Fresh from the Article 50 debate in the House of Commons, Catherine West MP took her seat in the chair for an event hosted by HJS in Parliament. Remarking about the shared concerns about globalization in Brexit discussions and with Britain’s relationship with China, she introduced Michael Auslin to speak about his book The End of the Asian Century. He sought to “give the other side of the story about the rise of Asia” having dealt with the continent for a quarter of a century and encountered people who had revealed problems not considered in Western perceptions. Citing economic failures, demographic issues, incomplete revolutions, continental disunity and the threat of war, Auslin warned the audience not to be surprised if something “goes bad” in Asia.
The majority of the discussion, however, was centred upon events of the past twelve months and the potential impact of President Trump’s personality and policy on Asian relations. Auslin argued that the themes of American trade, liberalism and military strength that he discussed in his book would all be shaken up by Trump. Although speaking speculatively about the future, he asserted that 40 years of China, Japan and South Korea policy could be undone. The President’s appointments to policy-making roles in the State Department would be pivotal to this, Auslin said. With the withdrawal of America from TTP only a day previously it would be the job of these individuals to pursue bilateral trade deals.
Pressed on the subject of human rights in China, Auslin argued that they could be used as a bargaining chip by Trump to secure such deals despite previously shying away from the topic. However he raised the possibility of the new President finding joy in this endeavour given the perceived failures of the Obama administration. Indeed when questioned on the potential of a trade war, Auslin suggested that Trump had been clear that he thought America had already lost a trade war with China. Not only this, he argued that Trump the businessman was able to communicate with Asian leaders in a way that Obama was not able to, exemplified by the two Presidents’ contrasting relationships with the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte.
However Auslin warned that when Trump came up against another strongman in Xi Jinping, the Chinese President would not accept becoming the leader who lost China to the Americans. While he could see the US striking bilateral deals with smaller Asian countries and Japan, who he urged to be receptive to the idea of free trade agreement, with China there could be difficulties. Taking a question from Director of the Asia Studies Centre at HJS John Hemmings about Britain’s future relationship with China, Auslin urged caution on the former Chancellor George Osborne’s tact of investing and agreeing deals. Referring again to his book, he suggested that the Chinese economy might be near stagnation and that the British should be wary about them failing to deliver on deals as their powers weaken.