As April unfolds in Washington the American foreign policy apparatus is about to undergo a profound change in personnel, tone and substance. Most notable among the departures are former Exxon executive Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State and general H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser.
In their place, president Donald Trump has named current CIA director Mike Pompeo for State and scary but smart ideologue John Bolton for the NSC top job.
The current conventional political wisdom in the American capital is that both men, well-known foreign policy hawks, will offer little resistance to Trump’s bombastic bellicosity toward much of the rest of the world. Many suspect Bolton in particular will relish to ability to goad Trump into unwise decisions that could bring the U.S. closer to the gateway of yet another overseas war.
To all appearances, the first big test for this new foreign policy team will arrive shortly and focus on the Korean peninsula and East Asia in general. Paramount in all such issues is the rising economic, political and military might of the world’s most populous nation.
China has recently hosted a visit by North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, and Chinese leader Xi Jinping allowed photographs of the two men in a fraternal handshake. The visit was widely regarded as a precursor to Kim’s coming summit meeting with Trump, an invitation to which the U.S. president shocked the world - and his outgoing senior foreign policy advisers - by accepting.
Kim will also be meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in as a prelude to meeting with Trump. The American president would likely also huddle with Moon before sitting down with Kim. The U.S. – North Korean summit, by the way, has not been definitively scheduled. It will not be a complete surprise if it never happens.
All this activity is being played out in the context of what many believe to be the major international issue for decades to come.
That issue is the competition between the U.S. and China. These top two world economies may not be on a military collision course, but their commercial, socio-economic and political rivalry is obvious.
While American influence has been felt throughout the world since the end of the Second World War, China’s rise has been much more recent, and certainly more visible, after the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly 30 years ago. And while the U.S. vacillates under the uncertain direction of a president without apparent bedrock foreign affairs principles, China has continued to move clearly and resolutely to broaden and deepen its footprint in the world.
Chinese advances have mostly been in the form of such socio-economic assistance as is readily apparent in The Bahamas. But in China’s own backyard of South and Southeast Asia, their posture has at times been militarily aggressive.
While Chinese belligerence in the South China Sea has faded from recent headlines, their colossal regional importance has compelled neighbouring nations to carefully assess their policy options. After the U.S. abdicated its free trade leadership under the current administration, 11 Pacific nations led by Japan nonetheless recently signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an economic agreement aimed at least partly at countering the relentless Chinese commercial advance.
A recent analysis by The New York Times, citing data from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, reveals that every Asian country now trades more with China than with the U.S., often by twice as much.
Only one Cold War-era trade stalwart continues to bolster the American position in the region.
U.S. arms sales dwarf those of China, far outpacing them in all strategically significant regional countries except Pakistan. But even there, there are mitigating circumstances. The Chinese have long been an important counterweight to giant, neighbouring India, so Pakistan has for decades maintained a relatively cozy relationship with Beijing.
It can certainly be argued that Japanese occupation atrocities during World War II helped create conditions in China that led to the Communist takeover and ultimately, the current situation. Now, Japan is taking the lead in building a coalition to counter China. Geopolitically, two encirclements are emerging.
One, including Japan, India, Australia, Vietnam and South Korea, seeks to counteract China.
Another, however, including China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, roughly encircles India. Other nations like the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia, seek a middle path by balancing American military with Chinese economic influence.
Does such regional jostling provide a glimpse of the future in other areas? Time will tell.