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Chinese Catastrophism Collides with Trump Catastrophism

I don’t share the US FP handwringing over Trump’s retreat from overarching multilateral initiatives in favor of bilateral engagements in Asia.

The point of the complex multi-lateral arrangements—the pivot, rebalance, whatever you want to call it, and TPP—were intended to position the United States as the “indispensable nation” in Asia, the glue that was needed to hold these various rickety structures together.

I considered these regimes to be weak, unsustainable in the long term, and excessively costly in the short term.

As an example, under the pivot it would be necessary to think seriously about some kind of regime modification in the Philippines to neutralize Rodrigo Duterte’s hostility to the US military and sustain the fiction of a military and diplomatic united front against the PRC.

Trump can either accommodate Duterte or overthrow him depending on the bilateral advantages he sees in the relationship. And Duterte can bargain for the US alliance while keeping a door open to China.

I guess the terms of art are “independent foreign policies” for the Asian countries, “offshore rebalancing” for the US. Maybe. Apparently, the rise of Trump, otherwise lamented by respectable FP practitioners, is causing a certain amount of heavy breathing in the Walt-Mearsheimer quadrant.

The Trump shock helped reveal the mindset and strategies of US globalists who had assigned the United States the role of indispensable nation in the “principled international order”.

In my most recent Asia Times piece, Atlas StumbledI wrote about an interesting interview Paul Krugman gave to VOA, in which he opines that one consequence of the deterioration of the globalist financial regime under Trump & Brexit is that “China will be too big to save” once its chickens of massive indebtedness and faltering economic reform come home to roost.

Krugman’s bitter Cassandra-ism offers an interesting perspective on what I think was an important but shaky pillar of the pivot, the assertion that “the United States is 6000 miles away but will always be in Asia; the PRC/CCP regime is near the center of Asia but will vanish within a decade or two.”

The message that the United States discreetly whispered in Asia’s ear was Chinese power is corrupt and fleeting; America’s power is pure and eternal, so place your bets with the pivot-enhanced Uncle Sam as the enduring Asian power, in other words.

Welp, as they say on the Internet.

I think the theoretical underpinnings of this approach is what I choose to call “Shambaughism”.

David Shambaugh was an original proponent of the “responsible stakeholder” strategy, by which the PRC would be allowed to enter the international order and in return it would ineluctably liberalize its politics and economics and a friendly partner of the United States.

Well, that didn’t happen for a number of reasons, one of which I suspect was the geopolitical hollowing out of the US thanks to its orgy of debt finance that nourished the PRC export machine, and the 2008-9 Great Recession. Anyway, today’s PRC/CCP is not too liberal and not too friendly.

Shambaugh naturally preferred to question the PRC/CCP’s wisdom instead of the wisdom of his own theory, so he began promoting the concept of the coming PRC/CCP crackup.

During the administration of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, China collapsism became intellectually respectable (i.e. more than a Gordon Chang obsession) and was a ready-made and critical theoretical premise for the pivot which, in an environment of declining US relative power, offered a narrow but plausible path to the objective of PRC rollback (and a broad, endless highway to enrichment and influence for pivot-oriented think tanks and the US military).

To raid the metaphor chest, the King Canute in the advancing tide scenario was not the United States confronting the inevitable erosion of its power and influence as its relative strength in Asia declined; the vulnerable monarch on the throne was the CCP, vainly trying to wish away the inexorable advance of globalized liberal values.

My personal conclusion is that everybody’s wrong! nobody knows anything! and Asia will reveal itself as a welter of relatively high-functioning states that will find a way to muddle through without the guiding genius of the United States and without submitting themselves to CCP bondage.

Hope so, anyway.

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Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

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