Asia's Anti-Imperialism

Casting Off the Yoke

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Most Asian countries have traditionally been in thrall to either the U.S. or China but growing confidence in the region is making them more independent. With China seeking to enhance its influence, this is increasing the risk of conflict in the continent.

  • Facts


    • U.S. President-elect Donald Trump reignited tensions in Aisa last week when he broke protocol to speak with Taiwan’s president.
    • The U.S. has in the past had unchallenged access to Asian waters but this is changing as China flexes its military muscle.
    • Chinese efforts to dominate Asia are likely to annoy big, independently minded countries such as India.
  • Audio


  • Pdf
A satellite View of the Crescent Group of Islands
China has raised tensions in Asia and beyond by fortifying disputed islands in the South China Sea. Source: Getty

Is this the first taste of a dangerous future? When Donald Trump spoke to the Taiwanese president last week, he hit a sensitive spot in China. Beijing considers Taiwan to be a renegade province; any recognition of Taiwanese independence is considered a hostile act.

Beijing lodged a protest. Mr. Trump responded defensively at first, then cheekily. Statements from his advisers suggested the affront was deliberate.

The incident didn’t affect trade relations or cause troop movements. But the next American president will enter office under a self-created cloud of Chinese mistrust, in a poisonous atmosphere between the two most powerful countries in the world.

The Asian region between India, Australia and Japan is a peculiar mixture of calm and risk. It isn’t chaotic like the Middle East or parts of Africa, with a landscape of failed states, fleeing refugees and unleashed terrorism. On the contrary: Prosperity and self-confidence are on the rise here in a mood of historical optimism.

There can only be security in the region between Delhi and Hawaii through self-limitation and distribution of power.

The businessman Mr. Trump hasn’t overlooked the opportunities. With a local partner, he is building a 57-story office tower in the Philippine capital Manila; the tycoon has more real-estate projects in India than in any other country. China’s Industry and Trade Bank rents space in Trump Tower in New York. (In 2019, during the term in office of the future president, the lease will be up for renewal: one of Mr. Trump’s many shady, potential conflicts of interest.)

At the same time, Asia is the scene of extreme rivalry. If war threatens anywhere in the world during the coming decades, then it will be here.

This is a prospect that seems not only ghastly but downright unreal, especially to Europeans who have got over the vast, murderous rampages of 1914 to 1945 and are relieved to have survived the threat of annihilation during the Cold War. But in Asia, there are arms races, military maneuvers and patrolling fleets just like in Europe before the First World War.

In recent months, Mr. Trump has done much to feed fears about the future of Asia. His campaign statements about U.S. allies Japan and South Korea were the ultimate geopolitical shockers: If they wished to continue to be defended by the United States (against China and the unpredictable pariah country North Korea), they should pay more. At the same time, he advised both countries to think about acquiring their own nuclear weapons.

It was as if a 1980s American presidential candidate had demanded a security fee for the presence of U.S. soldiers in West Germany – and suggested that perhaps the best protection against the Soviet Union would be a West German atomic bomb.

Immediately after the U.S. election, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rushed in panic to meet with President-elect Trump in New York. Afterwards, Mr. Abe sought to calm his and the Japanese people’s nerves by voicing his impression of Mr. Trump’s trustworthiness. No concrete results of the talks were revealed.

But the most menacing rivalry, one radiating throughout the region, is between up-and-coming China and an America which seeks to defend its position at the top of the international hierarchy.

Mr. Trump has announced his intention to kill off the planned Trans-Pacific Partnership on his very first day in office. With this agreement, outgoing president Barack Obama had intended to anchor the economic and political position of the U.S. in Asia.

In strategic terms, Mr. Trump’s statement is a defensive gesture, as if he wanted to abandon the field to China. But a policy of detente toward China isn’t what can be expected of him. Unlike with Vladimir Putin, Mr. Trump has up to now not spoken about Chinese leaders in friendly terms. A few of Mr. Trump’s advisers are known to be extreme hardliners with regard to China – and to be hardline supporters of Taiwan.

Mr. Trump himself threatened to impose tariffs on imports from China. The President-elect wants to officially declare the country to be a “currency manipulator” because of the supposedly undervalued yuan. So the basic attitude isn’t superpower camaraderie (as perhaps with Russia) but raising the specter of a “yellow peril.” The Taiwan provocation fits in with this.

But it must be recognized that even before Mr. Trump, there was a problem between the U.S. and China. Since around 2010, the relationship between the two countries has grown progressively worse – during the presidency of the liberal, internationalist, calm Barack Obama. It seems that the Chinese-American confrontation is growing like a pernicious process of nature.

The narrative in Washington is that China has become an aggressive, unpredictable power. It asserts sovereignty over groups of islands or stretches of ocean that could justifiably be claimed by neighboring states such as Japan, Vietnam or the Philippines – and it refuses to accept international arbitration. In the parts of the South China Sea under contention, China is building artificial islands that could serve as the basis for military operations.

It threatens war if Taiwan were to one day formally declare itself independent. China’s ultimate aim is to drive the Americans out of Asia along with their ships, bases and alliances in order to impose its will on the defenseless rump of the continent.

The view is completely different in Beijing. The Chinese believe the U.S. is seeking to keep China down and contain it. Ever since 2011, President Obama (and his then secretary of state Hillary Clinton) even made that an official strategy: the “pivot” of American foreign and defense policy toward Asia.

As a result, the U.S. military presence has been strengthened in Australia and the Philippines. The TPP treaty was intended not only to link the U.S. economically with its Asian partners from Singapore to Japan, but also to exclude China and back it into a corner. The language used in Washington to describe its Asian rival is almost like the talk before 1989 about the Communist Soviet Union: Like an opponent in a Cold War.

Asia’s smaller countries are being drawn into the confrontation. The Chinese are counting on the convoy effect: Weaker countries ally themselves with a strong regional power in order to enjoy its protection and benefit from its successes. In this way, Beijing recently won over the Philippines and improved its relationships with Thailand and Malaysia.

In contrast, the Americans have until now operated on the opposing-power principle: The smaller neighbors of a great power ally themselves with a strong, more distant guarantor of security in order not to end up as mere vassals. This is what Japan and South Korea do. And it is the reason why none other than Vietnam has recently offered to let its former wartime opponent set up naval bases on its territory.

The fear of Chinese hegemony is greater than the historical bitterness toward the United States. If Donald Trump really intends to treat these American allies as contemptible spongers, he will destroy the most important mechanism in the U.S. strategy toward China.

But the rivalry between Beijing and Washington isn’t an overall guide to everything happening in Asia. The situation isn’t as simple as in Europe before 1989, where the continent was divided into American- and Soviet-led blocs. This isn’t a new Cold War with Beijing substituted for Moscow as the new headquarters of the West’s opponents.

Australia, for example, is a military ally of the U.S. even while it owes its economic growth primarily to the demand for raw materials from an industrially expanding China.  “We Australians,” says the strategy expert Hugh White, a former planner at the Defense Ministry in Canberra, “depend on China to make us rich and on America to keep us safe.” There were not such complex, mixed interests and loyalties in the conflict between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

A country such as India – with its huge size, atomic weapons and tradition of foreign-policy autonomy – sees itself as an independent protagonist and wouldn’t dream of entering the American or Chinese camps. It has its own problems with China that led it to strengthen its cooperation with the U.S. and its allies. But this won’t make India a U.S. treaty ally. It is definitely in favor of a multipolar world no longer led by the U.S. – but it likewise seeks a multipolar Asia not led by China.

Many Trump supporters and analysts cherish the hope that he will be the right president for a post-imperial America: Didn’t he distance himself from the hubris of the Bush years? But this is to forget that Mr. Trump is no isolationist who seeks above all to keep the U.S. out of things. He is a nationalist who wants his country to be out front and on top.

Maybe he doesn’t believe in leadership (which requires the complex management of others), but he believes in strength. “Mr. Trump wants to expand the U.S. navy, which currently numbers 274 ships,” wrote two of his advisers recently. “His goal is 350 ships.” That doesn’t sound like post-imperial self-restraint, but like a new arms race in the Pacific.

This obsession with preeminent power is dangerous. Most Asian countries don’t want the Americans to withdraw from Asia but to keep them as part of a system of checks and balances. But the notion of American primacy in Asia, still widespread in Washington, has something illusory and anachronistic about it.

It dates back to 1945 when imperial-fascist Japan capitulated and the U.S. gained control of the region. This perspective was strengthened in 1972 when, under Mao, Communist China renounced ideological confrontation with the West and implicitly recognized American preponderance. Today the world looks different.

This sort of American primacy is incompatible with the current strength of China, and doesn’t fit the state of development and the self-image of Asia, which can no longer be subjected to tutelage in global politics. The old proportions of power no longer exist even in military terms – regardless of whether the U.S. navy has 274 or 350 ships.

It is true that the USA has 11 aircraft carriers, including five in the region, while China has only one that it purchased used from Ukraine. But in order to break the American dominance in Asia, China wouldn’t have to engage in a gigantic Armageddon with the U.S. in pitched battle for world supremacy.

It would only need to question the unchallenged U.S. maritime control in Asian waters, something that could unquestionably be accomplished by guerrilla-like attacks of its submarines and rockets against the American aircraft carriers.

But a Chinese attempt to assert its own dominance in Asia would be equally unrealistic and dangerous. Because in that case, Beijing would incur the enmity not only of the U.S. but also of a large number of its neighbors. A country like India would certainly not be willing to wage war against China in order to defend American hegemony in Asia. But to prevent Chinese ascendancy – that is another issue and would in fact be a possible reason for war.

There can only be security in the region between Delhi and Hawaii through self-limitation and distribution of power. The prosperous, diverse, contradictory Asia of the 21st century would not accept the replacement of one hegemony by another. In order to avoid catastrophic conflicts, Asia must achieve the transition to a post-hegemonic region, to a system of pluralism and balance of various powers. And hopefully someday to a future based on cooperation.


This article originally appeared in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit. To contact the author:

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!