America’s Superman foreign policy flies again

Speaking before the US Congress, Kishida talked of America’s “loneliness and exhaustion” in global leadership. He said he detected “an undercurrent of self-doubt” among Americans about their role in the world. Given that allies are being asked to do more, Japan has changed its “very mindset”, he said. Tokyo, an ally once “reticent”, was now “looking outwards to the world”.

Kausikan, as well as emphasising the importance of the US as a bilateral economic partner for South-East Asian countries, lamented the American tendency to see the region “as a blank sheet on which you project your own hopes and fears”.

Americans too often think, he said, that “if the region is not ‘free’, it is going “red”; if South-East Asian Muslims are not ‘moderate’ (meaning pro-Western, they must be plotting terrorism); if ‘democracy’ is not advancing, it must be in “retreat”; and, most recently, if South-East Asia does not align itself with the US, it must be falling under Chinese domination”.

Presidents Nixon and Ford, Henry Kissinger and détente are curtly dismissed as ‘that 70s show’.

That very binary framework, Kausikan noted, bedevilled the US in Vietnam. So, it is “not the best mental framework in which to try and understand the nature of US-China competition”.

In their joint statement, Kishida and Biden stressed the need for ongoing dialogue with Beijing, “the importance of candid communication with the People’s Republic of China, including at the leader level”, and they looked forward to working with China “where possible on areas of common interest”.

And it’s that emphasis on common interests that Kausikan wants emphasised in American diplomacy in South-East Asia. He specifically took aim at the American assumption of “common values, real or imagined”, saying “it is a mistake to think your values are the only valid ones. It should not be any consolation to you that China makes parallel mistakes”.

A key message was the need to prioritise interests over values, and dialogue over “demonising” China. He also advises the US not to demonise itself, pointing to its creativity and resilience in major corporations, university and research laboratories, and Wall Street.

In contrast to this tone of hard realism, Pottinger and Gallagher, in their article in Foreign Affairs, largely disowned President Biden’s China policy.

They laid down a policy path that can only lead to armed conflict. So radical is the recipe that Trump himself is unlikely to follow it.

Still, there are familiar refrains.

The US would extend its military footprint in Asia, and the US must “openly declare the contest a cold war” since “US policymakers’ squeamishness about the term ‘cold war’ causes them to overlook the way it can mobilise society. A cold war offers a relatable framework that Americans can use to guide their own decisions”.

They call for “a generational effort directed by the president to restore US primacy in Asia”, as many have done before. They want an increase in defence spending to 4 or 5 per cent of GDP and new energy devoted to military recruitment.

But they trash Biden’s policy of “managed competition” with China. Instead, they believe the US “should win” this existential struggle. So, China has to give way and give up “trying to prevail in a hot or cold war with the US and its friends”

The Chinese people would then “explore new models of development and governance”, a policy that sounds like pursuing regime change.

To get there, Washington must adopt policies that “feel uncomfortably confrontational”. China’s access to Western technology is to be “severed”, and the US must perforate the “great firewall” of China to “disseminate truthful information within China”.

Along the way, Presidents Nixon and Ford, Henry Kissinger and détente are curtly dismissed as “that 70s show”. The end of the Cold War peace dividend is decried. The history is tendentious and the prescription dangerous.

There is a thinly disguised panic to their analysis. It is a US-China policy unhinged by wishful thinking, where America gets to stay number one, and where Clark Kent is entering a telephone box in Manhattan, and soon Superman will emerge to the rescue in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, saving America once more.

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