By Jemma Tan
North Korea’s nuclear development program has emerged as a pressing issue at the forefront of global security. For the United States, hopes of anti-proliferation in the Korean peninsula are pinned on China. As North Korea’s largest trading partner and geopolitical ally, China has the economic clout to obstruct Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.
In exchange for helping with such efforts, China holds a bargaining chip—the South China Sea. As the United States accedes to China’s requests, the Pacific balance of power is threatened. Recent developments have made it evident that America is no longer up to task to level with the Chinese—a reality that burdens already thin efforts to maintain the liberal world order.
International efforts to curtail the DPRK’s pursuit of nuclear power is not recent news. The United Nations Security Council has imposed sanctions on North Korea ever since its first nuclear device test in 2006 to no avail. Pyongyang’s most recent test— conducted in September 2016—is believed to have an explosive yield between 10 to 30 kilotonnes. American military experts claim that, at its current capabilities, North Korea only has a small chance of successfully deploying a missile to the West. However, this probability will only increase if the nuclear program continues to progress.
UN concerns have spurred China to take piecemeal action. In February, China imposed a cut-off on North Korean coal imports. Despite this restriction though, trade between China and the DPRK has continued to grow in other sectors. Little has changed under the surface; China can reap the profits of following UN protocol while still maintaining trade relations with North Korea.
American intervention, however, has recently begun to upset the balance of power in the East Asian theater. Backing down from his initial threats of increased protectionism, President Donald Trump is prepared to keep markets with China open for the sake of North Korean disarmament. China, understanding the necessity of bilateral trade, has upped its ante against North Korea.
As the Trump administration concentrates its efforts on the DPRK, it has eased off from acting on issues brewing elsewhere. The Pyongyang problem presents China with the perfect opportunity to assert its territorial dominance over the South China Sea. Indeed, the U.S. seems to be acquiescing to these demands. Three requests for Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea made by the U.S Navy were deferred by the administration.
Still, the foreign policy articulated by Trump’s predecessors has long maintained that the disputed waters are for international use. The United States has not always taken a hardline on China. All American presidents since Richard Nixon have avoided seriously challenging China’s human rights record and authoritarian government in the interests of trade. Trump’s foreign policy is only reflective of an earlier tradition of realist statesmanship. If the Trump administration continues to soften their stance on the region, it may be making the single largest concession that the U.S. has made to China.
It is a compromise that comes with high stakes. For other Asian countries, Trump’s China policy is a cause for concern. This holds especially true for the Philippines and Japan who have territorial disputes with China in the region. These two countries—both democracies—have enjoyed an enduringly supportive alliance with the United States, but the question remains whether such a relationship can be sustained.
The dreams of Wilsonian idealism have died long ago, but their successor, the liberal world order, has lingered in the lofty aspirations of the democratic West. The U.S. State Department’s recent policy toward East Asia has effectively stripped the varnish off such rhetoric. If it is not already evident that realpolitik holds the metaphorical and literal trump card in American foreign policy, there is now no debate.
If this pattern holds, foreign policy will grow increasingly inwards. America will forge its alliances based on the concerns of national security and economic profit, regardless of shared ideals. A move in this direction will no doubt threaten many of America’s pre-existing diplomatic relationships. The rest of the world should not be surprised if the Trump administration swerves from long-standing policy positions. If anything, it must prepare for impact.
The first few months of the Trump administration have made it clear that the United States is no longer capable of acting as the caretaker of global democracy. Whether that void will be filled by the United Nations or another democratic nation, or whether it will eat away at the remnants of idealism, remains to be seen. Either way, the maintenance staff on the liberal world order will have lost its chief custodian.
Jemma Tan is an undergraduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles, studying Political Science. She tweets @jemmajtan.