This collection interrogates the representation of humanitarian crisis and catastrophe, and the refraction of humanitarian intervention and action, from the mid-twentieth century to the present, across a diverse range of media forms: traditional and contemporary screen media (film, television and online video) as well as newspapers, memoirs, music festivals and social media platforms (such as Facebook, YouTube and Flickr). The book thus explores the historical, cultural and political contexts that have shaped the mediation of humanitarian relationships since the middle of the twentieth century. Together, the chapters illustrate the continuities and connections, as well as the differences, which have characterised the mediatisation of both states of emergency and acts of amelioration. The authors reveal and explore the significant synergies between the humanitarian enterprise, the endeavour to alleviate the suffering of particular groups, and media representations, and their modes of addressing and appealing to specific publics. The chapters consider the ways in which media texts, technologies and practices reflect and shape the shifting moral, political, ethical, rhetorical, ideological and material dimensions of international humanitarian emergency and intervention, and have become integral to the changing relationships between organisations, institutions, governments, individual actors and entire sectors.
The world changes quickly, and a challenge for this volume was always to avoid being left behind by unfolding events. It is perhaps clichéd to argue that the world is in flux, but it is difficult to deny that today’s political-economic-security landscapes are rapidly evolving, and arguably nowhere more so than across the twenty-first-century Indo-Pacific. All of the “big questions”, then, remain difficult to answer. Is the “rise” of the Asia, or broader Indo-, Pacific, sustainable? Are we witnessing, or have we already witnessed, the birth of an Asian Century? Are China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam and others central pillars of a new “world order”? Are they prepared to lead as rule makers? If so, what exactly would this mean?
The principal focus of this volume has been the legacies former US President Barack Obama and his administration leave in Asia and the Pacific after two terms in office between 2009 and 2017. His successor, President Donald Trump, was from the outset unusually vocal in his stated dissatisfaction with the intentions and achievements of his predecessor and the Washington “Establishment” he is said to have represented. From the outset, this left Obama’s presidential legacy unusually vulnerable; very likely more so than if Hillary Clinton, as a primary architect of the “Rebalance” or “Pivot” strategy, had been elected as president in late 2016.
Contributors to the volume, focusing on US engagement with Indo-Pacific states and institutions and on key policy realms, wrote up until early 2019, to around the halfway point of Donald Trump’s 2017–21 term in office. The purpose of this final chapter is to form some concluding thoughts on what we see as the “big picture” issues and developments in the Indo-Pacific today, with close attention to what they mean for the United States as the region’s traditionally dominant actor. Moreover, it is to revisit the central, interconnected questions of the volume outlined in the Introduction: of the legacy former President Barack Obama leaves behind in the Asia and Indo-Pacifics, and of the nature of the transition taking place in regional US engagement from Obama to Trump.
We begin with the relationship between the United States and China which, while explored by a number of our authors in varying contexts, can be afforded further attention here because of the unparalleled degree to which its nature and contours are set to steer the course of wider regional (and global) affairs. We broadly frame this discussion around a question increasingly posed by observers and commentators of US–China dynamics: of whether or not the relationship they share, which so heavily weighs upon the constituent actors of the Asia and Indo-Pacifics, is planting the seeds of a new Cold War. We then discuss the development and apparent future trajectory of the wider multilateral frameworks of Asia and the Pacific, and the United States’ present and future place within them. We conclude by drawing together some of the key arguments and conclusions of the individual chapters of this volume, to speak directly to the themes of “legacy” and “transition”, about which this volume is so centrally concerned.
The United States and China: A new Cold War?
When the Obama administration formulated its Pivot to Asia, the increasing economic and military capabilities of China were a primary driving factor,1 though combined with its identity as an Other which is understood to fundamentally contradict core American values.2 As Peter Gries explains in Chapter 2 of this volume, in many important respects the relationship the United States shares with China – its most significant and consequential both regionally and globally – deteriorated during Obama’s time in office. Indeed, one short- to medium-term legacy Obama seems to have left is a noticeable decline in favourable views of China among the American public. Favourable views of China increased during the first few years of the Obama presidency, but reduced in frequency from around 2011, after the formal announcement of the Pivot.3 (It should be noted, however, that the American public is yet to become as concerned about a “China threat” as are their nation’s political and military elites.4)
Rana Foroohar argues that the so-called US–China tariff war, which began in early 2018, may represent more than mere posturing by an unpredictable president, and the possible beginnings of a new Cold War. This is not a policy emanating from the President alone, but ‘something much more dangerous and lasting: a true reset of economic and political relations between the US and China, and the beginning of something that looks more like a cold war than a trade war’. The “reset” is supported by wider sections of the political establishment, including the Democrats, the Pentagon, and what Foroohar refers to as the ‘labour faction of the progressive left’ which ‘coalesce around the idea that the US and China are in a long-term strategic rivalry, and that … US trade policy and national security policy should no longer be separated’.5 While this idea has broad support within the political, military and American elite think tank establishment, under Trump we have nevertheless seen a significant intensification of strategic competition aimed at subordinating China via comprehensive pressure, some of which has the support of American allies and partners in Asia.6
It is important to be cautious with predictions of a new Cold War. The Cold War period of the 1950s to 1980s was defined by open ideological conflict between the United States and Soviet Union; diplomatic dislocation, hostility and silences; the isolation of peoples and societies; and the forging of spheres of influence physically divided from one another. China’s economic model remains heavily state-driven, but has a strong and growing private sector. It is a “socialist market economy” with large numbers of state-owned corporations, but ones still driven by market incentives and profit-maximisation goals which have created China’s new “billionaire class”, now the world’s second largest. Today’s US–China relationship is so fundamentally interdependent as to be referred to as “Chimerica”.7
As Gries explains in Chapter 2 of this volume, it is the ‘narcissism’ of Donald Trump, over structural international forces, which largely explains the downturn in Washington’s ties with Beijing which has characterised the relationship’s transition from Obama since 2017. Obama before him may have failed to “reset” the relationship onto a more productive, long-term footing, Gries argues, but he still handed Trump a robust network of regional alliances grounded in a collective sense that China’s regional ambitions were becoming destabilising. Trump’s “America First” foreign policy strategy, then, has weakened many of these alliances, but one does not need to look very far into wider administration and congressional reports to see how systematically China is seen as a threat to American power and hegemony.
A 2019 report by US Senator Marco Rubio’s Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, for example, entitled ‘Made in China 2025 and the Future of American Industry’, indicates that the threat from China is not primarily one of trade deficits. Rather, it is from the very model of China’s statist strategy which, it is claimed, provides unfair subsidies to Chinese businesses which enable them to outcompete high end US companies. China is no longer content to be the manufacturer of low end industrial products, the report concludes. Chinese corporations with close ties to the ruling Communist Party are said to be outmuscling Apple, Microsoft and others in 5G and other modern technologies, to make China ‘the global leader in innovation and manufacturing’.8
The Eurasia Group argued that in 2019 the Sino-US rivalry is the second biggest geopolitical risk in world affairs. Dangers highlighted by the Group include the perpetuation of trade disputes and clashes over territorial claims in the South China Sea, as well as the increasingly critical realm of cyber security.9 Indeed, the Trump administration’s National Cyber Strategy, published in 2018, labels China, alongside Russia, Iran and North Korea, an aggressor through cyber espionage and other forms of technological interference. Among other things, these states are accused of conducting cyber-attacks against the United States, targeting its economy, its democracy, and stealing intellectual property. The Cyber Strategy is a preparation for punishing adversaries who, it is claimed, ‘will conduct cyber attacks against the United States during a crisis short of war’.10 In a section entitled ‘Preserve Peace through Strength’, it also states the objective to ‘identify, counter, disrupt, degrade, and deter behaviour in cyberspace … while preserving United States overmatch …’11
Finally, a September 2018 Interagency Task Force report to the President claimed that the United States is unready in broad terms to ‘fight tonight’ and should therefore ‘retool for great power competition’. To ‘win the future fight’, it argues, the United States must prepare to ‘combat Chinese industrial policies targeting American intellectual property’; establish a more skilled technical workforce; diversify its sources of supply away from competitor and politically unstable states; stockpile key resources; and create ‘an industrial policy in support of national security efforts’. Ultimately, the United States must possess greater ‘surge capabilities’ to ensure imminent war readiness.12 This type of rhetoric complements the words of FBI Director Christopher Wray who, in February 2018, argued in terms highly reminiscent of the Cold War era that Chinese spies now represent ‘a whole of society threat’ to the United States.13
Today’s US–China relationship, so interdependent as to be referred to as “Chimerica”,14 seemingly already precludes a repeat of Cold War history. As such, Sino-US tensions are often not over fundamental ideology but the reach of the Chinese state into its economic strategy and capabilities, which the United States claims places it at a disadvantage. In addition, of course, the United States itself plays a key role in China’s development, beginning with the Washington–Beijing economic and political rapprochement of the 1970s and 1980s, to its support for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001, to its importation of more than US$500 billion worth of Chinese goods each year. The concept of “Sino-capitalism”, as a symbiosis of state-led, bottom-up and globally networked entrepreneurship, points to the hybrid character of Chinese power and its competition as well as complementarities with Anglo-American capitalism. Indeed, the gap between the world’s traditionally dominant (“liberal”) economic models and Sino-capitalism has diminished since the 2008 financial crisis, not least from the rise of economic nationalism in the United States and Europe further increasing Western intervention in the economy.15
As Michael Mastanduno observes in Chapter 11 of this volume, across its first two years in office the Trump administration largely abandoned both the rhetoric and policies of American hegemony, the type of which was so firmly entrenched during the Cold War era. Instead it favoured an “America First” nationalism and a determination to counter perceived threats. Others including Dian (Chapter 4) and Kelton and Rogers (Chapter 6) point to Trump’s willingness from the beginning to undermine key regional relationships which Obama – like his predecessors before him – worked to draw closer into the US security umbrella.
What we perhaps increasingly see, then, are signals that the United States and China, particularly through the nationalisms of Trump as well as President Xi Jinping, are willing to draw on their respective nation’s strengths to repel what they see as threatening or subversive influences from “the other side”, but in the name of individual security rather than a global ideological project. Thus while observations of a new Cold War between the United States and China can be premature and even historically myopic, intensifying rhetoric of competition and rivalry – audible under Obama but more forceful under Trump – along with a deeper narrative throughout the policy machinery of Washington, DC of a China which poses an “all of society” threat, points to a fundamental trend of American anxiety and suspicion. This trend is in many respects a hangover of the Cold War against communism and indeed reflective of the underlying US discourse of the “China threat” which has evolved for generations.16 As such, the froth at the surface of the water can be soothed, but powerful undercurrents are less easily controlled.
US Indo-Pacific authority and contested multilateralisms
The tone of the reports of the Eurasia Group, the Interagency Task Force, and the Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, among others, lent further texture and detail to the principal concerns of the Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) and the Pentagon’s 2018 National Defence Strategy (NDS), both of which construct the image of a more dangerous, zero-sum and ultimately more Hobbesian world than that perceived by the Obama administration. The NSS and the NDS clearly articulate Trump’s highly nationalistic “America First” foreign policy programme.17 Not only do they explicitly portray China and Russia as “revisionist”, but they treat close allies like the EU, Canada, Japan and South Korea as threats to US (economic) authority, to legitimise punitive measures against them.18
Nevertheless, there have also been concerted efforts by the Trump administration to realign relations with regional powers through renewed bilateral agreements and multilateral and minilateral organisations and institutions. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, for example, aka the Quad, formalises the four-way links between the United States, Australia, India and Japan with closer security relations. The Quad was formally established in 2007, with Japan the driving force, as an intended “Asian Arc of Democracy” with perceived challenges of China’s non-democratic system firmly in mind.19 The Quad quickly stalled when Australia withdrew the following year, principally over concerns that it would antagonise China, but Canberra re-joined in 2017.
The role of the Quad, to a large extent, is interpreted to be in restricting China’s regional and global ambitions.20 Indeed, it is China’s vast Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), officially intended to enhance Asia’s physical connectivity and promote both intra-regional and inter-regional economic growth, which is increasingly viewed in Washington and elsewhere in geopolitical and security terms, as a potentially enormous expansion of China’s influence across the Eurasian landmass. It is expected that China’s ability to transport goods, people, and other resources overland to the Middle East, Africa and Europe, avoiding the regional sea power of the US Navy and its allies, will correspondingly increase.
The BRI, although promoted as peaceful economic development by Beijing, is open to military adaptation. For example, a cooling of US–Pakistan relations after President Trump openly criticised Islamabad in early 2018 for persistently “lying” to Washington about the locations of terrorists in Afghanistan, before withdrawing millions of dollars of military aid, created space for enhanced military cooperation including weapons development between Islamabad and Beijing.21 The China–Pakistan Economic Corridor represents a multi-billion dollar flagship project of the BRI, but in late 2018 a senior Chinese official stated that military ties were the ‘backbone’ of the bilateral relationship.22 The reach of China’s BRI into the Middle East brings expectations that its security interests there may also correspondingly increase.23 Ultimately, both the (land) Belt and (maritime) Road networks are designed to grant China more ownership of the markets and transport routes of Eurasia, which have long been dominated both physically and ideationally by the United States and its allies.
Italy’s commitment to join the BRI in early 2019, which represented a notable diversion both from US policy prescriptions as well as the European Union’s declaration just weeks before that China constitutes a ‘systemic rival’,24 was significant. That move by the Eurozone’s third largest economy, no matter how embedded within the BRI Italy eventually becomes, was an indicator of further erosion of what many call the prevailing US or Western-led world order. Indeed, since 2012 China’s 16+1 Initiative has enticed Eastern European nations into deals their governments find difficult to turn down, exacerbating existing political-economic cracks within the EU by laying bare the willingness of its relatively poorer nations (where democratic systems are less well established) to welcome the overtures of an authoritarian outsider, despite stated concerns from their richer neighbours and Brussels.25 In the past, Washington would have had comparably more resources to draw these countries back into its sphere of orbit. Today, China’s vast wealth reserves – along with the post-2007/8 economic struggles of the European Union – mean that, for now at least, Beijing’s economic influence in Europe (and elsewhere) continues to expand despite emerging resistance.26
A 2019 trilateral report by US, Russian and Chinese think tank and university scholars of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, the Carnegie Moscow Center, and the Center for Russia and Central Asia Studies at Fudan University respectively outlines some of the key opportunities and challenges presented by China’s BRI programme.27 Given the links of these institutions to national policy makers, such interactions constitute semi-official diplomacy that has long been used to manage great power relations, including hegemonic transition.28 Certain US corporations are involved in BRI projects,29 but embedded within the debate between American sceptics on the one hand and China’s promoters of the Initiative on the other is disappointment nonetheless over the relative lack of success by Western firms in securing BRI contracts. This, it is argued, fuels suspicion that the BRI fundamentally constitutes a ‘Trojan horse’ for Chinese global power, or an attempted ‘return to nineteenth century style imperialism’.30 A particular concern is that the Made in China initiative operates as a Made for China initiative, with Western firms excluded by a lack of transparency and opaque governance processes. The report presents a scenario neither of liberal hegemonic accommodation/“assimilation” of China, nor near-inevitable military conflict, as liberal internationalists and realists, respectively, typically contend. Rather, it points to two interdependent powers jostling for position and primacy while cooperating on numerous fronts.
It is worth noting at this point that, beyond IR realism and liberal internationalism, and Sino-capitalism, a Kautksyian approach based on the concept of “ultra-imperialism” may provide a more powerful explanation of recent and indeed future trajectories of Sino-American relations. For Kautsky, ruling classes form international class-based alliances to exploit and dominate the world’s resources and peoples, including their own citizens.31 Acknowledging the emergence of a transnational historic bloc encompassing US and Chinese ruling classes, political elites, civil societies, and firms (or at least major elements of them), can aid explanations of China’s integration into a traditionally US-led global system and of why laws of uneven capitalist development and geopolitical interests combine to create turbulence and competition,32 including possible military confrontation. As Michael Swaine argues, however, managing the Sino-US relationship requires delicate diplomacy at all levels from their presidents down, not to mention track II (semi-official/unofficial) diplomacy.33 This kind of work, funded by corporate foundations interlocked with US and Chinese power elites, has been undertaken by think tank networks over several decades.34
Under Obama, and before the announcement of the BRI in 2013, Washington had pinned its own hopes of regional economic authority on the vast Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Comprising twelve economies of the Asia Pacific which collectively accounted for around 40 per cent of global trade, the TPP was envisioned to help reignite US and international economic growth after the financial crash of 2007/8. So too was it designed to ensure that the United States remained a principal architect of the blueprints for international trade and serve to pressure China’s statist economic model. Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the TPP in January 2017 is covered by authors in this volume, including Michael Mastanduno (Chapter 11). As Sutter (Chapter 9) explains, the Trump administration’s formal exit from the TPP, as well its broad rejection of the central tenets of Obama’s Rebalance to Asia which was rhetorically framed around regional cooperation and multilateralism, generated anxiety and dismay among some of Washington’s closest partners and allies over US commitment to the region.
As Parameswaran argues in Chapter 7, however, Obama’s legacy in Southeast Asia in particular – a key hub of wider Asia (and Indo-) Pacific multilateralism – is mixed; his administration achieved successes including further committing Washington to Asia’s multilateral diplomatic frameworks such as the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Despite this, however, key issues such as how to formulate effective, joined-up responses to China’s territorial advances in the South China Sea, or engage the region in a manner which accommodated the diversity of its economies, were left relatively unaddressed for his successor. Since then President Trump has for the most part favoured a more crudely utilitarian approach to foreign policy in the form of bilateral transactionalism.
The Trump administration’s aim, moreover, is to build utilitarian measures into trade deals which reveal more than purely bilateral concerns. Under a clause of the US–Mexico–Canada Free Trade Agreement (USMCA) which replaced NAFTA in late 2018, for example, Washington can withdraw with six months’ notice in protest at another signatory’s efforts to strike a free trade deal with “non-market economies”, such as China. This confirms the tandem operations under Trump of international trade and national security. The tools and methods may differ, then, but the aims of both the TPP under Obama and of US trade agreements under Trump are designed in part to isolate China and bring pressure upon it to reform its economic model by restricting trade with American allies.
The future operations of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which brought together the eleven remaining signatories to the TPP, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership of ASEAN plus six states (including China), will be monitored closely by Washington in the years to come. At the centre of the CPTPP is Japan and at the centre of RCEP is ASEAN, with China the largest trade partner of each; suddenly, it is the United States which risks being frozen out of the rule-making machinery of some of the world’s largest, long-term economic projects, by both allies and “rivals” alike. Importantly, the overlapping memberships of both agreements also bring the potential for cross-breeding in rules and norms. For as long as it endures, Washington’s self-imposed absence from the CPTPP therefore leaves it even more distanced from the workings and future direction of RCEP, and by extension the wider landscape of modern international trade.
The US in the Indo-Pacific: Legacy and transition
As noted in the introductory chapter to this volume, alongside the core theme of “legacy”, the importance of “transition” has been a central concern of the book. The transition from the presidency of Barack Obama to that of Donald Trump did not begin and end during the formal handover of power on 20 January 2017. In most important respects, it was a process which unravelled gradually over the weeks and months of Trump’s first two years in office to early 2019 – at which point the scope of this book ends – and indeed beyond.
Contributors to this volume argue that, through the Pivot, or Rebalance, to Asia, President Obama helped reassure regional allies like Japan (Dian, Chapter 4) that the United States was “returning”, and remained committed, to the Asia Pacific after its lengthy and expensive war on terror in the Middle East and Afghanistan under the Bush administration (Bisley, Chapter 10). Obama’s rhetorical concern with multilateral regional structures was welcomed and helped to reinforce Washington’s bonds with Southeast Asian actors in particular, including their peoples and societies (Parameswaran, Chapter 7). The Obama administration’s engagements with regional institutions was comparatively exceptional in the level of attention he afforded them, though not sufficiently transformational to ensure this high-water mark would continue to be met (Cook, Chapter 8). Indeed, in the context of the most serious challenges such as that posed by North Korea, Obama successfully diffused bilateral tensions before proving powerless to prevent Pyongyang from accelerating the advancement of its missile and nuclear capabilities (Cumings, Chapter 5).
Several authors (for example, Colley and Ganguly, Chapter 3; Mastanduno, Chapter 11; and Kelton and Rogers, Chapter 6) point to “constraints” and “restrictions” on Obama, notably within domestic American politics, which served to make the achievement of a clear legacy in the Asia (and wider Indo-) Pacific difficult. Others explain that Obama’s regional legacy in particular relationships and arenas of the Asia Pacific is subtle and not always materially visible, for example in closer people-to-people relations (Parameswaran, Chapter 7); or that it is “complex” by generating moments of both of solidarity and frictions with close partners (Dian, Chapter 4); or even that it is “paradoxical” (Bisley, Chapter 10). In the end, then, we must speak of “legacies”, as the influences and impacts Obama had on Asia and Pacific between 2008 and 2017 are various and uneven.
So too is the transition from Obama’s presidency to that of Trump proving complicated and unpredictable. Obama’s somewhat “paradoxical” legacy in Asia and the Pacific emerged from a strong, strategic emphasis on the region but one combined with a vision for reduced capacity and leadership, causing Washington to act as if nothing there was changing. This long-standing inertia by the United States continued into the presidency of Donald Trump (Bisley, Chapter 10). This transition has no doubt been marked by a clear hardening of rhetoric towards perceived threats and allies alike, causing long-standing US partners to once again question Washington’s commitment and leadership qualities in the region (Sutter, Chapter 9). In the case of China, a far more confrontational approach leaves the United States under Trump in ‘painful search for a credible China policy’, but much in the same way as it was under Obama (Ljunggren, Chapter 12). Across its first two years in office the Trump administration also made few policy decisions to demonstrate that it was intent on withdrawing firmly embedded American resources from Asia and the Pacific (Mastanduno, Chapter 11; Kelton and Rogers, Chapter 6). In many important respects, then, historically familiar, long-term patterns of US engagement in the Asia, and now Indo-, Pacifics endure.
To return full circle to Chapter 1 of this volume by Turner, the United States today is in many respects haunted by continuous expansions into Asia and the Pacific which, for more than 150 years, have passed down the responsibility to sustain US authority throughout an ever-inflating imaginative geography which is now reconstructed as a vast and unwieldy Indo-Pacific. Trump’s legacy in that region is yet to be written. What we know now, however, is that the myriad actors of the Indo-Pacific – individual, state, non-state, institutional, and so on – are becoming increasingly influential authors of a region which appears set to dominate twenty-first-century global affairs. As Turner observes, a key question today is how the current and future US administrations will respond to this rapidly evolving and highly unfamiliar set of global circumstances.