US can’t keep Asian leadership role with unilateralism

Cementing a leadership position under the current era is never a simple economic issue, nor can it be achieved through one’s military might alone. It depends on whether a country would and could provide global public goods to promote common development.

In an open letter sent to the US Congress last week, Max Baucus, US ambassador to China, along with five other US ambassadors in the Asia-Pacific region who will step down from their posts this Friday, made a final appeal for the crumbling Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Walking away from the deal “may be seen by future generations as the moment America chose to cede leadership to others in this part of the world and accept a diminished role,” they warned.

As the world watches for clues over what US President-elect Donald Trump would like to give for US global leadership, the answer can be a little discouraging. He questioned the country’s global responsibilities and alliance system many times, believing they have cost the US dearly. The focal point of his policies will be America first, unilateralism, conservatism and nationalism, which may revitalize the US economy but is far from a heartwarming move for the rest of the world.

More importantly, taking China as an imaginary enemy has never helped secure a leading position for the US in the Asia-Pacific region.

Taking advantage of the anxiety caused by the rise of China in the area, Washington has provided itself with a plausible reason to step in to the region. By hyping up the China Threat theory, carrying out the rebalance to Asia-Pacific strategy and stirring up the South China Sea disputes, the US stealthily encouraged its allies to provoke Beijing.

Ironically, it is accusing China of becoming more aggressive. The TPP, which covers one-third of world trade and roughly 40 percent of global GDP, is also considered as a US weapon to challenge China. This was made clear by US President Barack Obama, who claimed the US, not China, should set the trade rules for the Asia-Pacific region.

Yet those efforts mostly ended in failure. After years of confrontation against Beijing without getting any benefit, Manila eventually adjusted its China policy. Amid divergences among the US’ most crucial allies and antipathy from Trump, the abolishment of the TPP will also be inevitable.

Containing China and exacerbating instability in the Asia-Pacific region has not promoted the US’ status or leadership. On the contrary, Washington has only made other regional nations realize there are better paths toward development and that being a US pawn is no longer a good choice.

How to reasonably deal with relations with China and jointly provide public goods with Beijing is the key to maintaining the US’ position in Asia-Pacific affairs.

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