“Fire and fury”, President Donald Trump said in response to North Korea’s nuclear tests in August. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen”. Trump may have had on his mind maverick military commander Douglas MacArthur, whose name he has often invoked in speeches. Faced with the prospect of defeat during 1951, MacArthur advocated targeting Chinese bases with “30 and 50 atomic bombs”, and sealing the border along the Yalu river, with “a belt of radioactive cobalt”.
This week’s Association of South East Asian States (ASEAN) summit in Manila comes in a region increasingly covered by a mosaic of crises, each as dangerous as that defining the Cold War conflict. North Korea’s missile programme, China’s aggression on its peripheries, and growing Saudi Arabia-Iran tensions each hold out the risk of a nuclear weapons conflict with the potential to overwhelm the global order.
At ASEAN, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pitched for a “rules-based regional security architecture” for the region — a diplomatic cliché that means India wishes for China to respect the system born from the United States-Soviet Union collision across Asia in the decades after World War II.
For all the roseate rhetoric emerging from public relations officials at ASEAN, though, the prime minister and other leaders are less than clear about who gets to write the rules — and pays the price for enforcing them.
“Nothing forces us to know what we do not want to know — except pain”, the classical playwright Aeschylus wrote. India, inexorably, will encounter the torments of Trump’s Asia. The palliatives Trump offers to avoid it are the stock-in-trade of the quack.
Trump declared that his 12-day journey across Asia — the most expansive by any president in a quarter century — was meant to signal his support for the “pillars of the United States presence and explain what they mean in terms of policy”. Instead, he mainly used opportunities to hector his audiences, arguing that past arrangements had benefited Asia’s emerging economies disproportionately. “From now on”, he said in Vietnam, the United States would “expect that our partners will faithfully follow the rules just like we do”.
Even though Trump said he would ask the World Bank and Asian Development Bank to focus on infrastructure investment, he outlined no programme to give regional states the opportunity to break free of Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. Trump said he would seek fair bilateral trade agreements, not large deals which “tie our hands, surrender our sovereignty”.
“American leadership”, a stock phrase meant to signal the United States support for regional allies, was conspicuously missing from Trump’s speeches. He shocked Vietnam’s leaders by offering to mediate their conflict with China — suggesting a less-than-muscular commitment to the United Nations law of the seas.
In Trump’s vision, the region’s three major democracies — Australia, India, Japan — backed by United States military power, will push back against China. This Asian quadrilateral, though, is less binding than it might appear. For Japan, North Korean nuclear weapons are an existential issue; not so for India. India, dependent on West Asia’s oil, seeks equidistance from Iran and Saudi Arabia; not so the United States. Australia might wish to push back against Beijing in the Pacific; India might end up paying the price along the Himalayas should China retaliate.
No one, critically, can be certain if the United States would actually unleash “fire and fury” in the event of conflict with China: It backed away from direct conflict with the emerging superpower during its wars in Korea and Vietnam for precisely this reason, unwilling to sacrifice its troops to protect allies of limited worth.
The alphabet soup of regional organisations — the Beijing-led Belt and Road Forum, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, Asia-Europe Meeting, and ASEAN itself — have floundered because of the lack of binding common interests. Each of the United States’ efforts to build North Atlantic Treaty Organisation-like alliances in Asia — the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation and Central Treaty Organisation — were eventually dissolved.
It is useful to turn back to the years before World War II to understand that Trump’s position has deep roots. The moral halo acquired after the US crushed Nazi Germany in 1945 has obscured the fact that much of the country did not approve of the war. Anglophobic communities — among them, Irish republicans and ethnic Germans — believed their children’s lives had been sacrificed to salvage the United Kingdom’s empire.
Figures like Henry Luce, Time magazine’s publisher, had grown up in China, where their parents served as missionaries. For them, to accept the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek’s armies by Mao Zedong’s communists was to betray a higher moral cause. MacArthur, Trump’s hero, had long pushed for going to war on behalf of Chiang’s dysfunctional and corrupt military, arguing Europe would be best protected by fighting communism in Asia.
Leaders opposed to the United States’ international commitments used the threat from communist China as a kind of moral weapon with which to beat the Atlanticists — but the real debate was over the cost the country should pay for global power.
From the late 1960s, to the mid-1970s, Democratic senator Mike Mansfield pushed for drastic cuts in United States forces in Europe, arguing nuclear weapons made the large overseas troop presence unnecessary. Though a Democrat, Mansfield backed President Richard Nixon’s so-called Guam Doctrine: That the United States ought not “undertake all the defence of the free nations of the world”.
Trump’s disdain for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, his complaints about the spending of “tremendous amount of money in defending Saudi Arabia”, his hints that the United States might abandon its base in Qatar — these stem from the same impulses. Though he remains committed to the so-called war on terrorism, a relatively low-cost, high-publicity enterprise, he is instinctively averse to large, long-term military commitments.
Like his ideological forbear, Charles Lindbergh — the man who first used the president’s favourite phrase, “America First”, and bitter opponent of United States’ involvement in World War II — Trump believes the United States is ultimately secure behind its nuclear weapons, and the great oceans that guard its borders.
Fearful of the savage minefields emerging around it, India hopes the United States will — push come to shove — stand with it in Asia. Hope, however, is not a policy. India must build the tools, economic and military, needed to protect its own interests — and use them in the knowledge that it alone will suffer the consequences.