West’s crackup reshapes the East


If US President Donald Trump wanted to discredit the West, he could hardly be doing a more thorough job of it.

The hostility he directed at ostensible allies in the Group of Seven (G-7) last weekend was bad enough, especially when contrasted with the obsequious praise he lavished on North Korea’s murderous Kim Jong-un in Singapore.

Worse perhaps was the visual contrast between the G-7 and a third, recently concluded summit — a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Qingdao. There, Trump’s counterpart, Chinese President Xi Jinping, happily clinked glasses with his own partners such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Xi even acted chummy with potential rivals such as India’s Narendra Modi.

In Qingdao, eight leaders — from South and Central Asia, as well as Russia and China — met to discuss a Eurasian future. As if to further emphasise the distance between Qingdao and Quebec, where the Iran deal was one of the more divisive subjects under discussion at the G-7, the Islamic Republic’s president Hassan Rouhani was also present and smiling as broadly as everyone else.

The images spoke for themselves: While the liberal West falls apart, the authoritarian East is consolidating.

This isn’t a question only of symbolism. This year, India (along with Pakistan) attended the SCO for the first time as a full member.

Its participation — we wouldn’t normally be happy joining a club presided over by the Chinese, and at the same time as the Pakistanis — is a reminder that, for Asia’s democracies, making nice with China is increasingly vital.

Trump’s tantrum at the G-7 will merely deepen that conviction. Even before the failed summit, Indian ambassadors, and even its Navy chief, had begun to back away from the mooted “Quad” alliance with the US, Japan and Australia — a particular bugbear of China’s. Look for similar signals from Canberra and Tokyo in the coming weeks as America’s Pacific allies also recalibrate their approach.

Asian leaders will have noted, for example, that the phrase to which Trump and his retinue most objected in the G-7 communique was “the rules-based international order”. This is baffling. On this side of the world, that’s the exact phrase used by liberal democracies, the US foremost among them, when they’ve attempted to tame and channel China’s disruptive rise.

Here, it has stood for shared security, for fidelity to existing norms that protect the weak and control the strong.

If Trump’s Washington is now as allergic to the phrase as Xi’s Beijing, then all our strategic equations will have to be recalculated.

And it’s not as though alternatives don’t exist. It’s too easy for the West to dismiss China-centric organisations such the SCO, which is typically described as a “highly superficial” talk-shop, hollow at its centre.

In fact, the G-7 doesn’t look especially sturdy at the moment either — and hasn’t for some time.

At the very least, Asian countries have added incentive to invest time and political capital in the SCO and similar groupings.

For example, in the few days since Trump blew up the G-7, trade diplomats in India have renewed their efforts to break a deadlock on a China-centric trade deal, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

In a world in which Washington supported the World Trade Organisation and was still in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, India would have been a lot less worried about being left behind by RCEP.

In retrospect, the 500 days between Trump’s assumption of power and the Quebec summit look like the equivalent of the “phony war” in 1939 — hostilities had been announced but hadn’t commenced.

We in Asia could fool ourselves that little enough had changed. Our interlocutors in DC were reassuring: Officials at the State Department, the National Security Council or the US Trade Representative’s office seemed still committed to, well, “the rules- based international order”.

But, one by one, they have fallen to Trumpism. Now, it’s the US National Security Advisor himself who tweeted a memorable photo of Trump in a mirthless standoff with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and others, boasting, “The president made it clear today. No more”.

To adopt a favourite Israeli phrase, Asia’s democracies now have “no partner for peace” in Washington.

Europe’s leaders — not to mention Canada’s — are focused on firing back at Trump. Emmanuel Macron said France and the other five G-7 members “represent values, represent an economic market, and more than anything, represent a real force at the international level today.”

Perhaps. But, if so, then this G-6 will need to find a voice and a presence in Asia as well.

Or, by the time America tires of Trumpism, the continent will owe fealty to Beijing. — Bloomberg

  • This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.