. Port activities are close to normal. The sectors that are still running far below normal include restaurants, hotels, travel, and movie theaters. Inter-city people movements, which include migrant movements as well as business/leisure trips, show a steady recovery across the country.

Other sectors of the economy are starting to come alive at a time when the US is predicting a fall in gross domestic product of as much as 25 percent to 30 percent and Europe is equally prostrate. China is casting itself as the leader of a global recovery.  

In previous times of calamity, it was the US that showed up to help, both to rivals and friends. It was the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, accompanied by two destroyers, providing pallets of food and water and other much-needed help to the victims of Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda, which devastated the island of Leyte in the Philippines in 2013. In December 2003, US military cargo planes delivered more than 200 personnel and over 150,000 pounds of medical supplies to Iran for earthquake victims in the Bam area despite the enmity between the two countries. 

That kind of soft power is gone. The US has reached out to none of the 200-odd nations now affected by the pandemic. It was China, and not the United States, that sent medical supplies and doctors to Italy and other European countries reeling from the virus – along with Cuba, which the Trump administration is attempting to throttle with reinstituted sanctions that the Obama administration had dropped. 

The absence of leadership over global climate change, among other issues including unnecessary trade friction and how to tackle the pandemic are likely to damage NATO, which Trump has already slagged off. Whither NATO without America? Without NATO, who will protect Europe from Putin’s Russia? The UK, which is limping and has cast itself outside the EU, is helpless, having equally misplayed its approach to Covid-19. A Europe without the US will be fair game to Russia.

In Asia, the US is likely to lose more ground and influence. Since wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East following the so-called 9/11 incident that destroyed the World Trade Center Towers in New York and damaged the Pentagon, the world will never be the same. Far too much of the world believes that former President George W Bush’s war on global terrorism was a euphemism for a war on Islam that awaits retaliation.

Attempts to destroy the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and ISIS have failed to restore US supremacy, especially in Afghanistan, where as Asia Sentinel reported, Russia, China, India, and Iran have begun to fill the vacuum left by the US’s pending departure after 18 years of futility. China and Russia have already stepped in to develop the country, which has been ravaged by many wars. With a firm grip on Pakistan, Afghanistan and a foothold in Iran, assisted by the fear of the Coronavirus, China is set to control the world’s heartland. 

The weakening of US influence in Southeast Asia has been a long, slow sunset. It started after the Vietnam war ended in 1975 with a US humiliation. That coincided with the rise of China, which Washington has increasingly viewed as a threat to its security with the growing aggressiveness of Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Former US President Barack Obama’s view of Beijing as a strategic partner faded with the Trump administration’s naming the country a less-felicitous strategic competitor.

 President Obama’s rebalancing policy, its ‘pivot to Asia,’ was only embraced by its treaty allies Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Singapore. The other powers in the region were reluctant to support the pivot policy, which they saw as a cover for US containment strategy against China. The policy was also crippled by the reluctance of Republicans in the Congress to fully fund it.

When President Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement in 2017, the situation became more precarious, especially with China’s embrace of the Asean-initiated Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade agreement. Trump’s trade war with China has added further misery to his military policies. His reliance on the FONOPS-Freedom of Navigation Program to roll back China’s military adventurism in the South China Sea has backfired.

The US failure to get the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations to support policy against China’s military activities in the South China Sea failed miserably after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte refused to sanction Beijing following the decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in 2016 to nullify China’s historic claim to the South China Sea. To add salt to injury, China built five artificial islands complete with military combat facilities and airstrips in the disputed South China Sea in defiance of US policy and with Duterte’s acquiescence.

Almost at the same time as the lawyers in the South China Sea Arbitration Case were busy preparing their case against China, which boycotted the proceedings, Xi Jinping announced trillion-dollar infrastructure projects for the Belt and Road Initiative that drew support from some 68 countries including close allies of the United States despite US attempts to keep them in line. While those allies have begun to sour on the BRI, as it is known, because, as Asia Sentinel has reported, it has saddled many of them with crippling debt and little else that didn’t benefit China itself.  

The refusal of major European countries to go along with a US demand that they ban China’s 5G technology under Huawei flagship is another indication of waning US influence. 

Elsewhere, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has defied the US and ignored Trump’s overtures at every opportunity, particularly in the Middle East, where Russia continues to make expensive headway with its backing of the Syrian government’s murderous civil war. 

Japan and India are only sideshows in the current geopolitical landscape. As Washington retreats under the pretext of making the US great again, Japan, India, and Australia are ganging up against China though their Quadrilateral Security Dialogue strategy, which is too little and too late as China steps up its influence in the region. 

A disastrous failure of US diplomacy has left Japan and South Korea at each other’s throats, fighting over issues that have festered for decades going back to the Japanese colonization of the Korean peninsula prior to WWII. Instead of using its influence to referee the squabble, the US has ignored it, instead demanding that the two countries increase their payments to the US to host US troops on their soil. That has led South Korea to turn tentatively to Beijing for a mutual defense treaty. 

The US is likely to leave behind some residual troops at Darwin under the ANZUS Treaty, which may be renegotiated as a consultative mechanism. The presence of the troops may give the false impression of a trip-wire strategy. This time, the US will go home for good.

Two states in Southeast Asia may benefit geopolitically from the pandemic. Because of their geographical locality, abundance of resources and large population, Vietna, and Indonesia are likely to surge as regional economic champions. Singapore will augment Hong Kong as a financial center even without the US. It is in China’s geopolitical interest to ensure the survival of Chinese-dominated Singapore.

Finally, in a new changing global constellation of world powers, a world order without the US leadership is possible. Pax Americana is, after all, a recent construct, the byproduct of the post-1945 international order. Its decline has been predicted and became inevitable once it lost the ability to influence events such as Chinese hegemony over the South China Sea. 

Failure to provide leadership in critical moments in world history has now come to haunt the once-mighty US. As the curtain falls, it signals the final scene of American global influence and the beginning of a new chapter in global affairs and the rise of Pax Sinica. The Coronavirus didn’t change the world’s pecking order overnight. Accelerated by the Trump administration’s missteps, it has only hastened the process of US decline as a superpower that has been bedeviled by economic stagnancy and strained by a policy of military adventurism. The glory days of American hegemony appear over. 

B A Hamzah is a professor at the Department of Strategic Studies, National Defense University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and frequently lectures on international affairs.