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John Feffer, Trump, China, and the Unsettled Future of Asia

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: John Feffer's wide-ranging and unsettling look at Asia's future (and ours) should be a reminder that you need to get your hands on his remarkable new dystopian novel, Splinterlands. In this Dispatch Book, a "geo-paleontologist" named Julian West looks back from the year 2050 on a world shattered by the unexpected rise of nationalism and the devastation of climate change. Of it, Mike Davis has written: "John Feffer is our twenty-first-century Jack London and, like the latter's Iron Heel , Splinterlands is a vivid, suspenseful warning about the ultimate incompatibility of capitalism and human survival." When you buy the book, you'll not only get a great, if chilling, read, but also give a bit of much appreciated extra support to this website. Or, if you're in a truly generous mood, for a $100 donation ($125 if you live outside the USA), you can still get a signed, personalized copy of Splinterlands from the author. Check out our donation page for the details. Tom]

In case you hadn't noticed, as in the Middle East and Europe, we're in a new Trumpian age in Asia. If you want to confirm that, check out the recently leaked transcript of an April 29th phone conversation between the American and Philippine presidents (published in full at the Intercept). Donald Trump launches the call with a bonding gesture, comparing his own sleepless habits to those of Rodrigo Duterte. ("You're just like me. You are not a person who goes to bed at all. I know that, right?") He then implicitly makes another comparison between the two of them, congratulating the Philippine president on his anti-drug program in which he has loosed police and paramilitaries to kill at will, resulting in more than 7,000 extrajudicial executions across his country. "I just wanted to congratulate you," says Trump, "because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem. Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that." You can feel, I think, his yearning for the powers of an autocrat in that statement, as well as his long-term obsession with the war on drugs. When Duterte responds by decrying drugs as the "scourge of my nation," Trump, in his typical fashion, takes a backhanded whack at his predecessor. ("I... fully understand that and I think we had a previous president who did not understand that...")

Only then, in full tough-guy mode, does he move on to scourges of his own, bringing up the North Koreans and bragging -- while leaking what was undoubtedly classified information -- that the U.S. has two nuclear subs cruising somewhere off the Korean coast: "We have a lot of firepower over there. We have two submarines -- the best in the world -- we have two nuclear submarines -- not that we want to use them at all. I've never seen anything like they are, but we don't have to use this, but [North Korean leader Kim Jong-un] could be crazy so we will see what happens." In other words, the American president is boasting about being ready for nothing less than nuclear war in Asia, even as he tries to get Duterte to call Chinese President Xi Jinping to put further pressure on Kim.

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All in all, it was quite a performance and yet consider it but a toe in the water when it comes to what used to be proudly labeled an "American lake." (As a Tin Pan Alley song title of the World War II era put it, "To Be Specific, It's Our Pacific.") If you want to take the full plunge into the cold waters of that ocean and of our Asian future -- and believe me, it's not what you imagine -- then follow TomDispatch regular John Feffer, author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands, into an era that may be anything but bright for the United States, China, or other Asian lands. Tom

Goodbye Pacific Pivot, Hello Pacific Retreat
Who Will Take America's Place in Asia?
By John Feffer

Asia has been the future for more than a generation.

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When Americans try to glimpse what's to come, images of the Pacific Rim flood the imagination. For movie audiences in 1982, the rain-soaked Los Angeles of Blade Runner looked like downtown Tokyo. By 2014, the City of Angels in the Spike Jonze film Her had more of a Shanghai vibe. This upcoming October, with the release of Blade Runner 2049, Los Angeles will likely resemble Seoul.

Off-screen as well, Asia has been almost as good as a time machine. When I was coming of age, it was the place to go for anyone hankering for the next big thing. After college, a number of my classmates traveled to Japan to strike gold teaching English. Today, recent grads are more likely to visit the big cities of South Korea and China, or head further south to Singapore and Malaysia. They all come back, as I did in 2001 after three years in Asia, with stories of the future: bullet trains, otherworldly urban landscapes, the latest electronic gizmos.

So, it's not surprising that when foreign policy elites think about what will replace a U.S. superpower in relative decline -- speculation that has grown more feverish in the Trump era -- they, too, look East. But no longer to Japan, which is passe', or South Korea, which has also perhaps peaked. Instead, they tremble before China, which has already surpassed the United States in gross economic output, while steadily enhancing its military capabilities. It seems like the only country remotely capable of challenging the United States as the world's sole superpower.

The anxiety of declining U.S. influence became so intense during the Obama years that the notion of a Group of Two (G2) gained considerable currency: if we can't beat 'em, went the thinking at the time, then maybe we should join 'em. However seriously intended such a proposal to co-rule the world with China might have been, the Obama administration never followed up beyond agreements on climate change and bilateral investment.

Ambitious and impatient, Beijing decided to strike out on its own. It has unveiled a twenty-first-century, industrial-strength version of the post-World War II Marshall Plan with which the U.S. once put a devastated Europe back on its feet. China's vision, however, focuses on the building up of all the countries on its periphery and some even further afield, as it tries to draw the whole Eurasian continent into its sphere of influence. Although it's expected to provide an estimated $1 trillion to more than 60 countries, this "One Belt, One Road" plan is anything but a charity mission. It will direct a major influx of resources to Chinese construction companies, bring minerals and energy to Chinese factories, and promise a better potential return on investment than U.S. treasury bonds. Some infrastructure projects will also allay security concerns, like the energy pipelines to be built through Myanmar that will bypass the watery bottleneck of the Malacca Straits where a determined adversary could potentially shut off 80% of Beijing's oil imports.

The victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 elections has only deepened anxiety over China's ascendance among Washington's policymakers and pundits. During his campaign, Trump frightened both the neocons and more conventional militarists with his talk of avoiding military entanglements overseas. As president, he has pledged to boost military spending but seems to have no idea of how to use all the Pentagon's new toys other than to bomb the stuffing out of the militants of the Islamic State.

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Nor does Trump care a whit about the soft power the United States has traditionally used to cultivate international support. For instance, Washington had long promoted international financial institutions and free trade agreements, but Trump has railed against the "false song of globalism." China, meanwhile, is positioning itself to become the new overlord of global capitalism, even going so far as to set up a parallel international financial system to realize its vision. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which began operations in January 2016 without the support of the United States or the European Union, will function like the World Bank in providing financing for China's various building projects abroad. Whereas Beijing controls less than 5% of the votes at the World Bank, it commands 28% of the shares in the AIIB. Although still a small operation compared to China's commercial banks, it will be quite capable of scaling up if the opportunity arises.

The contrast between Beijing and Washington has become even sharper around climate change. Trump's denial of global warming -- he once labeled it a Chinese "hoax" -- has whetted the Beijing leadership's appetite for global influence. As one of its top climate change negotiators said shortly after Trump won the November election, "China's influence and voice are likely to increase in global climate governance, which will then spill over into other areas of global governance and increase China's global standing, power, and leadership."

All of this is part of a larger trend of power flowing from West to East. In 2010, North America and Western Europe were responsible for 40% of the global gross national product. By 2050, that share, the Economist Intelligence Unit estimates, will fall to 21%, with Asia's share rising to a commanding 48.1%.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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