In Lionel Shriver’s new novel, The Mandibles, the US dollar crashes and is replaced by the bancor, a new reserve currency that’s managed by a group of countries led by China and Russia. It is 2029 and the United States president publicly thunders his indignation at an international “organised fiscal coup”. He declares a “reset” on America’s national debt, which basically means a default on all US obligations.
The world is a barely recognisable place. China is the world’s biggest economy; Mexico’s GDP is bigger than that of its enormous neighbour and it has built a wall to keep out poor striving American migrants. Myanmar finds cheap labour in the US and Asians are buying up large parts of New York.
Those with a taste for black humour see this year’s G20 summit in China and the follow-on Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in Laos, which ends today, as an extended preview of the future.
When Barack Obama arrived in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, his plane was not provided with a rolling staircase and the usual red carpet. The leader of the world’s largest economy was forced to exit backstage so to speak, through a little-used door in the belly of Air Force One.
Mr Obama warned against “overcranking the significance” of the incident but China’s leaders were still accused by some of delivering a diplomatic snub to make America appear weak and faltering. Then, as Mr Obama headed to Vientiane, capital of Laos, there was a row over a vulgar curse hurled at him by Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines.
The US cancelled a planned meeting with Mr Duterte but the insult appeared to play to a virulent strain of anti-American sentiment within the Philippines, a former US colony. It’s worth noting that Mr Duterte recently signalled a willingness to work with China on the continuing dispute in the South China Sea, where China has been building islands on reefs and shoals.
The US has taken a hard line on the issue, seeking enforcement via the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which ruled against Beijing. By a wink and a nod, the Philippines could weaken the US-led case and the clout of its steadfast ally and donor, America.
So, what are we to make of the Hangzhou and Vientiane summits? Do they, in the words of some political observers, signal a shift in the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific, away from the US? Could The Mandibles, in the question posed by the more literary-minded, be more prescient than the usual dystopian post-apocalyptic novel? Can fiction foretell the future?
Never mind diplomatic spats, it’s clear that tensions between the US and China are rising. This is mostly because of the Obama administration’s cherished idea of a pivot to Asia, a shift in US attention and priorities away from Europe and the Middle East to East and South East Asia. China has consistently seen the pivot as an underhand American attempt to slow its rise. For the US, it is a legitimate way to remain relevant in the Asia-Pacific region, which the World Bank predicts within a decade will be the site of four of the world’s five largest economies. Is the friction destined to continue for decades? Who will win, or does that not matter? Might it turn out not to be a zero-sum game?
Much will depend on the fate of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a comprehensive trade deal that aims to shore up American influence on several levels — economic, political and strategic. In a 2013 Chatham House paper, American diplomat and veteran Asia hand Kurt Campbell described the pivot and the TPP as a way for the US to “provide reassurance of its lasting commitment in order to cultivate an open, fair, stable and predictable political, economic, and security operating environment across a vast region spanning from India to the United States”.
That’s diplomatese, but Mr Campbell also made another, harder-edged point: it is in the interests of the US and the Asia-Pacific region to strengthen “Asia’s operating system”. He meant the legal, security and practical arrangements that have underscored decades of Asian security. Freedom of navigation, free trade, multilateralism and peaceful dispute resolution are required for the Asia-Pacific region to achieve its goals and its potential, he said. A US pivot away from Asia and unchallenged Chinese dominance might arrest the region’s steady growth and evolution.
Beijing would obviously have its own views on that but everyone agrees there’s no clear winner yet. But it’s also apparent that current US attempts to counter China in the region are faltering. The TPP has fallen out of favour in the US. Politicians of every stripe are railing against it as a symbol of inequity. Even US presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, who used what she called “forward deployed diplomacy” in the Asia-Pacific region when she served as Mr Obama’s secretary of state, has spoken out against the TPP. The US pivot to Asia risks becoming a waggle.
This is why the diplomatic kerfuffle around the Hangzhou and Vientiane summits has assumed significance. America’s projected influence in Asia is teetering on the tip of the TPP. Oddly, it was a character in The Mandibles who explained the dolorous logic of events: “Plots set in the future are … not about the future at all.”
They are all about the present.