Events in Asian — including the United States-China rivalry, the rearming of Japan, the North Korea missile crisis and growing Sino-Russian cooperation — are raising concerns that the post-World War Two security order is dying.
US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, designed to pull 12 nations together to neutralise China, was arguably the US’ biggest mistake.
But American influence had been waning steadily for almost a decade in the face of China’s rise and US lethargy.
Fears that the old order guaranteed by the US is collapsing have been exacerbated by protests in Hong Kong, tensions in the South China Sea, and the US-China trade war, which many fear can lead to a global recession.
With the US no longer attempting to exercise its influence, these vulnerabilities have been aggravated by Russian-Chinese joint air patrols, the first in the Asia- Pacific region.
While the US’ sailing of warships in the Taiwan Strait was meant to overawe Beijing, China is not intimidated by it and, in fact, plans to conduct more live firing exercises near Taiwan.
This military exercise will be the third since the US Senate approved the sales of weapons, including F16 jet fighters, to Taiwan.
However, the jets lag behind fighters being developed in China.
The tensions are testimony to the inability of Washington to control events.
The resurgence of China and Russia has complicated the security calculus.
Without a US presence to check their rise, the simmering discontents and the trade war between Japan and South Korea will likely impact the security order as well.
Seoul’s decision not to renew the 2016 General Security of Military Intelligence Agreement with Tokyo was an example of how things can go wrong quickly.
The decision to scrap the Intelligence Agreement was a response to Tokyo’s earlier ban on the export of high-tech materials critical to South Korea’s semi-conductor industry.
The tiff between the two powers undermines the traditional security cooperation in the area.
The military intelligence agreement was set up to provide intelligence on North Korea.
The US’ failure to restrain its treaty allies from engaging in trade wars and scuttle the agreement speaks volume of Washington’s declining influence, despite maintaining more than 80,000 troops, air and naval assets in East Asia.
It also reflects the allies’ desire to act independently of their patron.
The US also failed to prevent China and Russia from conducting joint aerial exercises.
According to the Russian Defence Ministry , the mission was to “strengthen global stability.”
The US decision to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear (INF) Treaty with Russia precipitated the incident.
Many believe Washington’s decision was aimed at China’s Intermediate Nuclear Forces, which did not come under the purview of the INF treaty.
It also means the US-managed sphere of influence is under threat of intrusions from China and Russia.
Despite its patrols in the South China Sea, the US has not succeeded in intimidating China from militarising the sea.
In fact, in 2012, following the debacle at Scarborough Shoal, which China occupied, defying Manila under President Benigno Aquino III and Washington, Beijing had converted seven under-water islets into artificial islands complete with military installations.
Beijing had built airstrips designed to project power in the region.
Many see them as forward military bases that could be used against the US in the event of conflict.
When Manila went to the International Tribunal under the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague to protest the legality of China’s nine-dash line, which extends Beijing’s hegemony to the borders of the littoral nations, Beijing announced that it would not participate.
The court ruled in favour of the Philippines in 2016.
Instead of removing China’s influence in the South China Sea, the US could do nothing.
Today, to the chagrin of Washington, Beijing is rewriting the rules of engagement in the South China Sea within the nine-dash line.
Over protests from Manila, the People’s Liberation Army Navy vessels have sailed through the Philippine islands without being deterred.
The US has been courting countries to deploy intermediate-range missiles against China.
So far, there are no firm takers.
The disclosure by the United States Studies Center at the University of Sidney, a think tank, that “America no longer enjoys military primacy in the Indo-Pacific and its capacity to uphold a favourable balance of power is increasingly uncertain”, reinforces the concerns about Washington’s declining influence.
However, the US’ defence shortcomings are not easy to address in the short term, making the strategy to counter China an exercise in futility.
Why should other countries risk their necks for a US government that is bogged down with conflicts in the Middle East and “facing a crisis of strategic insolvency?”
The essence of any military strategy is victory, which in this case, seems remote and removed.
The writer is a professor at the Department of Strategic Studies, National Defence University, Kuala Lumpur.