container ship
The US flag flies over a ship unloading its cargo from Asia, at the Port of Long Beach, California. Image Credit: AFP

The US habitually quits international organisations. Sometimes, change of administration causes backtracking from commitments. In some cases, the US considers itself too big and powerful to subject itself to international obligations.

Other times the Congress refuses to ratify the treaty signed by the executive. Unesco, UN Human Rights Commission, ICC, the TPP, JCPOA, reneging on Kyoto Protocol and Paris climate accords are a few cases in point. This is how America demonstrates its ‘exceptionalism.’ Trump defined this behaviour as ‘America First.’

With the Obama era ‘Pivot to Asia’ the US aimed to dominate both the geopolitics and geoeconomics of the Asia-Pacific region.

Profound changes in the world during the last few decades following China’s unprecedented rise has upended American calculations of remaining ‘the sole super power,’ indefinitely. Francis Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ moment did not arrive, as some believed. The US isn’t nearly as dominant a power as it was 70 years ago.

With a third of global output coming out of China, it has leapfrogged the developed world as the only manufacturing super power — with 35 per cent of global output. This exceeds the combined manufacture of the next nine countries according to a study by Prof. Richard Baldwin at the IMD Business School in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Read more by Sajjad Ashraf

Much of the individual countries, even those friendly with the US, find it beneficial to trade with China reciprocally, making China the biggest trading partner of 120 countries in the world. This includes staunch US partners like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, ASEAN and more. At the end of 2023, China held $3.238 trillion in reserves. The US is under 34.553 trillion national debt.

Driver of economic growth

Following the American withdrawal from the Asia-Pacific trade pacts — CPTPP and RECP — President Biden announced an America led economic arrangement — Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). Its members are: Australia, Brunei, Indonesia, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Not included for now is China and three ASEAN states Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.

With this exclusive arrangement the US hopes to counter China’s influence in the region that constitutes 60 per cent of the global population and is the main driver of economic growth in the world.

The US is now left to claim the status of the only military super power, spending more than the next ten countries combined. Washington feels threatened by China’s “capacity to reshape the international order in favour of one that tilts the global playing field to its [China’s] benefit” according to the US National Security Strategy 2022.

Hence, the renewed activation of Quad, launching AUKUS, increasing presence in the Philippines and beyond. And now promoting another coalition with Japan and the Philippines.

Biden’s China strategy, he declared a few years back, was “pressure, isolate and punish.” This policy reflects in America expanding its military footprints, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, hoping to contain Beijing.

China’s peaceful rise in contrast to America’s entanglement with its consequent costs in every region of the world could be unsustainable in the end.

At a time when America should be leading in forging a future in the context of rapidly changing global environment, it is yearning for the past. Its protectionist policies negate experiences, which resulted in creation of extraordinary wealth across the world — led initially by the US and now by a reviving China. Under the circumstances Washington should actually ‘walk the talk’ of globalisation.

The world will benefit from a China — US working relationship.

Sajjad Ashraf served as an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore from 2009 to 2017. He was a member of Pakistan Foreign Service from 1973 to 2008 and served as ambassador to several countries.