Trump’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ with China: Huntington’s Model doesn’t even work in East Asia


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This is a re-post of an essay I wrote for The National Interest a week ago.

Basically my argument is that even if you are a hawk on China and see it as an emerging competitor or even threat to the US, the clash of civilizations framework is a weak analytical model by which to understand Sino-US tension.

The big problem is that Huntington builds his civilizations everywhere else in the world around religion, but in East Asia he can’t, because that would make China and Japan – who are intense competitors – allies in a Confucian civilization. Making Japan and China allies would be ridiculous, so Huntington can’t use Confucianism as a civilization, even thought that so obviously fits his model for East Asia. Hence, Huntington falls back on national labels, identifying separate ‘Sinic’ and ‘Nipponic’ civilizations. This ad hoc prop-up of the theory undercuts Huntington’s whole point of arguing that national distinctions are giving way to civilizational ones and that therefore we should think of future conflicts as between civilizations, not nation-states. Well, apparently East Asia didn’t make that shift; conflict here is still nationalized. So

There are other issues I bring up as well, but that’s the main problem. Please read the essay after the jump…

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Learning to Live with a Nuclear N Korea: Awful, but Better than the Alternatives


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We live Pakistani nuclear missiles; we can live with North Korean ones too.

This is a re-post of an essay I wrote for the New York Daily News a few weeks ago, at the peak of the summer war-scare.

I argue that we can in fact live with a nuclear missilized North Korea. Yes, that sucks. But all this irresponsible talk that we can’t adapt, that nuclear North Korea is an undeterrable, existential threat is just threat-inflating baloney. We’ve learned to live with nuclear missiles in the hands a Muslim state with a serious jihadi problem. Would America prefer this not to be the case? Yes. But is living with a nuclear Pakistan a better choice than bombing it or sending in US special forces to destroy their nukes? Absolutely. Or we would have done it already.

It’s not clear to me why this is so hard for people to absorb. What is it about North Korea that makes people lose their mind and say bonkers s*** about risking a huge regional war?

The full essay follows the jump.

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Does Secretary of Defense Mattis Speak for President Trump, and Co-President Bannon?


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This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote for the Lowy Institute earlier this month on US Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ trip to Japan and South Korea. It was your fairly typical meet-the-allies thing, but under Trump nothing is what it seems. In brief my argument is, why would US allies listen to SecDef when the president is this erratic and impressionable? What really matters, especially if Michael Flynn is on the way out, is what Steve Bannon, Trump’s very own Dr. Strangelove, thinks. Creepy. I still can’t believe this guy is POTUS.

The full essay follows the jump:

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Obama did about as well in E Asia as could be Expected: One Last Defense of Strategic Patience


I know the only thing people want to talk about now is Trump, but here is a parting review of Obama in Asia. I wrote this a few weeks ago for the Lowy Institute. All in all, I’d say he did about as well as you could expect.

Yes, he didn’t prevent North Korea from getting a nuclear weapon and missile, but no one knows how to do that barring kinetic action which is off the table because of South Korea’s ridiculous decision to place its capital, and allow it to flourish, just 30 miles from the border. And no he didn’t slow China’s rise, but no president could do that without kinetic action either. And that’s even crazier than bombing North Korea.

There are no good solutions to our challenges out here, just as there were none to communist power in the 1950s. Hawks calling for ‘toughness’ and ‘leadership’ should remember that rollback was a catastrophe (in the Korean War) that almost ignited WWIII. We then settled for hanging tough’ until communist power imploded, which it did. The contemporary Asian analogue of hanging tough is Obama’s ‘strategic patience.’ Everyone criticized it, but no one has a better option that isn’t hugely risky. So stop complaining about strategic patience until you’ve got a better, genuinely workable idea.

The full essay follows the jump.

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2017 Preview, part 1: East Asian Security


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This is a local re-up of a broad predictive overview of East Asian security issues in 2017 published first at the Lowy Institute a few days ago.

The standard first line of reviews like this is to bemoan North Korea and China. I do a little of that here, but tried to look beyond facile predictions that the US and China will fight in the South China Sea shortly. Asia is a pretty status quo place, so the only big ‘disruptors’ are the usual suspects – the Kim family of North Korea and Donald Trump. The Chinese and the Japanese aren’t really interested in rocking the boat much, so they’re barely mentioned, curiously enough. For example, the next time North Korea does something dumb, we can count on China saying that we should all calm down and maintain stability – in other words, do nothing. One thing I do wonder about is if the left wins the South Korean presidency this year, will it dramatically change South Korean foreign policy by accommodating (read: appeasing) North Korea?

Part 2, next week, will focus on South Korean security issues in the new year.

The full essay follows the jump.

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Year in Review, 2016: Top 5 Events of Northeast Asian Security


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If that thrilling post title doesn’t pull you away from It’s a Wonderful Life or Sound of Music, I don’t know what will.

This essay is a local re-post of my op-ed posted with the Lowy Institute this month. The pic is President-Elect Donald Trump in his first meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It well captures what a banana republic amateur hour set will be running the US shortly, which makes Trump the number one Asian security story of the year. That is Trump with his daughter and son-in-law business partners, but no US-side translator or Japan expert, because heh, what really matters is getting Trump Tower Tokyo built…

My top 5 security events for the region in 2016 follow the jump, but honestly you’re probably a lot more interested in my picks for the worst TV show and movie of the year.

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US Election and Northeast Asia: Clinton’s Status Quo vs. the Great Orange Unknown


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This re-posts an essay I published today at the Lowy Institute. I tried to sketch a few possible futures for northeast Asia with these two candidates.

Basically it seems to me that Clinton is offering the status quo, which is intuitively attractive to Asian elites, while Trump offers who-knows-what. It is fairly established then that Asia’s democracies want Clinton to win, while its non-democracies want Trump, although honestly, I wonder if the Chinese might be having second thought given how much Trump seems to be itching for a trade war.

Trump is the interesting variable here, and his trade policies are the big unknown. Unraveling America’s alliances out here would be really hard. I doubt Trump has the stamina, focus, and attention to bureaucratic detail to tackle that. But on trade, he would enjoy a lot more sympathy, and he could really change (ie, wreak havoc) on US trade relations with Asia is he wants.

I’m just scratching the surface in this short essay. If you really want a deep dive, go to the Peterson Institute for International Economics’ blog on North Korea, which has provided a lot of such coverage in greater detail than I provide here. Go to the bottom of this post for extended commentary from Stephen Haggard and Marcus Noland.

My essay follow the jump.

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Trump and Northeast Asian Nuclearization: Not as a Terrible an Idea as You’ve Heard


Image result for nuclear weapons northeast asiaThis is a re-post of something I wrote for the Lowy Institute earlier this month. The original is here.

So yes, Donald Trump is awful. He is a threat to American democracy, an vain narcissist, doesn’t know anything about nuclear weapons or national security, and so on. I know what you’re thinking, so I will say that I mailed-in my absentee ballot today, and I voted for Hillary Clinton.

That does not necessarily impugn all of his ideas however. And when he says that Japan and South Korea might pursue their own nuclear weapons, I have never understood the hysteria that greets this notion. That Trump says it, and that he might not really even understand what he’s saying, does not automatically mean it is wrong.

The debate over SK and Japanese nuclearization is a lot more variegated that we normally hear from mostly ‘liberal international order’ analysts who dominate Washington thinking on foreign policy. The essay below makes several claims, but the strongest to my mind is that a northeast Asian nuclear arms race is already underway; SK and Japan are just not participating in it – which does not mean it is not happening. It is true that they need not to some extent, because they are covered by American extended deterrence, which gives them ‘shadow nuclear weapons’ I suppose.

But the costs of them going nuclear are not that high anymore. Russia and North Korea have both substantially elevated the role of nuclear weapons in their grand strategies in the last two decades. China might start counter-building, but what is China doing for Japan or South Korea that it earns the privilege of them staying non-nuclear? Specifically, if China won’t rein in NK, the case for SK and Japanese nuclear restraint diminishes.

The full essay follows the jump.

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Is Obama’s Second Term the Highlight of the Pivot to Asia?


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The following is a re-up of an essay I published this week with Newsweek Japan. I was thinking about Obama’s attendance at both the G-20 and ASEAN this month. Those trips really do reflect his commitment to the pivot to Asia – probably as much out of conviction as out of a desire to escape the sink-hole of the Middle East.

But as readers of this website know, I am rather skeptical that the pivot actually grips the median American voter. Sure, elites love it, especially realists. It has all the trappings of geopolitical excitement think-tankers and IR types love. But regular Americans care way more about other regions first – when they even consider foreign policy, which the rarely do when they vote. Europe and increasingly Latin America will always have a powerful ethnic pull, because most Americans have roots there, while the Middle East bewitches the American evangelicals who are obsessed with Islam and Israel. China, even though it is vastly more important, isn’t actually as pressing to voters except as a trade issue.

This is not to say that I don’t support the pivot. I do. Very much. But if you look at Trump and Clinton’s foreign policy utterances, they basically cleave to the pre-pivot norm: the obsession with the Middle East, Islam, terrorism, while Asia is basically a trade-cheater. Hillary has turned against her own creation, TPP, while Trump sounds like he’d spark a trade-war with China, and maybe even Japan.

So if you’re an Asia hand, enjoy your moment in Obama’s sun. Next year, we’ll back to warring in the Middle East.

The full essay follows the jump.

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Don’t Fear Trumpism too Much, East Asia – You’re Already Governed by It


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The following is a local re-up of an essay I wrote for The National Interest recently. That essay was edited. The original is below, and I think it is better.  

The text in the picture is Chinese and reads: “Donald J. Trump super fan nation, Full and unconditional support for Donald J. Trump to be elected U.S. president.”

That Trump has sympathizers out here makes sense – even though he bashes the region all the time – because he obviously got a lot of his political ideas from East Asia: Mercantilism, race nationalism, hostility to immigration, huge distrust of Islam, oligopolistic mega-corporations dominated by interlocking family and crony networks, soft authoritarianism, manipulating the state to benefit politically-connected insiders, golf – that’s Trumpism. But it’s also the de facto governing ideology of contemporary Sinic-Confucian East Asia.

I remained convinced that Trump learned about East Asia primarily through the ‘declinist’ school of the 1980s. The popularized version of that argument was Michael Crichton’s 1992 novel Rising Sun. Given that this is Trump we are talking about though, he probably just watched the movie instead. This is why he talks about Japan so much.

What just amazes me is that Trump simultaneously has a 35-year history attacking the East Asian (mostly Japanese) nationalist-developmentalist model while pretty much proposing to bring it to the United States now if he gets elected. Trump is basically acting like what he thinks Japanese businessmen acted like in 1985 – just with an extra thick layer of idiocy and know-nothingness on top . Why does no one else see this? So if you are Japanese, maybe you can be proud in a weird way (lol): Trump thinks he’s you, just turning the tables.

The full essay follows the jump.

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What a Trumpish GOP would Mean for Asia: Reduced Trade & Migration, and More Defense Spending


 

This a re-print of an op-ed I just published with the Lowy Institute.

I’ve argued elsewhere that I don’t think a President Trump would pull the US out of Asia. That would requiring battling a deep Washington consensus of government officials, think-tankers, military, and the rest who strongly support a continued American presence out here. Trump is too lazy and too ill-informed to try that. So don’t worry about that. Nor will Trump win. So don’t freak out yet. 

But I do think Trump has changed the GOP a lot, and that he will have successors. Trump just proved that the median GOP voter doesn’t give a damn about Reaganism. Republican voters are now lower middle class and downscale (whites), and they are not anti-statists who want tax cuts for the rich. Nor are they neocons (it’s their kids that fight the wars), nor are they social conservatives, as their rates of divorce, single parenthood, and substance abuse make clear. What they do want though is a dramatic reduction of immigration in order that the United States remain majority white longer.

In short, Trump has just showed the potential for the US to have a European-style nationalist-rightist party, complete with a whiff of fascism in Trump’s authoritarian posturing.

So my prediction is that: 1) Trump will lose, but 2) post-Trumpers will pop-up and try to use his message to win GOP primaries. This will ignite a serious civil war inside the GOP between the establishment – who are mostly Reaganites like Paul Ryan but who have weak roots among actual GOP voters, as Trump just illustrated – and white nationalist post-Trumpers who actually speak to issues the GOP base cares about. It’s not clear to me who will win, but the post-Trumpers have the votes and the passion.

The full essay follows the jump.

My Take on Trump and Asia for Newsweek Japan: He’s Too Lazy to Push for Real Change, so Don’t Worry


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I write a monthly column for Newsweek Japan, and below is this month’s English original (on pages 36-37 of the edition pictured).

I haven’t written much about Trump, mostly because he says so little of value in my area, nor do I believe that he really means what he says, because he changes so often and puts so little thought into foreign policy.

So my first comment to Asians who ask is: relax, because even if he wins, he isn’t likely to push through some major geopolitical retrenchment, because of the effort that would take in Washington. Nor is he likely to spark a huge trade war with China for the same reason. The bureaucratic resistance would be massive, and I don’t buy it at all that Trump has the tenacity, focus, intelligence, or interest in any policy issue necessary to undo long-standing precedents such as the decades-old US engagement in Asia.

If Obama can’t get us out of the Middle East, do you really believe Trump will take us out of Asia? Forget it. Perhaps it is the teacher in me, but, like Regan, Bush 2, Palin, and Fox before him, Trump’s defining intellectual feature is laziness, and it will take a helluva lot of work to change the US architecture out here. So forget it. Instead, think about what Trump really cares about – his show-boating, made-for-TV image as manly, tough, a winner, and so on.

President Trump will spend all his time and energy chasing whatever the polls say voters want in a desperate effort to stay popular. What he will really use US government power for, where he will show genuine commitment and focus, is in pursuing his media enemies Nixon-style, and enhancing his business interests. In that sense, he will govern like the CPP or Putin – chasing after journalists, feathering his nest, changing laws and regulations that damage his businesses, and so on.

So don’t worry Asia. Trump is too intellectually lazy to learn, too uniformed to understand, and too narcissistic to care. Trump is a threat to the First Amendment and check-and-balances, not the American architecture in Asia.

My essay follows the jump.

Guest Post – Dave Kang: International Relations Scholarship Underutilizes Asia for the Same Old Western Cases (WWI & Cuba Forever!)


This is a guest post from my friend David C. Kang of the University of Southern California. Dave is a political scientist and runs the Korean Studies Institute there. He is way better at East Asia than I’ll ever be, so stop wasting your time on this blog and get to his author page to start reading his books.

Dave and I were just at the Korea Foundation’s big conference on Korean studies in the 70 years since liberation from Japan. There he made a number of the points below, which I broadly agree with. In short, western IR says Asia is really important – China, North Korea, the pivot, and so on – but still use the same western cases in its writing. Dave has some nice data on this below. I made similar points a few years ago. I think the basic problem is that we still aren’t learning the languages or coming here early in our careers. How many of you studied French and did your junior year abroad in Europe? So when IR actually gets into the casework, its WWI, WWII, and the Cuban Missile Crisis all the time.

Dave’s comments follow the jump.

Some Regional Honesty on the 70th Anniversary of the End of the Pacific War? Not a Chance


There will be loads of retrospectives this year. But rather than write yet another ‘what are the lessons of WWII?’ piece, I thought I would write about how current Asian politics is still framed so much by the war. Particularly, I thought it would be useful to point out in all honesty how some of region’s elites actually came to power on the back of the war – even though they’d never, ever admit that. Specifically, Chiang Kai-Shek would have crushed Mao if he hadn’t had to fight the Japanese instead, and the (North) Korean Worker’s Party would never have come to power without the Red Army ‘liberation’ that was legitimized by Japanese occupation. Being honest about this stuff is helpful, if uncomfortable.

This piece was originally written for the Lowy Institute. It starts after the jump:

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Northeast Asia 2015 Predictions: Another Year of the Repetitive, Uninspiring Status Quo


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This is another of my end of year prediction/look-back posts. The others, on 2014, are here and here. This time I want to look forward to 2015, and I’ve got to admit that I see little that inspires confidence. Every state in northeast Asia is run by nationalists and social conservatives who have little interest in overcoming regional foreign policy splits, or altering the bureaucratic, crony corporatist status quo.

So expect another year of the same: loud, angry, status-quo reinforcing foreign policy fights over empty rocks and events 80 years ago; corruption scandals; competitive devaluation and outrageously punitive consumer prices; a rough deal for working women; dirigisme instead of innovation; North Korean shenanigans; and so on. NE Asia really needs visionary leaders – an Adenauer or Mandela – someone to pull the region out of the blind alley of nationalism and crony statism that rewards nationalist elites and punishes everyone else.

The following predictions were originally made in the Diplomat here.

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Looking Back on What Predictions for East Asia 2014 I got Wrong…and a little Right


untitledI have always liked these end of the year prediction check-ups, and new year prediction-making exercises. It’s fun, but it also is an important check on irresponsibility in our punditry. Month after month we say this or that is important, or this or that will happen. But later when the current we thought was important turns out not to be, or the ‘revolutionary’ leader we thought would ‘change everything’ turns out to be a bust, we conveniently forget about that and say some other trend is actually what really matters.

This is intellectually pretty shoddy but understandable. No one likes to admit they are wrong. But identifying why causal mechanisms we thought important actually weren’t, is an important way for us to improve our thinking and explain ourselves to readers. The alternative is those neocons who got Iraq really, really wrong, but still come back on TV unchastened. Bleh.

So here is a run-down of the big things I got wrong in 2014 in Asia. In brief, I overestimated the importance of the Sewol in driving reform in Korea, and the depth of the freeze between North Korea and China; I underestimated the importance of the UN report on North Korean human rights, and China’s efforts to build parallel institutions in Asia particularly. This was originally posted at the Lowy Institute last week:

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My Top 5 List for 2014: 5 Biggest Foreign Policy Events for the US in Asia


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I love these hoky, end-of-the-year lists. But I don’t know much about genuinely interesting or cool stuff, like the top 5 classical music pieces or architectural masterpieces of the year. So before you read another list about the Kardashians’ top 5 lip glosses, or the 5 most repetitive comic movies of the year, here is an uber-wonky one that’s basically about the sustainability of the pivot.

I am constantly wondering whether the US can carry through on the ‘rebalance,’ whether we can actually shift out of the Middle East and Europe and pay more attention to the Asia-Pacific. I am skeptical, in part because I tend to see US commitments as opportunity costs of one another. In other words, if we are tangling with Putin or ISIS, then we don’t have much time for China or Maduro. But if you’re a neocon, then the pivot is no trouble. Getting involved in Asia doesn’t mean lessening commitments elsewhere, because the US should be globocop anyway, and US domestic expenses should be cut to fund to all this intervention.

The following post was originally put up at the Diplomat:

My November Diplomat Essay: If We can’t Stop Fighting in the Middle East, We’ll Never Pivot


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You think that guy to the left cares about China or ASEAN? Gimme a break.

This is a point I have made again and again on this blog: Asia does not activate the racial/cultural/religious paranoias of Americans, especially conservatives, evangelical Christians (who are around 45% of the country), and the GOP. This is why we won’t stop fighting in the Middle East. The ‘America is a Judeo-Christian country’ crowd absolutely wants to stay and fight it out against the jihadis, because it fears/hates them in a visceral way it never will feel about east Asian geopolitics. China may be threatening in a traditional, state-to-state kinda way, but that doesn’t move people’s deep fears/beliefs/angst though. But the idea that Muslims might bring sharia to the West, build a mosque near ground-zero, or see their holidays treated equally by Western public authorities is enough see a lot of Americans into a cultural panic. Hence the huge well of public opinion support to keep fighting and fighting in the Middle East.

This is what Huntington grasped a long time ago with the clash of civilizations, but China is too different for most Americans to get excited about in a personal way. But Islam does provoke Americans like this; just watch Fox. Its focus on Islam is relentless and astonishing. So yes, the long war is still the long war, and the Chinese can sit back and watch the GOP insist that the US fight endlessly in the Gulf.

The original essay is here; reprinted after the jump:

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My Submission on Dodko to the University of Nottingham’s Blog Symposium on Asian Territorial Disputes


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The China Policy Institute of the University of Nottingham in Britain is running a blog symposium – cool idea! – this week on Asia’s territorial disputes. Here is the series page, and here is my submission. I’d like to thank the CPI blog director, my friend Jon Sullivan, for inviting me to submit. Not surprisingly, I was solicited to write on Dokdo/Takeshima/Liancourt.

Regular readers of my work will notice some of my preferred themes – that Korean claim is probably stronger; that a Japanese acceptance of that is nonetheless necessary to legitimate that sovereignty claim; that Korea wildly overblows the importance of this conflict because ‘anti-Japanism’ is central to modern South Korean identity.

The other entries in the series are worth your time if this area interests you. I was happy to participate. Below the jump is my contribution:

My Lowy Post: Relax (again), Japan is Not ‘Re-Militarizing’


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If there is any one trope in Korean and Chinese international relations writing I don’t like, it is the causal, constant, angry insistence on reading Japan as always ‘remilitarizing.’ In just about everything I read by Korean and Chinese authors on northeast Asia this is repeated relentlessly, as a truism, and usually in the worst possible normative light: not only is Japan ‘remilitarizing,’ it also apparently has neo-imperial designs on Asia.

Sorry, Koreans and Chinese, but this is just not true, not at all really. Note for example, that Japan always seems to be in the process of re-militarizing in this manner of writing. It is never actually done doing so; it’s constant and insidious. No matter what Japan does on national security, it always is described as re-militarizing. Apparently Japanese remilitarization has been going on for decades; which is another way of saying it isn’t really happening at all. Note too, that no one ever seems to remark on Japan’s paltry defense spending or systemic dependence on the US military. So this is just silly boilerplate; it’s far more about Korean and Chinese nationalist dislike for Japan than any real empirical trend. But since it gets repeated so often, and seems to be taken for granted by just about everyone in Korea and China, it is worth laying out in some detail why is is bunk.

The essay below the jump is re-post of this essay for the Lowy Institute in Australia.

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