PARIS — For more than 70 years, the United States was the ultimate life insurance policy for Europe against the Soviet and now Russian thirst for power. The U.S. also held sway in Asia, in large part to counter China and to contain North Korea's dangerous and eccentric drifts.
The rise of China's economic ambitions and military capacities — the later reinforcing the former — pushed traditional U.S. allies Japan and South Korea to turn ever harder toward the American umbrella of protection. From Vietnam to the Philippines, from Indonesia to Singapore, not forgetting Taiwan of course, the rise of Beijing's ambitions reinforces their need for Washington's attention.
Faced with China's increasing presence, the countries in the region now see America retreating. What was only a worrying tendency under Barack Obama, with the relative failure of his "Asian pivot" policy, can become an infinitely more dangerous reality under President Donald Trump.
Before Trump's election, the Philippines moved closer to China; it even pledged to buy Chinese military equipment — a strong gesture which, of course, conveyed the "singular" personality of President Rodrigo Duterte. It also betrayed the Philippines leader's irritation toward American criticism about his brutal methods of repression. This diplomatic evolution also revealed the growing doubt about the prestige and power of the U.S.
By suggesting, during his campaign, that he might roll back nuclear protection to South Korea and Japan, Trump risks encouraging a nuclear arms race across the Asian continent. He's sending a troubling message: "You're on your own now." The U.S. is no longer China's counterweight in Asia. The message was made even clearer by Washington's rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and by appearing to open the door to Taiwan.
Left to themselves?
What does America really want? To push Asian countries in each other's arms so that, eventually, they'll form a sort of EU-inspired "Pacific Union"? Or, more prosaically, simply abandon these countries to their fates?
In both cases, by rejecting multilateralism in the name of "America First," Trump is only hastening the arrival of a multipolar world that will primarily revolve around Asia. Only an America unwavering in its commitment, open and rational in its behavior, could slow a movement that risks gaining pace at the exact moment when the ever-increasing centralization of power in China introduces an element of uncertainty. The junction between the not-always-enlightened despotism of Xi Jinping's China and the dogmatic provocation of Trump's America can lead to disasters.
And yet as paradoxical as it may sound, China itself may be the Asian country most "disoriented" by this new America. We can see its hesitation between a certain form of ideological jubilation and a genuine anxiety. In The People's Daily, the Chinese Communist Party's mouthpiece, there was a recent commentary that democracy had "reached its limits' and that it had "become the weapon for capitalists to chase profits."
There's a scent of anxiety in Beijing about Trump's unpredictability
It's an amusing criticism coming from a country that continues to multiply its number of billionaires. Still, it's partly justified. Since truth has become a relative notion in Washington and since there are such things as "alternative facts," can we still talk with a feeling of moral superiority, of a "geography of values' that would distinguish the democratic West from the rest of the world?
What does the Statue of Liberty, which was brandished as a symbol by Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989, stand for at a time when the U.S. wants to erect a wall between the country and Mexico? In other words, is Trump's America still in a position to lecture the Chinese on democratic morals?
China is the one now teaching America lessons in capitalism. You only need to listen to Xi's speech in Davos and his praise of globalization to be convinced of this. With Trump, the U.S. risks declining from a power protecting the status quo to the main source of global uncertainty. In other words, a fireman-turned-arsonist.
To be sure, China intends to take advantage of the new global order but there's still a scent of anxiety in Beijing about the unpredictability of the new U.S. president. China and the Western world were already living in a different time zone but the gap has skyrocketed since Trump's election.
Between a "Middle Kingdom" that references historical events that took place more than 1,000 years before the birth of Jesus and a country that now lives in the total immediacy of tweets, finding common ground will be no easy task.