Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Brexit paves way for China-dominated East Asia


SEPTEMBER 13, 2016

While the immediate geopolitical impact of Brexit on East Asia will be insignificant, there could be long-term strategic consequences on the East Asian great game, said Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan. In a speech in London last week, he noted that a European Union without Britain could well turn protectionist, in turn infecting the United States and making room for the rise of a China-dominated East Asia. Below is an excerpt from the speech Mr Kausikan delivered at Policy Exchange, a United Kingdom think tank.

Brexit was such an unprecedented event — and there are so many moving parts — that any conclusion that anyone draws must necessarily be tentative. I have no intention of even pretending to be in the slightest way definitive or comprehensive. My purpose is only to throw out a few broad ideas for debate.

I doubt any country in East Asia thought that Brexit was a good idea. The general attitude was bewilderment that such an obviously bad idea was contemplated and has now come to pass. East Asia is an extremely diverse region, not known to easily agree on many things. But nobody thought that the consequences, in particular the economic consequences, could be anything but bad: Bad for Britain, bad for the European Union as a whole, and bad for the world.

East Asia’s unanimity on Brexit should come as no surprise because the most salient common characteristic of East Asia has been, and remains, the region’s focus on economic development. It was inconceivable that a country should voluntarily roll the dice with such an economically advantageous arrangement at stake. But what the referendum made clear is that emotion trumps economic logic. There is a lesson here beyond the obvious one that politics is not always rational.

There is a flaw in the way that the idea of Europe has come to be conceptualised that allowed the Exit camp to use immigration, real or imagined, to great effect.

The EU and its predecessors may have begun as an economic project or a project that conceived of economic integration as the means to keep the peace. First, in the context of the Cold War and, after the respite of the Cold War division of Germany, as a means of dealing with the “German Question” that had bedevilled Europe since the 19th century and led to two World Wars. In this, the EU and its predecessors have been very successful. But after the Cold War, this extremely important and focused concept almost immediately morphed into a nebulous ambition that giddily soared well beyond Europe.

Europe pursuing ever closer union was to be a new type of great power; a community of values that would serve as exemplar to the world and thus allow it to exercise global influence in a new way, an influence that Europe had neither the means nor the will to exercise in the traditional way.

This was a fantasy. European values — “soft power” — were never as universally attractive as Europe fondly believed, although most countries in East Asia were too polite or too dependent 
on European aid to say so. It is now painfully clear that the values articulated and acted upon by European elites were not particularly attractive to substantial numbers of Europeans themselves.

At the heart of the post-Cold War idea of Europe lies a fundamental contradiction. The EU was to be a community of post-nationalist values — epitomised by the Euro and Schengen — yet one whose essential motivation was very nationalist fears of a superior — united German — nationalism.

The ideal of creating a post-nationalist “European” was as delusional as the Soviet Union’s ideal of creating a “new socialist man”.

The instinct to distinguish oneself from the “other” is a primordial part of human nature; a reality that cannot be wished away. It is a crucial part of how most people define themselves and find meaning in their lives. That was in fact one of the essential purposes of the EU’s predecessors during the Cold War: To distinguish and defend the West from the “other” in the Soviet East. But the grounding of the European project in this fundamental reality dissolved in post-Cold War hubris.

The gap between the goals pursued by political elites and the lived reality of the people they ostensibly represented grew wider. Any political project undertaken in defiance of human nature is bound to eventually fail. We are now witnessing the denouement of the inner contradictions of the post-Cold War European idea.


I am not suggesting that Brexit will inevitably be followed by other exits and the disintegration of the EU. I sincerely hope not. But the rise of extreme right-wing, anti-globalisation, anti-immigration, anti-Muslim and, in some cases, anti-Semitic political movements are fuelled by essentially the same political mood that led to Brexit and will, in all probability, be encouraged by Brexit.

I do not think these movements will take power, at least I hope not. But they are not going to go away. They have to be contained. It is not going to be easy because they feed on instincts that have been brushed aside as antiquated and have now metastasised into something ugly.

The result for some time — how long, no one knows — will be a distracted Europe even less able to play a coherent role in global affairs, let alone the arrogantly and unrealistically ambitious role Europe conceived for itself after the Cold War. If Brexit delivers a salutary shock which results in a redefinition of the idea of Europe— if it results in a more humble, a more realistic and a more sustainable idea of Europe — some good may yet come of it.

But I think redefinition will be an extremely difficult and painfully wrenching process. It requires European elites to admit they were wrong. This is never easy for anyone and perhaps particularly difficult for Europeans, whose assumption of superiority has not worn away, although seldom articulated in these politically correct times. A generous assessment would be that the process of redefinition has barely begun. A more realistic assessment would expect every other expedient to be tried before reality is squarely confronted. In the meantime, an EU without its second-largest economy and a Britain without the EU are both diminished.


So where does this leave the EU and Britain in East Asia? First of all, there has undoubtedly been reputational damage both to the EU as a whole and to Britain. It will take some time — how long, I do not know — for you to recover from this. At present, what stands out from Brexit is the failure of political leaderships on both sides of the English Channel.

What is ultimately at stake is credibility. Like it or not, a country’s or a region’s credibility will be appraised by the quality of its political leadership and their judgment. Credibility or its lack has real consequences. You must expect that what the EU and Britain say and the commitments you make will henceforth — not forever, but for some time and again, how long no one knows — be received with something more than the usual scepticism that infuses all inter-state relations.

Foremost among the consequences are economic consequences. Insofar as Brexit has added to global economic uncertainty, everyone suffers. But the immediate economic impact of Brexit on East Asia will not, I think, be overly great, particularly in trade.

The immediate geopolitical impact of Brexit on East Asia will be insignificant simply because the EU plays no significant geopolitical role in East Asia. The key strategic issue in East Asia are the adjustments that are under way in United States-China relations as they grope for a new modus vivendi between themselves and other countries in our region. In this new “great game”, the EU is irrelevant, at best a voice offstage: Not harmful, perhaps occasionally even somewhat helpful, but by no stretch of the imagination in any decisive way contributing to the action onstage.

I recall that when we were negotiating a Free Trade Agreement with the EU, a group of Ambassadors from the EU called on one of our Ministers to ask for parity with our FTA with the US in some sector, which I forget.

The answer: When you have a 7th Fleet, you can have parity. “Soft power” flows from “hard power” and complements “hard power”; it cannot substitute for it. The pretence of a “Common Foreign and Security Policy” is a further handicap to any coherent EU approach to East Asia. Who really believes in it? Very few, if any, in East Asia and few even in Europe, 
methinks. But there is perhaps another long-term strategic consequence of Brexit that could indirectly and unintentionally influence the East Asian great game.

It was best expressed by Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times. I can do no better than to quote him. “For the US,” he wrote, “the EU represents the second wing of the west and a crucial pillar of the liberal international order. If that pillar begins to wobble and crack, the west as a whole will find it harder to act cohesively … The UK government has consistently been a voice for liberal economics within Europe; without Britain at the table, the EU is much more likely to move towards protectionism.”

The point should not be exaggerated. The liberal international order may show signs of fraying at its edges but is mainly intact. Who can challenge it? Who wants to challenge it? Russia may want to, but does not have the power. China has the power or will soon have the power. But China has been one of the chief beneficiaries of the liberal international order and while it may not love an order it considers, not inaccurately, as heir to that which was responsible for what every Chinese schoolchild knows as “a hundred years of humiliation”, Beijing has no strong incentive to kick over the table.

On a global scale, I do not think that China is a revisionist power. But I have absolutely no doubt that China wants to reclaim something of its historical centrality in East Asia. In our region, China is revanchist, as its actions in the East and South China Seas 
demonstrate. Beijing is not irrational. It does not want war with the US or any of its allies, because war will place its most vital interest — communist party rule — in jeopardy.

America will not entirely disappear from East Asia and China does not want it to disappear, only shift the US from the centre of the East Asian geopolitical equation and occupy that space. I think China understands that, absent the US, the East Asian strategic situation will get more uncertain. Japan and South Korea could well go nuclear if they conclude that San Francisco will not be sacrificed to save Tokyo or Seoul. These are complications that Beijing can do without as it grapples with difficult internal issues. There is a large element of ritual in US-China competition in East Asia. But in East Asia, trade is strategy and even small changes can have major effects.

If the EU without Britain turns protectionist, this may exacerbate the mood of disillusionment with globalisation that is evident in the US, our choices will certainly narrow, China’s economic presence will loom even larger and the “China Dream” of a mainly Sino-centric East Asian order will be one step nearer to realisation.

Is such an East Asia in Britain’s interest? Is it in the EU’s interest? Do those who led the Exit campaign yet fully understand what they may have started? You tell me.

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