For the first time in centuries the most powerful nation on Earth is going to be non-Western, and this has terrified policymakers from Canberra to Washington.
The almost existential panic which has characterised the response has combined an incredible capacity for self delusion with an almost impressive degree of arrogance that even our Colonial forbears would be staggered by.
Bit players like Australia have mindlessly “reaffirmed” support for the US alliance, as if it was ever in doubt, while the US itself has pursued a “Pivot to Asia” that has about as much substance as a stereotypical American meal.
Neither of these speech acts do anything to change the facts on the ground.
At its core, the re-alignment of power in Asia is a strategic shift, not some transient challenge by a rogue state or an ideological game of the Cold War. This is far less about the application of power than it is the distribution which has yet to be grasped by the West.
Neither the “measuring contest” taking place in the South China Sea nor the angsty equivalent in the East China Sea will have any measurable impact on the long term trends in power distribution. It is in economics, the cold hard numbers that will determine what the major powers can bring to the table and in this China is clearly in the ascendant, if only thanks to the low hanging fruit long since plucked across the sea.
The Western response however has been entirely tactical in its nature, confusing the cosmetics of the power shift for the shift itself. The far too much-lauded American Pivot promised to “reaffirm” the American commitment to Asia, that the 21st century would be “America’s Pacific Century” in the words of one particularly unreliable former presidential candidate.
Its substance however has had zero impact on the strategic equation. Since its announcement almost a decade ago China has continued its advance, solidifying its control over the South China Sea and showing no signs of slowing its erosion of American power. The US in the meantime has descended into an almost humorous disaster.
This should come as no surprise of course, as a series of statements and failed economic deals do not translate into the sort of military preponderance needed to roll back a direct military challenge. To the extent that the US has increased its military cooperation with Asian nations no arms deal or joint exercise is going to remove artificial islands or, more importantly, slow down Chinese military spending.
To a degree there is no blaming American failure here, as it is an unwinable battle. Short of an inherently racist worldview that sees Chinese as fundamentally weaker than Westerners, there is simply no paradigm through which 330 million Americans can continue to have greater resources than 1.3 billion Chinese .
There is however reason to believe that there is an inherent racism in the Western approach, a modern version of the Colonial view that the White nations of the West had an inherent advantage over the rest of the world, and that it was this that had given them their technological advantages and not the other way round.
The entire enterprise is soaked in a watered down version of the Atlanto-centric arrogance that until recently has reigned supreme in Western thinking for almost half a millennium, thinking that is proving unable to conceive of a world not slanted in its favour or with its desires not preferenced above all others.
How else could a nation like America, distant and outnumbered, possibly imagine that it could indefinitely maintain primacy over a much larger nation that is adopting all the technologies and practices that gave America its strength in the first place?
In the 19th and 20th centuries this was called the White Man’s burden, the view that at best the lot of non-whites is to be “students” of the West, so that one day they might emulate their betters in practice and culture if not in race.
Similar today is the arrogant view that Western countries should unilaterally act against what is seen as Chinese aggression such as the calls to recognise “Taiwan” as an independent state. Whether or not a declaration of independence would be good, there is a great irony in Western commentators calling for a unilateral recognition of “democracy” without the consent of the Taiwanese people, whose lot it is to face the consequences.
Both sides of politics are guilty of this, and it is entirely debatable whether the mindless meandering of Trump is any worse than would have been the calculated condescension of Clinton.
The great blunder of our time is that rather than seeking to amend this flaw in the system Western powers are seeking to deny any criticism. That the attempt will surely fail will be of little comfort in the face of just a fraction of the potential misery that could result.
Dominic Huntley is an honours year student in a Bachelor of International Security at the ANU.