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 US 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.
The anxiety of declining US influence became so intense during the Obama years that the notion of a Group of Two (G2) gained considerable currency: If we can’t beat ’em, went the thinking at the time, then maybe we should join ’em. However seriously intended such a proposal to co-rule the world with China might have been, the Obama administration never followed up beyond agreements on climate change and bilateral investment.