These images signal a changing world order


Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

Photo ops matter. Far from being pseudo-events, in our age of the image, they can make substantive statements in a language that is easily grasped globally. Changing an image in our minds precedes change in reality, opening the imagination to consider something different than what has been. As the quantum physicist Ilya Prigogine once remarked, the present does not so much determine the future as our image of the future determines what we do in the present.

Despite derision in many quarters, the choreography of President Trump shaking hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to kick off the Singapore summit this week was not a mere public relations spectacle. It signified the beginning of the beginning of a new chapter of the geopolitical order in East Asia. Trump understood the power of the image by showing a video — as dorky as it may seem — to Kim that portrayed an alternative future for a disarmed Hermit Kingdom.

G7 gatherings have also often been considered mere photo ops that confirm a consensus. This time was different. The image of Trump’s petulant pose at the summit in Canada earlier in the week — arms crossed, lips tight, defiantly resisting the pleas of America’s key allies to be reasonable — signified the beginning of the end of a united front that once held the advanced democratic nations together. Then, as he headed off to engage Kim face-to-face about dismantling his menacing missiles and nukes, Trump raged against Canada’s prime minister and its cars and cows, which he insensibly claims are a threat to U.S. national security. This spectacle signified far more than a spat.

Security regimes emerge in response to a threatening environment. The American-led security order in Northeast Asia, with Japan and South Korea at its core, is a remnant of the post-World War II era, before China’s reemergence as a great power. It is due for an overhaul. Trading pacts arise and are sustained by comparative advantage among nations as long as mutual benefit is maintained. That is now also up for review by the original architect of open trade — the United States.

In the context of these profound shifts underway, The WorldPost this week examines the longer-term consequences of the Trump-Kim summit. Our contributors weigh in from South Korea, China, Singapore and Japan.

Moon Chung-in, a special adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, is relieved that the summit was a “remarkable success” and not the “diplomatic catastrophe” so many expected. He considers South Korea the greatest beneficiary because the positive vibes have already diminished tension on the Korean Peninsula and hold out the prospect of a final peace agreement with the North.

But now comes the perilous challenge of getting to that end point. “As we move into this next phase,” Moon writes from Seoul, “the efforts of Trump and Kim alone will not be sufficient for the task, and it is critical to look to neighboring countries and the region as a whole.”

For Moon, China’s role looms large going forward. “The Singapore process is, in fact, predicated on the suspension of both North Korea’s nuclear and missile activities and the combined South Korea-U.S. military exercises and training, as well as the parallel pursuit of North Korea’s denuclearization and the signing of a peace treaty — exactly what Beijing has been advocating.”

He continues: “In fact, China’s role is likely to become even more pronounced after the Singapore deal. The United States badly needs China’s economic leverage to make North Korea’s denuclearization sustainable, in both a positive and negative sense. Beijing’s compliance with United Nations sanctions resolutions is pivotal to the enforcement of the constraints keeping Pyongyang on the path to denuclearization. Beijing can also serve as Pyongyang’s reliable partner and a hedge against any backsliding by the United States in implementing its political, military and economic assurances. Thus, China cannot be sidelined.”

Fu Ying, one of China’s most senior diplomats, agrees. “The fact that Pyongyang and the United States are embarking on a journey of peaceful negotiations is in the right direction — a direction China has all along called for and has played a vital role in making possible,” she writes from Beijing.

“China’s role,” Fu continues, “has been similar to an anchor that moors the resolution of this conflict to a peaceful course. We will continue to actively encourage and facilitate conciliation. To play the stabilizing role of an anchor, however, China also needs to be ready for a possible derailing of the talks and be prepared to prevent the boat from drifting or even capsizing.”

Indeed, to the extent China and the United States act as joint guarantors of the Singapore process, the embryo of a new Northeast Asian security arrangement that transcends the post-war, American-led alliance system that excludes China will be nurtured in the womb of convergent interests. For these two great powers to cooperate with common intent on North Korea would create balance instead of consolidating the hegemony of either power in the western Pacific and would thus temper their rivalry.

“East Asia may be on the cusp of a major strategic shift, comparable to the 1972 U.S. opening to China led by then-president Richard Nixon,” Bilahari Kausikan writes from Singapore. He too, sees a new balance emerging in the region in the wake of the summit — but one in which nuclear weapons play a greater, not lesser role. “The process may eventually be about arms control, not denuclearization. Herein lies a risk, though not one that necessarily will be borne by the United States. The key American interest is getting rid of North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles that directly threaten the United States, as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledged a few weeks ago. This leaves Japan vulnerable.”

To address its exposure to a North Korea that would still maintain an arsenal of medium-range missiles that threatens it, Kausikan reasons, Japan will ultimately develop its own nuclear force, prompting a wary South Korea to do the same. “A five-way balance of mutually assured destruction between the United States, China, Japan, North Korea and South Korea could be established in Northeast Asia,” he suggests. “This is a seismic geopolitical shift that will freeze Northeast Asia into a multipolar configuration.”

Writing from Urayasu, Japan, Tetsuo Kotani sees a similar strategic logic unfolding in the region. By suspending joint U.S.-South Korea war exercises and even suggesting a drawdown of U.S. troops, Kotani fears that Trump “might change the military balance in Northeast Asia too rapidly,” leaving “Japan as a front-line state vis-à-vis authoritarian regimes on the Asian continent.” He warns: “In this case, Tokyo would have to review its long-standing security strategy based on its alliance with Washington. Going nuclear is Japan’s second-to-last option. Its last option is to accept Chinese dominance, or Pax Sinica.” The only other alternative to defend itself, says Kotani, would be for Japan’s Self-Defense Force to assume wartime “operational command” alongside U.S. forces.

Lastly, one of the first images at the Singapore summit — of the North Korean leader disembarking from an Air China flight — best defines where we actually are in this moment. It provides a snapshot of how the present transitional state of interdependent globalization is linked to the evolving security order in the region. Though it was Kim’s nukes and long-range missiles that led to the Singapore summit, to reach the island nation 3,000 miles away, the “Little Rocket Man” had to hitch a ride on a jumbo jet lent to him by Chinese President Xi Jinping. While the Air China logo on the plane’s hull reminded everyone of China’s weighty presence even though it was not at the table, the aircraft itself, like most of the Middle Kingdom’s commercial fleet, was built near Seattle, by Boeing.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.