[Note for TomDispatch Readers: John Feffer’s wide-ranging and unsettling look at Asia’s future (and ours) should be a reminder that you need to get your hands on his remarkable new dystopian novel, Splinterlands. In this Dispatch Book, a “geo-paleontologist” named Julian West looks back from the year 2050 on a world shattered by the unexpected rise of nationalism and the devastation of climate change. Of it, Mike Davis has written: “John Feffer is our twenty-first-century Jack London and, like the latter’s Iron Heel, Splinterlands is a vivid, suspenseful warning about the ultimate incompatibility of capitalism and human survival.” When you buy the book, you’ll not only get a great, if chilling, read, but also give a bit of much appreciated extra support to this website. Or, if you’re in a truly generous mood, for a $100 donation ($125 if you live outside the USA), you can still get a signed, personalized copy of Splinterlands from the author. Check out our donation page for the details. Tom]
In case you hadn’t noticed, as in the Middle East and Europe, we’re in a new Trumpian age in Asia. If you want to confirm that, check out the recently leaked transcript of an April 29th phone conversation between the American and Philippine presidents (published in full at the Intercept). Donald Trump launches the call with a bonding gesture, comparing his own sleepless habits to those of Rodrigo Duterte. (“You’re just like me. You are not a person who goes to bed at all. I know that, right?”) He then implicitly makes another comparison between the two of them, congratulating the Philippine president on his anti-drug program in which he has loosed police and paramilitaries to kill at will, resulting in more than 7,000 extrajudicial executions across his country. “I just wanted to congratulate you,” says Trump, “because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem. Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that.” You can feel, I think, his yearning for the powers of an autocrat in that statement, as well as his long-term obsession with the war on drugs. When Duterte responds by decrying drugs as the “scourge of my nation,” Trump, in his typical fashion, takes a backhanded whack at his predecessor. (“I… fully understand that and I think we had a previous president who did not understand that…”)
Only then, in full tough-guy mode, does he move on to scourges of his own, bringing up the North Koreans and bragging — while leaking what was undoubtedly classified information — that the U.S. has two nuclear subs cruising somewhere off the Korean coast: “We have a lot of firepower over there. We have two submarines — the best in the world — we have two nuclear submarines — not that we want to use them at all. I’ve never seen anything like they are, but we don’t have to use this, but [North Korean leader Kim Jong-un] could be crazy so we will see what happens.” In other words, the American president is boasting about being ready for nothing less than nuclear war in Asia, even as he tries to get Duterte to call Chinese President Xi Jinping to put further pressure on Kim.
All in all, it was quite a performance and yet consider it but a toe in the water when it comes to what used to be proudly labeled an “American lake.” (As a Tin Pan Alley song title of the World War II era put it, “To Be Specific, It’s Our Pacific.”) If you want to take the full plunge into the cold waters of that ocean and of our Asian future — and believe me, it’s not what you imagine — then follow TomDispatch regular John Feffer, author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands, into an era that may be anything but bright for the United States, China, or other Asian lands. Tom
Goodbye Pacific Pivot, Hello Pacific Retreat
Who Will Take America’s Place in Asia?
By John Feffer
Asia has been the future for more than a generation.
When Americans try to glimpse what’s to come, images of the Pacific Rim flood the imagination. For movie audiences in 1982, the rain-soaked Los Angeles of Blade Runner looked like downtown Tokyo. By 2014, the City of Angels in the Spike Jonze film Her had more of a Shanghai vibe. This upcoming October, with the release of Blade Runner 2049, Los Angeles will likely resemble Seoul.
Off-screen as well, Asia has been almost as good as a time machine. When I was coming of age, it was the place to go for anyone hankering for the next big thing. After college, a number of my classmates traveled to Japan to strike gold teaching English. Today, recent grads are more likely to visit the big cities of South Korea and China, or head further south to Singapore and Malaysia. They all come back, as I did in 2001 after three years in Asia, with stories of the future: bullet trains, otherworldly urban landscapes, the latest electronic gizmos.
So, it’s not surprising that when foreign policy elites think about what will replace a U.S. superpower in relative decline — speculation that has grown more feverish in the Trump era — they, too, look East. But no longer to Japan, which is passé, or South Korea, which has also perhaps peaked. Instead, they tremble before China, which has already surpassed the United States in gross economic output, while steadily enhancing its military capabilities. It seems like the only country remotely capable of challenging the United States as the world’s sole superpower.