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Foreign Policy

Is America losing control of the narrative in Asia?

Sep 12, 2019
  • Junyang Hu

    Research Associate for U.S.-China PAX sapiens, One Earth Future Foundation

Power is all about saying. 

The idea can be traced to Michel Foucault, the French philosopher who introduced the intrinsic relationship of power and knowledge through an analysis of the control of discourse in “The Discourse on Language.” Over the past few years, the power to speak has become an increasingly prominent manifestation of political power. And the area most tightly woven today is international relations, somewhat transitioning into a “discursive power politics.” As a result, there is certainly a central and marginal division in the setting of topics and agendas, the control of world public opinion and the output of ideology and culture. 

As a case in point, with the alternation of U.S.-Soviet relations, the United States has put forward diplomatic thoughts and strategies such as the Truman Doctrine, Marshall Plan, the Four Point Program, human rights diplomacy, beyond containment, the shape-respond-prepare strategy and others. Through these word strategies, the country implemented strong anti-communist discourse and consolidated its ideological infiltration of socialist countries to intervene in Asian issues, European affairs and other popular regional affairs. Its influence and voice in the world continued at a peak level. However, the decades-old American hegemony over the narrative in parts of Asia is now exposed to a scissor-style pressure: from above, through the heavy challenge posed by an emerging new giant — China — and from below, as it is embedded in uncertainty about America’s commitment to the region. 

No embassies or military bases across the region have been shut down. Instead, to present a massive show of strength amid growing tensions, the frequency of military drills on both sides has recently skyrocketed, deliberately reinforcing their intentions and capacities in the contested region. “The Navy component command, U.S. Pacific Fleet (PACFLT), encompasses both the Third Fleet and Seventh Fleet, which hosts an aircraft carrier strike group, approximately 180 ships, nearly 2,000 aircraft, and 140,000 personnel,” according to an independent assessment by CSIS. Statistically, U.S. military and civilian personnel assigned to the Pacific Command number approximately 325,000, roughly one-fifth of the total U.S. military. There is little prospect of any country devoting the resources necessary to begin competing with the U.S. militarily, let alone overtaking it. 

Hence, America’s exalted position in the Asia Pacific undeniably remains sustainable. But Uncle Sam is losing the the controlling capacity of its narrative in Asia. 

Gallup polling indicates that belief in the U.S. capacity to lead in world affairs, particularly in Asia, is at an all-time low. On one hand, disapproval of U.S. leadership increased almost as much as approval declined. The 40 percent median disapproval, is up 12 points from 2016. After tumbling to a record-low 30 percent during the first year of Trump’s presidency, the median global approval rating that adults across 133 countries and areas give the job performance of U.S. leadership remained stable at 31 percent in 2018. Contrasting with the huge losses the U.S. has suffered among longtime close allies and partners, China has gained considerable ground, to 34 percent, within the context of the shifting balance of soft power across the world. 

In no small part, the U.S. loss could be attributed to the overall “American First” strategy promoted by Donald Trump. David Ignatius of The Washington Post noted that “by putting America’s interests first so nakedly, he may push many U.S. allies in Europe and Asia to make their own deals with a newly assertive Russia and a rising China.” Fundamentally, this is deeply rooted in the income inequality, sluggish wages, unemployment and slow productivity growth of American society. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the federal bank regulatory agency that released the report, projected “annual GDP growth slowing to 2.6 percent in 2019 and 1.9 percent in 2020”, below the Trump administration’s promise of 3 percent growth. Under pressure of both the domestic status quo and coming presidential election in 2020, in all likelihood Trump will continue striving to push his “America First” policy, with even less accountability for U.S. allies.  

In addition to the apparent U.S. strategic concentration across the world, the rise of China and its regional reach in the Asia Pacific also plays a pivotal role in building close economic ties with neighbors. As we said before, China has done a good job of explaining what the Belt and Road Initiative is and has extended a sincere invitation for everyone. Thanks to 173 cooperation agreements with 125 countries and 29 international organizations as of March this year, every Asian country now trades more with China and is less reliant on investment from America. For instance, the progressive negotiation of the trilateral Free Trade Agreement by China, Japan, and the Republic of Korea is undoubtedly a good signal that countries in Pax Americana, such as the ROK and Japan, are forging ahead of the U.S. leadership. 

As a result, building on economic partnerships with mutual interests, there will be a great number of Chinese culture centers set up across the region, far more than the current 17. Accordingly, China is expected to replace the U.S., sooner or later, as the leader of the regional narrative. UNESCO’s report “The Globalization of Cultural Trade: A Shift in Consumption”, unveiled that in 2013 China’s total exports of cultural goods has reached roughly $62 billion, more than twice those of the U.S., at 27.9 billion. Even though problems, such as a lack of overall high quality, of these products remain, the initiative of China is on track. 

Adrian Monck once made a comparison: Britain’s collapse was precipitated by the left’s loathing of imperialism, while in the U.S. it comes from the right’s loathing of globalism. For America, signs that its power of speech is eroding can be clearly seen. Whoever controls the narrative controls the world. And it is only a matter of time before Americans begin to realize that societal disparities and divided politics from within will begin smashing the solid discourse system it had established in Asia, and that the loss of global hegemony will follow.  

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