Ted Galen Carpenter
ICAS Fall Symposium
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Ted Galen Carpenter
East Asia Policy and Its Consequences
Ted Galen Carpenter
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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