The ICAS Lectures

No. 98-929-TGC

 The Clinton Administration's Drifting 
 East Asia Policy and Its Consequences


Ted Galen Carpenter

ICAS Fall Symposium
Asia's Challenges Ahead
University of Pennsylvania
September 29, 1998

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

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Biographic Sketch

Ted Galen Carpenter
Vice President, Defense and Foreign Policy Studies
Cato Institute


 The Clinton Administration's Drifting 
 East Asia Policy and Its Consequences
Ted Galen Carpenter

The Clinton administration's Asia policy has become a conceptual muddle that could be dangerous for all concerned. Administration officials are attempting to construct a policy that combines two apparently disparate parts. The first component perpetuates Washington's traditional strategy of keeping the noncommunist Asian powers dependent on the United States for their security. The second component is the creation of an economic and strategic partnership with the People's Republic of China.

That approach is simultaneously obsolete, contradictory, and dangerous. It reflects acute conceptual drift--a casual acceptance of assumptions that may have been relevant two or three decades ago but have little connection to genuine American interests in today's world. Needed instead is a rigorous reexamination of the U.S. role in Asia with the goal of building a coherent and sustainable policy into the 21st century.

Washington's Smothering Strategy

A prominent justification for continuing the large-scale U.S. military presence in East Asia is to ensure stability and preserve a strategic and economic order that benefits the United States. That is hardly a new rationale for Washington's policy. Throughout the Cold War, U.S. forces guarded East Asia's security against Soviet (and for a time Soviet and Chinese) threats. The removal of Japan as a significant political and military factor after World War II meant that the United States was the only credible strategic counterweight to the USSR and its communist allies.1

Washington preferred it that way. Restoring Japan as a serious political-military player would have been deeply alarming to Tokyo's neighbors, for whom the memories of Japanese imperialism were still fresh. (Indeed, such memories remain an obstacle.) The alternative--America's benign hegemony--seemed better calculated to prevent disruptive rivalries in the region and to create the conditions for a massive economic expansion that benefited both the United States and its Asian allies.

Despite the collapse of the Soviet threat, the rationale for a dominant U.S. political-military role in East Asia remains largely the same. The Pentagon's 1995 security strategy report for the East Asia-Pacific region (the so-called Nye Report), for example, contended that forward-deployed U.S. forces were there, not only to ensure a rapid and flexible worldwide "crisis response capability," but to "discourage the emergence of a regional hegemon."2 "If the United States does not provide the central, visible, stabilizing force in the Asia and Pacific region," the report added, "it is quite possible that another country might--but not in a way that meets America's fundamental interests. . . ."3 The emphasis on a "stabilizing" force suggests concern that another conservative, status quo state might attempt to eclipse the United States as the leading power in East Asia. Indeed, it was a thinly veiled reference to Japan as a would-be, but unacceptable, replacement.

That aspect of the Nye Report was hardly new. Since the end of World War II, Washington has sought to discourage Japan from playing an activist political-military role in East Asia. Even the outcome of the much-touted April 1996 summit between President Clinton and Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto was consistent with that long-standing policy. The joint declaration that emerged from the summit meeting indicated that U.S. officials had finally accepted the need to modestly increase Japan's involvement in the region's security affairs, but the revised blueprint still conceived of Tokyo as Washington's very junior partner.4 There is no indication that U.S. leaders want Japan to be an ally with a responsibility equal to America's for preserving stability in East Asia--much less that they want Japan to assume the lead role. Following the summit, U.S. officials stated that, although they hoped for greater Japanese logistical support for U.S. military missions in East Asia, Japan was "far from ready to send troops into battle alongside U.S. forces," adding that was "not something the United States wanted anyway."5

That same attitude is embodied in the revisions to the defense guidelines for the U.S.-Japan alliance announced in September 1997. The principal change authorizes Japanese logistical support for U.S. military operations in "areas surrounding Japan"--a phrase that is never defined--that are relevant to Japan's own security. Until now, Japanese officials have argued that article 9 of Japan's constitution precludes such involvement unless Japan itself is under attack.

Despite the hype on both sides of the Pacific, the reforms fall far short of establishing an equal security partnership between Japan and the United States. In the event of an East Asian conflict that does not involve an attack on Japanese territory, Japan is merely expected to provide nonlethal logistical support for U.S. troops and allow U.S. forces to use facilities in Japan for their operations. (Even those changes are dependent on numerous pieces of implementing legislation that must be approved by a divided Diet.) There is no indication that Japanese Self-Defense Forces will participate in combat missions alongside their U.S. allies. American military personnel will still be expected to risk their lives to repel any act of aggression that threatens the security of East Asia while Japan merely provides such things as fuel, spare parts, and medical supplies. The new defense guidelines do little to end Japan's status as a U.S. military dependent; they merely allow Japan to be a slightly more helpful dependent.

Washington's smothering policy toward Japan is consistent with long-standing overall U.S. East Asian policy.6 The objective of discouraging other powers from even aspiring to play more active political and military roles was perhaps most candidly expressed in the preliminary draft of the Pentagon's planning guidance document that was leaked to the press in 1992.7 That document is not the only evidence of a hegemonic policy, however. Statements by various military and civilian officials over the years and the substantive features of Washington's East Asia policy since 1945 point to the same conclusion.

U.S. officials have been extremely zealous in guarding America's prerogatives. For example, when Japanese prime minister Toshiki Kaifu proposed a "security dialogue"--formal regional meetings on defense issues--between Japan and the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1991, Washington reacted negatively. In a speech to the annual meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers, Secretary of State James Baker III warned them against adopting new arrangements that would replace "tried and true frameworks" involving the United States. "We have a remarkable degree of stability in this region," Baker said. "We ought to be careful about changing those arrangements and discarding them for something else."8 Privately, U.S. officials expressed strong opposition to the Japanese proposal because it might weaken the bilateral arrangements between the United States and various nations in East Asia and the western Pacific.9 In other words, Tokyo's modest initiative was seen as a challenge to Washington's political and military primacy.

The Clinton administration recently has shown signs of modifying the smothering strategy. It has even cautiously encouraged the kind of regional security dialogue that its predecessor so tenaciously opposed. But the administration has also emphasized that the United States must be an active participant in such initiatives; there is no sympathy whatsoever for measures that Japan or the other East Asian countries might pursue without U.S. input. Moreover, administration officials seize every opportunity to emphasize America's determination to maintain a large military presence in the region and to continue in the role of stabilizer. The comment of Secretary of Defense William Cohen that the United States intends to maintain the current size of its East Asian troop presence--including the 37,000 troops in South Korea--even in the event the Korean Peninsula is reunified epitomized that approach.10

Flirting with China

Surprisingly, there are indications that the administration is now flirting with the idea of developing a true partnership--treating a key Asian power as an approximate equal of the United States. The apparent choice for such an elevated status, though, is not Japan--the most logical choice--but instead the People's Republic of China (PRC). This is a curious and unexpected development in several respects.

In fact, it is a sharp change from the administration's initial attitude toward China. The early years of the Clinton presidency were marked by a frosty, if not confrontational, relationship between the United States and the PRC. Matters grew especially tense in early 1996 when the PRC conducted a series of military exercises, including several missile tests, in the Taiwan Strait and the United States dispatched two U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups to waters near Taiwan.

Indeed, there are indications that the two countries may have come closer to armed conflict during that crisis than the public or Congress realized at the time.11 The episode apparently unnerved administration officials enough for them to seek a rapprochement with the PRC, and relations improved noticeably thereafter. In fact, there are signs of an increasingly cozy U.S.-PRC relationship. Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright are now using terms such as "cooperative partnership" and "strategic partnership," and Clinton has stated that the United States and China have a "special responsibility to the future of the world."12

The PRC would seem to be an odd, if not an irrational choice, for a U.S. strategic partner. There is a vigorous debate among American experts on East Asia about whether China is more likely to engage in status quo behavior in the coming decades or become an aggressive, "revisionist" power.13 Both sides marshal solid arguments to support their cases. Analysts who see a benign China in the future point to the extensive economic ties that Beijing has established with various East Asian countries, as well as the United States and the other major industrial powers. They also cite the border agreements that the PRC has signed with several of its land neighbors and note that, historically, China has rarely displayed rampant expansionist ambitions. Analysts who see an aggressive China emphasize the lingering bitterness that so many Chinese still express about the humiliations and territorial depredations visited on their country by the Western colonial powers during the 19th and early 20th centuries. In addition, there are Beijing's various unresolved territorial claims--to the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea, the Diaoyu (Senkaku) islands in the East China Sea, and, of course, Taiwan. Pessimists also note that, historically, rising great powers typically go through a phase of abrasive, if not aggressive, behavior. The combination of those factors, apprehensive China watchers contend, means that the PRC is far more likely to be a disruptive, revisionist power than a conservative, status quo power.

It is uncertain which prediction will prove correct. But that very uncertainty casts doubt on the wisdom of Washington's flirtation with forging a strategic partnership with the PRC. U.S. leaders should logically prefer a stable, status quo power, if they seek a genuine partnership. After all, Washington's stated objective is to maintain the current network of economic relations and the relatively benign security environment. It is not clear that the PRC is now--much less will continue to be--a status quo power. It is even less likely that Beijing will be content to be Washington's compliant junior partner as Japan has been over the years. Yet the U.S. courtship seems based on that implicit assumption.

There appears to be a complex mosaic of motives for Washington's pursuit of a strategic partnership with the PRC. Certainly, the 1996 crisis created a powerful incentive within the administration to minimize the likelihood of a repetition. There are echoes in the Clinton post-spring 1996 policy toward the PRC of the reasons for Washington's policy of detente with the Soviet Union during the 1970s. An important objective in the latter case was to defuse tensions and reduce the danger that the U.S.-Soviet rivalry might spiral out of control. University of Pennsylvania professor Walter McDougall contends that a similar motive exists in the case of the U.S.-PRC rapprochement, arguing that Clinton "engages China in hopes of avoiding a Cold War."14 Journalist Carl Cannon advances a similar thesis and speculates that Clinton was especially concerned that frayed U.S.-PRC ties might increase the likelihood of PRC military action against Taiwan, thereby provoking a regional crisis. "The Clinton team didn't embrace Jiang and China because it thought China was bluffing about Taiwan, but, rather, because it believes precisely the opposite."15

There may be some truth to the thesis that Washington is trying to entangle the PRC in such an elaborate web of diplomatic and economic ties with the United States that rogue behavior by Beijing is no longer an option. On numerous occasions, the president and his advisers (as well as like-minded experts in the foreign policy community) have warned that treating China as an enemy may cause China to become an enemy.

But other factors also appear to be playing a role. In particular, Washington has become increasingly disenchanted with Tokyo, its traditional (albeit junior) partner in Asia. Japan's catatonic response to its internal economic problems, and its inability to take meaningful action to ameliorate East Asia's economic crisis, has affected attitudes throughout America's policymaking elite. It was revealing that Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin, while in Beijing on June 26, heaped praise on the PRC for holding the line against currency devaluation and taking other measures to stabilize the regional economic environment, while he admonished Japan to take more serious action. Key figures outside the U.S. government have made even more explicit comments. For example, Stephen Roach, chief economist and director of global economics for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, stated bluntly that "Tokyo must make way for Asia's new leader."16

There is also an element of nostalgia in the courtship of the PRC. And that nostalgia is not confined to policymakers in the Clinton administration; it even more clearly imbues the "establishment" (Bush-Kissinger-Scowcroft) wing of the GOP. Proponents of extensive engagement with the PRC fondly recall the era of close U.S.-Chinese strategic cooperation to counter Soviet power in the 1970s and 1980s. They seem intent on still "playing the China card" even though there is no serious U.S. rival against whom that card needs to be played. In its own way, the overestimation of Beijing's strategic importance is just as obsolete as the smothering strategy directed against Japan.

Asian Reactions

Whatever the array of motives, the emerging U.S.-PRC strategic partnership has sent shock waves throughout Asia. It has alarmed Taiwan, Japan, and (to a lesser extent) South Korea, and it has provided India with a reason to take the wraps off its covert nuclear-weapons program. Those reactions have important implications for America's future role in Asia.

Indian officials and opinion leaders stressed not only the alleged security threat posed by China but Washington's apparent tilt toward Beijing as a justification for the tests.17 The warming U.S.-PRC ties have also attracted worried notice in Taiwan. And, as in the case of India, they have provoked expressions of defiance and a gradual, but unmistakable, shift in policy. Taiwanese leaders are beginning to realize that only strong indigenous military forces can provide a reliable deterrent against coercion by Beijing. The growing lack of confidence in the willingness of the United States to defend Taiwan from PRC aggression, or even intimidation, is impelling Taipei to become more militarily self-reliant. As India is doing, Taiwan is seeking ways to protect its security interests in the new context of a U.S.-PRC strategic partnership.

Even Japan has begun to react to Washington's apparent tilt toward Beijing. Japanese opinion leaders expressed great apprehension--and at times despondency--before, during, and after the Clinton-Jiang summit in June 1998. Although the prime minister and other officials publicly affirmed their confidence that the U.S.-Japanese alliance remained the cornerstone of Washington's policy in East Asia, their private comments conveyed a very different assessment.18 Perhaps it is coincidental--but perhaps not--that Tokyo has become increasingly obstreperous about U.S. pressure to change its economic policies and has shown unusual assertiveness in responding to such developments as North Korea's missile launch.

The Need for New Thinking

Both major components of Washington's East Asia policy are misguided as well as detached from the probable strategic realities of the 21st century. In particular, there is an inherent tension--if not outright contradiction--between the smothering strategy and the goal of a partnership with China. The result is a potential power vacuum that Beijing may someday be tempted to exploit and would be in an excellent position to exploit.

The United States needs to develop a wholly new Asian strategy from the ground up. To do that, policymakers must first acquire a better understanding of the nature of bona fide American interests in the region. There are three especially important interests. The first is to prevent any single power from dominating the region. The nations of East Asia have a large population and an impressive array of economic and technological capabilities (despite the recent financial turbulence). A regional hegemon able to control those vast assets could pose a serious threat to America's security and economic well-being.

The second important interest is that a reasonable degree of order and stability exist in the region. An East Asia habitually convulsed by armed conflicts would be a difficult and unpleasant neighbor for America. A reasonable degree of order, however, should not be confused with the need to micromanage the region's security affairs to ensure complete order. Some instability is inherent in the international system, and East Asia will not be immune from that reality. As long as national rivalries in the region are not excessively violent and disruptive, America's interests are relatively secure.

The third important interest is economic. East Asia is now the most significant region for U.S. international commerce, having surpassed Western Europe earlier in this decade. Eleven of America's 24 largest trading partners are located in the region. Many of those same countries have provided--and will in the future provide--important arenas for American investment. Maintaining, indeed strengthening, that array of economic ties constitutes an interest that Washington cannot ignore.

Those interests can be protected, however, without perpetuating Washington's smothering strategy. Indeed, that approach is not sustainable over the long term. Weak, poor nations confronting a very dangerous expansionist movement during the Cold War were willing to accept the protection of an American hegemon. But what was acceptable to such countries in a bipolar strategic setting will probably not be acceptable to more economically capable countries in the absence of an overpowering threat to their security.

The attempt to preserve America's leadership role by enlisting China as a partner is futile and counterproductive. Beijing has its own agenda and interests, and both are likely to conflict with U.S. objectives at least as often as they coincide.19 A far better course from the standpoint of American interests would be to avoid an overt strategic partnership with any Asian state and instead encourage the emergence of multiple power centers. The existence of several significant security actors would complicate the calculations of any power that might have hegemonic ambitions. (Ironically, Washington's courtship of the PRC may inadvertently accelerate such a process.) To the extent that U.S. policy should have a "tilt," it ought to be slightly against, not toward, Beijing.

The very fact that Washington is attempting to combine the smothering strategy with the contradictory objective of a U.S.-PRC strategic partnership underscores the intellectual bankruptcy of current policy toward Asia. It is a policy based on obsolete assumptions, vague nostalgia, and conceptual drift. America can do better. More important, it needs to do better.


1.   A similar situation occurred in Europe. The removal of Germany as a political and military player, and the drastically weakened positions of Britain and France, after World War II meant that there was no European strategic counterweight to the Soviet Union. By default, the United States moved in to fill that power vacuum, in effect, playing the balancer role and becoming the leading "European" military power.
2.   Department of Defense, Office of International Security Affairs, United States Security Strategy for the East Asia-Pacific Region, February 1995, p. 23.
3.   Ibid., p. 9.
4.   For an extended discussion, see Ted Galen Carpenter, "Smoke and Mirrors: The Clinton-Hashimoto Summit," Cato Institute Foreign Policy Briefing no. 41, May 16, 1996.
5.   Quoted in Kevin Sullivan and John F. Harris, "Clinton Hails Partnership with Japan," Washington Post, April 18, 1996, p. A1.
6.   The United States has pursued--and continues to pursue--a similar policy in Europe. See Benjamin Schwarz, "Permanent Interests, Endless Threats: Cold War Continuities and NATO Enlargement," World Policy Journal 14, no. 3 (Fall 1997): 24-30.
7.   "Excerpts from Pentagon's Plan: Prevent the Emergence of a New Rival," New York Times, March 8, 1992, p. A14.
8.   Quoted in Philip Shenon, "Baker Asks Asians to Move Warily on New Pacts," New York Times, July 25, 1991, p. A14.
9.   Ibid.
10.   Jim Wolf, "U.S. Plans Combat Presence in Any Future Korea," Reuters, July 9, 1998; Transcript, DoD News Briefing, July 9, 1998, copy in author's possession.
11.   Barton Gellman, "U.S. and China Nearly Came to Blows in 1996," Washington Post, June 21, 1998, p. A1.
12.   Quoted in John F. Harris and Michael Laris, "Clinton Calls for Closer U.S.-China Cooperation," Washington Post, June 26, 1998, p. A1.
13.   Key examples of the two schools of thought are Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro, The Coming Conflict with China (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997); and Andrew J. Nathan and Robert S. Ross, The Great Wall and the Empty Fortress: China's Search for Security (New York: Norton, 1997).
14.   Walter A. McDougall, "Nixon, Clinton, and the Baby Boom Rising," Foreign Policy Research Institute E-Notes, August 3, 1998,
15.   Carl Cannon, "What We Did in China," National Journal, July 18, 1998, p. 1674.
16.   Stephen S. Roach, "China's Dynamism, Japan's Inertia," New York Times, June 26, 1998, p. A27.
17.   Quoted in John F. Burns, "India Chief Calls U.S. Hypocritical," New York Times, June 18, 1998, p. A10.
18.   "Tokyo's Reactions to Results of U.S.-PRC Summit," Sankei Shimbun, June 29, 1998, FBIS-EAS-98-182, July 1, 1998; and Ken Yamada, "Search for Ways to Coexist: Clinton's First Trip to China," Mainichi Shimbun, June 25, 1998, FBIS-EAS-98-176.
19.   See Ted Galen Carpenter, "Managing a Great Power Relationship: The United States, China, and East Asian Security," Journal of Strategic Studies 21, no. 1 (March 1998): 1-20.

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