Polarization is a state of international relations familiar from the Cold War era. Even through there was an early non-aligned movement and some states insisted on their strategic autonomy, the process of polarization continued. China spent almost a decade denouncing both camps before it reversed its position and joined one of them. Is polarization reviving some three decades after the end of the Cold War? The answer is “yes” in Europe in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis, and, I argue, “yes” in Asia, as the first and most obvious arena of Sino-US strategic competition or confrontation. With Sino-Russian relations drawing closer and US alertness to this growing, the question is: How are other states in Asia responding to this ever more apparent state of polarization? The dynamics of economic interests and lack of a clear-cut ideology of confrontation may obscure the process in both Asia and Europe, but they should not blind us to strategic reality.
In the heat of summer, polarization across the region spiraled out of control. The immediate clash is between Pyongyang and Washington, whose threats of unilateral attack on each other have escalated, becoming disturbingly imaginable to many in Asia. Lately, polarization is the main effect on international relations despite recent Security Council resolutions, passed unanimously. Other deep-seated causes with which states are coping also leave them gasping for continued relevance despite the ongoing polarization. In Asia’s Southern tier, the South China Sea has this impact. As polarization intensifies in the Asia-Pacific region, ASEAN faces new challenges in asserting its centrality, Japan looks anew for ways to assert its leadership, South Korea strives to avoid a situation of a “shrimp among whales,” and Mongolia fears the end of its activism in pursuing a “third neighbor policy.”
The most serious cause of polarization involving many countries is the strategic gap between Beijing and Washington, which is manifestly more pronounced than was the case in 2016 or in the spring after the Trump-Xi summit. States that attempted to find some wiggle room have seen their hopes dashed. Abe’s pursuit of Putin led to a summit as recently as late April, but a breakthrough—the hopes of which were so pronounced in late 2016—is no longer conceivable. Moon Jae-in aimed to bridge the Sino-US gap as well as to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table, but his late June summit with Trump and early July summit with Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 failed to produce tangible results. Xi’s continued sanctions on Seoul in response to the THAAD deployment and Trump’s unilateral threats in response to North Korean missile tests demonstrated that Moon is unable to influence the two main actors. ASEAN and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) proved inconsequential in early August, as the South China Sea disputes and freedom of navigation exercises rendered participants, crucially China and the United States, divided. Meanwhile, border tensions intensified between India and China to an unprecedented level since their war in 1961-62. There is no indication that the discouraging state of affairs in August is an aberration rather than a product of long-term forces, apart from the temporary effects of Trump’s policies on the region.
As we consider the reasons for polarization and their durability, we should start by acknowledging that this is not primarily a consequence of individual leaders—Xi, Putin, Abe, and Trump have each, at times, been singled out as a major cause. This is a result of longstanding forces—China’s rejection of the US-led regional order from 1989 and intensification of hostility against Japan in 1993-94 followed by the assertive Chinese posture on regional matters, especially toward the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea from 2009. As during the Cold War, polarization is largely a choice by a competitor with the United States. This is not just an obsession of one leader, but a way of thinking by an entire elite.
China has a knack for yielding just enough to the United States to postpone a time of reckoning about the polarization. With Donald Trump, this has happened three times: in a January phone call with Xi, after which Trump changed his tune on the Taiwan issue and trade; at the April Mar-a-Lago summit, at which Trump shifted toward giving China more room to proceed on North Korea; and in early August as China agreed to vote in support of a Security Council resolution on North Korea and Trump delayed an investigation into China’s abuse of intellectual property rights in trade. Each time, the US side appears to respond strongly to Chinese behavior—trading with North Korea and keeping it afloat to develop WMD and missiles, militarizing the South China Sea and threatening freedom of navigation operations, and forcing US companies to reveal their secrets in order to trade in China—while China finds a way to postpone serious action. The trend toward polarization is, thus, obscured. Some wishful thinking is also involved as few are eager to face the impact of a far-reaching split between the two leading powers, leaving others scant prospect to maneuver. By late August, however, the Sino-US relationship had slipped considerably further.
Trump has diverted attention from uniting against China as well as North Korea and Russia. He has cast doubt on alliances, nixed multilateralism, and rejected values as a driving force in US diplomacy. Opposition to Trump has sullied the image of the United States, weakening its leadership role. Yet, despite Xi Jinping’s attempts to reposition China as the champion of globalization—in free trade and the struggle against climate change—rallying behind China has little appeal. Meanwhile, among those who stand for their own interests such as India, Vietnam, and South Korea, more aggressive Chinese moves keep the quest for close US ties alive. Officials in the Trump administration continue to reaffirm alliance and defense partnership relations. Thus, the process of polarization, however clouded by Trump’s impact, proceeds. The potential for it to accelerate over the coming several years is high. A trigger, such as an even starker split on North Korea, would awaken others to this.
When we look back on 2017, we are likely to see a confusing interlude when the polarization of the indo-Pacific region was temporarily left in confusion. Trump’s impact—glorifying Putin and favoring a close partnership with Russia, losing sight of China’s challenge by at times exaggerating its cooperation on North Korea, and failing to offer leadership by abandoning, for instance, TPP—is mostly negative in bringing clarity to ongoing trends. Xi awaits the 19th Party Congress without wanting to bring tensions to a boil. As controversies are repeatedly aroused by Trump’s intemperate tweets, the year could end without clarity on the long-term trends separate from Trump.
Differences over North Korea, the South China Sea, the Sino-Indian border, the rules of economic interactions, and the use of bully tactics do not lend themselves to much accord. China is the main driver of discord. Japan is the country most alert to China’s intentions to change the status quo. Russia is supporting China as Japan sees no option but to stick closely with the United States. States that aspire to find room to maneuver—to balance, bridge, stay on the sidelines, or find like-minded partners opposed to polarization—are finding their options increasingly limited. South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in is the latest example of a leader whose hands seem to be tied by regional realities. If ASEAN once presumed to enjoy centrality, it is no longer expected as such. Of all states caught in the middle, Australia may have the most open, intense debate, but it is unlikely to veer far from its close ally, the United States. India, with a history of autonomy, may cling to an independent status, despite its rising concern about China; but growing alienation from Russia—once its closest great power partner—is but one sign that polarization is obliging it to make choices. Aggressive behavior by China leaves India with little choice, as Japanese and US overtures to it continue.
The United States has hesitated to acknowledge polarization for multiple reasons. It has no good solution to the North Korean threat and prefers to keep seeking help from China and Russia, even as they continually disappoint it. Some cannot drop the hope that China and Russia can be split. There is still a strong China lobby, even if business interests are less supportive than before, insisting that China’s rise is not a threat or can be managed by certain conciliatory policies. Finally, suspicions against unilateral moves—such as the backlash following the Iraq War—mean that there is wariness about realist policies steeped in defense. If “America First” is now the slogan of unilateralist, anti-globalist forces on the right, it can also refer to some on the left ready to discard the US role of “world policeman” for home-building, without recognizing the price to world stability that would be exacted.
We can summarize the case for recognizing that we have entered a new age of polarization as follows: 1) the North Korean threat has grown so serious, dispelling the illusion that common ground can be found that avoids polarization; 2) China has stopped biding its time, while intensifying its identity narrative and pressure on neighboring states, as its ties with Russia strengthen; 3) the US response to China is becoming more unambiguous; and 4) those who have tried to hedge, straddle, or gain centrality have lost their capacity to sustain that approach. One by one, the options against polarization that appeared to exist have lost even a semblance of viability. However much Trump is seen to confuse the picture, polarization in the Asia Pacific is ever clearer.