April 10, 2023
SEOUL – Chinese diplomacy is being highlighted in the international theater. As Chinese President Xi Jinping entered the mediation of the Russo-Ukrainian war, there has been increasing attention, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also showing a positive response. President Xi’s moves have drawn even more regard since he was recently successful in assisting with a peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran. An interstate cease-fire or peace mediation is usually led by a hegemonic state like the US, which is why China’s movements are so unique.
In contrast to China getting the spotlight, US diplomacy is declining. Considering that the US failed to prevent the outbreak of the war and is unable to stop it quickly, the US’ reputation as a hegemon has been seriously damaged. One of the reasons why US diplomacy looks powerless is the inherent vulnerability in the Indo-Pacific strategy, the highest guideline for US foreign policy. The biggest problem is that, in a multipolar world, the strategy has a regional focus. As a hegemon, the US needs a strategy of the only superpower in a unipolar system that can be applied to the world.
In 1991, the United States became the only superpower in the world at the end of the Cold War. A new international order led by the US began to take shape. Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton struggled with managing the new world order. However, the George W. Bush administration developed diplomatic policies not as the world’s only superpower but as one of several great powers, partly due to shocks like the 9/11 attacks. They reverted to the paradigm of the Cold War era. Bush’s administration tried to identify new enemies to replace the Soviet Union. Ultimately, they designated the terrorist activities from non-state actors and rogue states like North Korea, Iran and Iraq as major threats. In 2009, President Barack Obama took office and tried to emphasize international cooperation. But he failed to upgrade the US diplomacy mainly due to the financial crisis in 2008.
The Trump administration, launched in 2017, showed a narrow-minded attitude that stressed “making America great again.” Under Trump’s leadership, the US acted like a muscle man and abandoned its role in managing the world order. The Biden administration’s efforts to restore the US’ status were expected when it took office in 2021. Surprisingly, the Biden team has followed the Trump strategy.
The Indo-Pacific strategy was devised to deter China, a potential challenger, focusing on pressure and sanctions to change China’s attitude rather than dialogue and negotiation for coexistence. An economic embargo is an essential tool in international relations. However, economic sanctions have limits, as isolating a country is almost impossible. It is necessary to allow some economic exchanges in the name of humanitarianism. Nevertheless, the US chose to rely on the sanctions. Accordingly, US diplomacy has fallen into the trap of sanctions maximalism.
Economic sanctions on North Korea are one such case. The UN Security Council imposed high-intensity economic sanctions against North Korea in 2016 related to its nuclear weapons program. However, there has been no evidence that the sanctions have deterred North Korea’s nuclear program. In 2018, the Trump administration imposed special tariffs on Chinese goods, claiming to deter China. Still, President Xi has utilized it for political gain, such as extending his political power. After Russia attacked Ukraine in 2022, economic sanctions were imposed, but President Putin remains strong. On the contrary, disruptions in the grain and energy markets have caused global inflation and suffering.
Another reason why the Indo-Pacific strategy is considered vulnerable is that domestic politics have arrested US foreign policy. Former President Trump argued that the elites in Washington imported cheap goods from China and invited illegal immigrants from Latin America to maintain their privileges, which resulted in the impoverishment of the US middle class. Though this argument is populism, many US voters supported the idea. Furthermore, Trump portrayed himself as a strong leader unafraid to confront China. In this respect, the Biden administration is not much different from the Trump administration. Biden’s team has also put the US interests ahead of the position of allied countries. Some provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act and the semiconductor act can only be interpreted in the context of protectionism. Since the end of the Cold War and the integration of the world into one market, the country that has maximized its economic benefits based on a free trade order is the United States. It is difficult to prospect that the US is restoring international standing and solidarity with allies while adopting protectionism.
Thus, the Indo-Pacific strategy needs to be revised. The direction is the opposite of the problems pointed out earlier. A plan for global hegemonic power, not great regional powers, should be adopted. Economic sanctions should be used limitedly and paralleled with dialogue and negotiation. The US needs to restore the sense of balance between domestic politics and foreign policy instead of becoming hostages to domestic politics.
If the Indo-Pacific strategy is not revised, the presence of China and provocations of Russia will only increase. Major middle powers in Asia, Africa and the Americas will move more toward China and Russia. Some advanced countries in Europe and Asia will express more dissatisfaction with US leadership. The US still has an opportunity to choose the wise option and solidly guarantee the foundation of global peace and prosperity. I hope the US will do it because the US-led order is arguably the most civilized and beneficial to everybody on earth.
Wang Son-taek is a director for the Global Policy Center at Hanpyeong Peace Institute. He was a former diplomatic correspondent at YTN and former research associate at Yeosijae. The views expressed here are his own. — Ed.