In an age of parallel universes it’s possible that Michael Wesley visits a different Asia from the one I do. In his essay “The Pivot to Chaos” (Australian Foreign Affairs 2, February 2018), Wesley suggests that Asian societies are something of a “Trump-muted zone”, that “there is resigned acceptance that China will become the dominant power in Asia” and that Australia needs to urgently rethink our strategy towards our alliance with the United States and towards the region. I’m not sure any of these assessments is right, but I can agree with Wesley that this is important stuff, and that Canberra needs to shake off its autumn complacency and get to grips with our changing strategic environment.
Let’s go to the disagreements first. Wesley and I are dealing in generalities, but my engagements with Asian policy and strategic thinkers suggest that there is deep concern about Donald Trump. The worry is not, as Wesley suggests, because Trump has made “so profound a break with America’s animating principles” of engagement with Asia. Rather, it’s the “look, Ma, no hands” approach that Trump takes to steering the United States. He may bring peace to the Korean Peninsula, but in jumping the shark – backwards and blindfolded – Trump could easily take us to war. Whatever he achieves, we can be certain it won’t be informed by a deep understanding of the past or current principles of US engagement in Asia. Unlike his predecessor, the president isn’t hidebound by book learning.