🔒 Premium – RW Johnson explains how we’ll be affected by global power shifts (to the East)

Today, we present Part One of a very special essay by the peerless R.W. Johnson, a Rhodes scholar, PhD from Oxford University, fellow (“don”) for a quarter century at Oxford’s Magdalen College, and political science tutor to many future members of the British Cabinet. Johnson, who returned home to South Africa in 1995, is comfortably our most popular columnist on BizNews.

His essay below (Part Two tomorrow) is another example of Johnson’s encyclopaedic knowledge and, more importantly, the rare gift of joining the historical dots and providing context on the seismic shifts of our time. His work opens a window to help us understand our chaotic world.

It has always been crucial to stay informed, but with South Africa’s watershed election next year, now it is more important than ever. Watching highlights of EFF leader Julius Malema’s adrenaline-charged speech on Saturday at its 10th birthday celebration (below) reminds us of this. For me, two things stuck out.


Reading from prepared notes, Malema reiterated his commitment to leading a Cuban-style revolution in SA, focusing on the objective of defeating capitalism and those who benefit from it. The mission was repeated in this speech and emphasised by a Cuban flag enjoying pride of place on the podium behind him.

He’s on the wrong page. Cuba is easy to control, an island with 11 million people compared with SA’s 60m. It has GDP per capita below China’s (and 1/6th of the US), so no model for a nation that needs to attract investment to expand employment. Cubans are poor yet the population is contracting. Not exactly a happy place.  

Second is Malema’s shameless sucking up to Vladimir Putin, blaming “coward” Ramaphosa for not ensuring the Russian president would be welcomed at the BRICS summit, proclaiming: “We are Putin and Putin is us.” Rather obvious who the EFF will tap into for financial and other support for its 2024 Election effort. Believe it.  

– Alec Hogg

What global focus shift to Indo-Pacific means for the world (Part I)

By RW Johnson

America’s move to refocus away from Europe and the Middle East towards the Indo-Pacific Ocean area is one  of the most important shifts of the 21st century – and it has implications for every other part of the world.

The world’s centre of political and economic gravity has been steadily moving towards Asia and this shift will soon become overwhelming. By 2037 China will be the world’s biggest economy, India its third biggest with Japan fourth, Indonesia ninth and South Korea tenth. Add in Australia, Taiwan, Singapore and Bangladesh (which will then be 22nd biggest, having far overtaken Pakistan) – and one realises that other countries and continents will be merely the marginal provinces of the world economy.

America may still be the world’s greatest military power at that point but even so its attention is bound to be focused on the Asian region to the exclusion of everywhere else.

Look West, young man

This movement has been a long time coming. In 1845 the newspaper editor, John O’Sullivan, coined the phrase “manifest destiny”, an idea which hung over America into the 20th century. It was straightforwardly racist: it was the destiny of white Americans to expand right across the entire North American land mass all the way to the Pacific – and potentially, even beyond. It explicitly encouraged the expropriation of all Native American land and, possibly, even the extermination of the Native American tribes. This sort of thinking was hardly uncommon – many Britons of that era believed that Britain had a similar destiny to rule the world’s greatest empire and in Argentina the same philosophy saw the native Latin American Indians almost wholly exterminated. 

In America for a long time everything seemed to be going the way that O’Sullivan had predicted. The wagon trains rolled right across the prairies to the Pacific coast and the Native Americans were defeated and most of their land taken. In 1803 the Louisiana Purchase had already seen America double in size when the whole of its present South West was purchased from France for $15 million. In 1867 the Alaska Purchase (bought from Russia for $7.2 million) again enormously increased the country’s size and resources. America took over Puerto Rico and Hawaii  in 1898 and expanded into Cuba and the Philippines. When Theodore Roosevelt was President (1901-09) his greatest dream was to wrest Canada away from Britain but a propitious moment never presented itself. And at that stage the US Navy was dwarfed by the Royal Navy.  

The pull back to Europe

In the wake of the First World War American opinion turned bitterly against Woodrow Wilson for having led the USA into war for the sake of Europe. This criticism was mainly isolationist but there were many even then who felt that America’s focus should shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This feeling was redoubled during the Second World War. Roosevelt, quite rightly, felt that the US could deal with Japan but that if the war could be lost that could only happen in Europe: the German army was by far the Allies’ most redoubtable foe. So FDR gave priority to the European theatre. 

This policy was bitterly resisted by many – perhaps most prominently by the head of the US Navy, Admiral Ernest J. King[1], who saw FDR’s European focus as essentially a plot by the British (whom he hated) to get America to save the British Empire. But the logic, of course, was that it was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour which had brought the US into the war and the American priority should therefore be revenge upon Japan. Mercifully, FDR and the US armed forces Chief of Staff, George Marshall, simply ignored such views. 

The post-war hegemon

Victory in that war left America as the supreme world power with armies in Europe and Japan and bases all over the world.  The Pacific Ocean became an American lake: the US Navy ruled it unchallenged. By war’s end the US had acquired a number of new territories – Guam, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the Republics of Palau and of the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia. (Guam and American Samoa became officially part of US territory, as did the Marianas: their citizens are all US citizens and vote for Congress and the President.)

In addition, Japan and South Korea became major US allies, with major US bases there and Australia made a historic turn, looking now to the US, rather than Britain, as its key ally and protector. During the war Japan had bombed northern Australia and the US moved major military reinforcements there to guarantee it against Japanese invasion. When the US troops were about to arrive the Australian government reminded the US of its “White Australia” policy, which meant there should be no black Americans among the troop detachments. The US replied that in that case it wouldn’t send any troops at all. Australian resistance collapsed immediately, a clear indication of how the new relationship would work.

Nonetheless, the USSR’s expansion into Europe and the formation of the Warsaw Pact meant that Europe was the inevitable focus of the resulting great power confrontation between the US and USSR. So Europe and the Middle East remained the key focus of US attention until the collapse of Communism in 1989-91. The immediate effect was simply to confirm US supremacy everywhere but that period ended quickly with the rapid expansion of Chinese power.

A new threat in the Pacific

The rise of China has provided the first real challenge to US power in the Pacific since 1945: indeed, the Chinese Navy (the People’s Liberation Army Navy) now has more ships than the US Navy though the striking power of the US Navy is still far greater. In addition, China has developed powerful land-based anti-ship missiles which are a major threat to US naval power. The South China Sea has become virtually a Chinese lake and US ships only go there now in order to insist on the rights to international navigation through those waters. Moreover, China has established a major naval base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa – its first overseas base – and has carried out joint exercises off Durban with its Russian and South African BRICS partners. This makes it entirely clear that the Chinese challenge extends right through the whole Indo-Pacific. 

This Chinese challenge has arisen very quickly and has caught the US partly off guard. Naturally, Washington had been aware of the enormous shift in the world’s economy towards Asia but it hadn’t realised until recently that the Chinese threat to take Taiwan was not just a distant objective but might take place quite soon. 

The US then awoke with a shock to the fact that leadership in the computer chips industry had passed from the American Intel to the TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company). If China took Taiwan it would take over TSMC and with it world leadership in computing. Under Biden the US is hurriedly trying to bolster its own semi-conductor manufacturing capacity and has openly declared that it will oppose any Chinese invasion of Taiwan. .

Moreover, Chinese economic penetration and diplomatic initiatives have seen North Korea, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia all become states in which China’s influence is dominant and even states with histories of friendship with the US such as Thailand and the Philippines are now careful to maintain good relations with Beijing as well. In 2022 the US and Australia got a shock when the Solomon Islands, a Commonwealth member, suddenly announced a security pact with China. There are fears that China may develop a military base there. This year the Solomon Islands’ prime minister returned from a week-long sojourn in Beijing to denounce the US and Australia and to announce that Beijing was now subsidising its budget. This has triggered fears that China may carry out similar diplomatic coups with the other micro-states in the Indo-Pacific.

The shift begins

Within the Pentagon there was pressure for some time for the US to re-orient itself more towards Asia but traditional fixations with Europe and the Middle East were strong. However, the rise of fracking on the one hand and of Israel on the other have changed the equation substantially. Thanks to fracking the US is now self-sufficient in oil and gas and can satisfy any need for imports mainly by buying oil from Canada, so Arab oil producers have lost much of their traditional leverage with the US. Simultaneously Israel has emerged as a rich state – its GDP per capita is now higher than Germany’s – and it is probably the strongest military power in the Middle East. Despite its continuing bad relations with the Palestinians it now has diplomatic relations with an increasing number of Arab states. 

Europe, on the other hand, has been growing far more slowly than Asia and far too many European states have failed to live up to their NATO commitment to spend a minimum of 2% of their GDP on defence. Moreover, the chief threat to European stability, Russia, was a declining power, its economy sluggish and its population falling. What all this boiled down to was that the US felt it could afford to shift focus to Asia. 

This shift was first announced by President Obama but was strongly confirmed during the Trump presidency. Indeed Trump raged about the NATO states not spending enough on their own defence and even threatened to leave NATO. He made no bones about the fact that China was now America’s principal rival and initiated a trade war with Beijing, while maintaining a positively warm relationship with Vladimir Putin. Trump was also determined to get the US out of Afghanistan and even began to negotiate with the Taliban.  

This stance has been essentially confirmed by President Biden who quickly abandoned Afghanistan and has continued to have a highly fractious relationship with China. But against all expectations and rationality, Russia invaded Ukraine and Biden has had to spend much time and money rallying NATO to resist this aggression. Despite continuous dissenting noises from President Macron, Europe as a whole has been vastly re-assured by this continuing American leadership. 

Nonetheless, the US focus has not shifted from Asia. In 2017 it formed the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (‘the Quad”) with India, Japan and Australia dedicated to “a Free and Open Indo-Pacific”. This was not only an obvious counterweight to China but a hugely important new alliance structure: in 2023 the Quad accounts for no less than 34.7% of the world’s GDP. Moreover from 2021 it also spawned the Quad Plus group of associated nations – New Zealand, Vietnam and South Korea – and that group could well grow. 

As we have seen, the great shift of American (and world) focus to the Indo-Pacific was well under way more than a decade ago. But that left great unresolved questions about the future of Europe – and the rest of the world. And it presented a huge question mark for NATO, the world’s mightiest military alliance. 

What to do with NATO ?

For NATO remains by far America’s most successful alliance. In 1949, when it was formed, it had only 12 members but today it has 32 and yet further states are queuing up to join – Ukraine, Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Georgia, while the possibility of joining is debated in Malta, Cyprus, Ireland, Serbia, Moldova and Austria. Moreover while its sister organisations, CENTO and SEATO perished long ago, NATO is bigger, stronger and more united than ever, after 74 years. But US preoccupation with NATO is potentially problematic given its new Asian focus. NATO, is after all, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and its primary preoccupation has been the protection of Europe from Soviet/ Russian aggression.  The US can’t give up its primary Asian focus but nor can it give up NATO.

Accordingly, the US has gently pushed NATO and its Asian allies together. In the current Russo-Ukraine war its Quad partners, Australia, South Korea and Japan have all strongly supported Ukraine politically, operate sanctions against Russia and have given substantial aid to Ukraine. But America’s reciprocal pressure for NATO to support the new US commitment to Asia has met with only partial success.

NATO has formally declared that China constitutes a systemic challenge and the major European states are carrying out de-risking measures in their trade with China, essentially carrying out US wishes to deny China high tech goods of military value. In addition Britain has sent an aircraft carrier (the Queen Elizabeth II) to the Indo-Pacific and is helping Australia to acquire nuclear submarines via the new Aukus Pact (Australia, UK and US). France has also declared its interest in the Indo-Pacific and has a naval base in Mayotte in the Indian Ocean. 

But at the recent NATO summit in Vilnius the NATO plan to set up an office in Tokyo in order to cement its relations with Japan, Australia, South Korea and New Zealand was strongly (and successfully) opposed by President Macron. Macron had earlier made it clear that France did not wish to be involved in the China-Taiwan imbroglio which it regards as America’s quarrel. In general Macron does not want to see NATO become an auxiliary in America’s titanic struggle over Asia. And while France is often the odd man out, its reservations are at least partially shared elsewhere in Europe.

The Trump danger

Currently, Europeans are transfixed by the possibility that Donald Trump might win the 2024 US presidential election. He has repeatedly promised that he would finish the Ukraine war in one day. It’s presumed that this means he would betray Zelensky (against whom he has a grudge) and sell Ukraine down the river to Putin. This would also be a complete betrayal of NATO but Trump, who doesn’t like NATO, doubtless doesn’t care. Indeed he might leave NATO altogether and would almost certainly say that the US wouldn’t protect any state that didn’t pay 2% of GDP on defence.

Seen from a longer term angle, Trump would accentuate the shift in focus to Asia and Europe would be left to defend itself. This would be manna from heaven for Putin who might then attempt to reconquer all of Ukraine, Moldova, the Baltic states and perhaps Poland. (Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian prime minister and President and Putin loyalist, has openly spoken of these countries as possible Russian targets.) It seems unlikely that Europe, unsupported by the US, would stand up against Putin’s threat of nuclear war. If Trump were indeed to betray NATO, Ukraine and Europe, no one – in Asia or in Europe – would trust him for a minute, though Trump may not care about that..

However, even if such an American abandonment of Europe didn’t happen quickly, it would happen slowly. There is an inevitability about the new Cold War between China and the US – a bipolar world again – and it would primarily be a struggle in the Indo-Pacific. Europe would be left to look after itself. Quite how Europe would face up to that challenge is hard to say but it’s also hard to be optimistic. France will play fast and loose and try to work both sides of the street. Don’t even ask about Italy. Germany will want some sort of deal with Russia. Poland, Britain, Scandinavia and the Baltic states will form a bloc of NATO traditionalists but it won’t be strong enough to prevail. The chances are that it will all be a large mess. Pace Macron, a united European defence effort doesn’t seem likely, partly because no one trusts France.

But whatever Europe does, America’s central focus will shift to the Indo-Pacific. Not just Europe, but the whole world will have to adjust to that. Where does that leave a country like South Africa?

[1]    King was legendarily mean and fierce. Once, in Pearl Harbour, he hailed a Navy taxi and asked to be taken to the dockyards. The driver (a sailor) cheerfully replied, “Your wish is my command”. King growled “You’re goddamn right it is.”

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