History at any moment can be understood as a snapshot, telling us where we are, or as a moving picture, telling us not just where we are but where we have been and where we may be headed. It is a distinction with an enormous difference.
Consider East Asia and the Pacific. A snapshot would show a region at peace, with stable societies, growing economies, and robust alliances. But a moving picture would be considerably less reassuring. We may well come to look back on this moment as the time in which the most economically successful part of the world began to come apart.
North Korea is one reason. War has been avoided, not because North Korea has done anything to reduce the threat posed by its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, but because US President Donald Trump’s administration has not matched its fiery words with actions. The nuclear and missile threat posed by North Korea has actually increased since Trump embraced summitry with Kim Jong Un just over a year ago.
There is no reason to believe that the Kim regime will ever denuclearise. The question is whether it will agree to place a ceiling on its nuclear capabilities in exchange for some reduction in sanctions – and, if so, whether it lives up to the agreement and whether neighbours such as Japan believe they can be safe without developing nuclear weapons of their own.
The latter question makes the deterioration in relations between Japan and South Korea all the more disquieting. Japanese officials are uneasy with South Korea’s approach to North Korea, viewing it as too conciliatory, and are furious with South Korea for reviving its demand that Japan apologise and compensate Korean women abused by the Imperial Japanese Army before and during World War II. Tensions between these two American allies are spilling over into their trade relationship and will make it harder to coordinate policy toward North Korea and China.
Then there are the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. As mainland control over the former British colony has increased, the “one country, two systems” formula promised in 1997 has not played out as the people of Hong Kong had hoped, steadily giving way to “one country, one system”. This is unlikely to change, as China is less dependent on Hong Kong as a financial gateway and is concerned that a liberal approach toward demonstrators there will signal weakness and encourage protests – and even a leadership challenge – on the mainland. The authorities in Beijing are thus likely to do whatever they believe is necessary to maintain order.
China’s turn toward repression is even more starkly apparent in its policies toward its Uighur minority. At the same time, Deng Xiaoping’s careful foreign policy has given way to a more assertive foreign policy under President Xi Jinping. In the South China Sea, China is militarising islands in an effort to gain control of this strategically vital waterway and intimidate others into abandoning their claims. Likewise, with its Belt and Road Initiative, China is providing infrastructure loans to countries throughout Eurasia, often on onerous terms that enhance China’s access and influence, while yielding questionable benefits for the recipients.
Taiwan’s future is also unclear. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the US and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). At that time, the US recognised the PRC government as China’s sole legal government, but pledged to maintain unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan. And in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the US pledged to provide the island with arms, and stated that it would view with great concern any effort to determine Taiwan’s future other than peacefully.
It all made for an arrangement that finessed positions in the absence of a commonly acceptable solution, one that has worked well for four decades, as Taiwan has become a thriving democracy with a booming economy. Differences over Taiwan have not precluded a viable Sino-American relationship, and the lack of an official relationship has not prevented strong US-Taiwan ties.
Now, however, it seems as though Xi may decide to push this issue, as unifying Taiwan with the mainland appears to be integral to achieving his “Chinese Dream”. Meanwhile, some in the US and Taiwan advocate closer ties or even recognising Taiwan as an independent country. At some point, a crisis is likely to materialise when one or more parties cross a line the others cannot accept.
A final question mark over the region stems from US policy. The US has been central to Asia’s success. Its alliance with South Korea has reduced the chance of conflict on the Korean Peninsula; and its alliance with Japan has reduced the chance of a Japanese nuclear programme or a war between China and Japan over disputed islands.
But Trump has publicly questioned the value and fairness of both alliances, suggesting that they are at risk unless South Korea and Japan pay more and adjust their trade policies. And, more broadly, Trump’s foreign policy is at its core unpredictable and disruptive, whereas strong alliances require predictability and confidence.
When all of these snapshots – a nuclear-armed North Korea, an uneasy Japan, a more assertive and repressive China, growing impatience over Taiwan, and mounting uncertainty over US policy – are viewed as a moving picture, it becomes clear that the stability underpinning Asia’s unprecedented development can no longer be assumed. It is difficult to imagine the future being better than the past; it is not at all difficult to imagine it being worse.
Richard N Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “A World in Disarray”. Project Syndicate 2019.