Crafting a U.S. Policy on Asia

Crafting a U.S. Policy on Asia

Experts say the United States, overstretched militarily and diplomatically in the Middle East, needs to refocus its Asia-Pacific strategy to reverse a slide in its influence over the region.

April 10, 2007 10:59 am (EST)

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Throughout the 1990s, strategic concerns over long-running conflicts in East Asia—from the division of the Korean peninsula to tensions across the Taiwan Strait to the Indian-Pakistan nuclear competition—shaped U.S. policy in the region. Although the Sino-Soviet rift during the Cold War provided a basis for U.S. relations with communist Beijing, post-Soviet Russia developed a growing military and diplomatic partnership with China, which also began building security and economic agreements with its neighbors in Southeast Asia. Since 9/11, U.S. attentions have turned toward the Middle East and counterterrorism efforts. “One of the major casualties of the war on terror has been a strategic policy toward Asia,” says Donald C. Hellmann, director of the Institute for International Policy at the University of Washington. Meanwhile, China bloomed as a major trading partner and diplomatic power in the region, in some cases displacing the United States economically. India, too, emerged as an economic force, and tensions flared on the Korean peninsula over Pyongyang’s 2006 nuclear test.

Japan, the “Keystone”

A 2000 Institute for National Strategic Studies report by former Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage and former Clinton administration official Joseph S. Nye sketched out a model for Washington’s Asia policy. The bipartisan report called Japan the “keystone of the U.S. involvement in Asia,” and recommended strengthening an alliance that had drifted. Despite the 1996 signing of the U.S.-Japan Joint Security Declaration, which paved the way for Japan to send non-combat Self-Defense Forces to Afghanistan and Iraq, the report said the agreement was weakened by a lack of action in developing cooperative bilateral policies as well as Washington and Tokyo’s assurances to Beijing that the pact was not aimed at containment of China. The Bush administration developed policies mirroring Armitage and Nye’s recommendations, tightening relations with the government of former premier Junichiro Koizumi, who championed a more assertive foreign policy.

In February 2007, Armitage and Nye released a second report warning of fading U.S. influence in the region, whether because of attentions focused elsewhere or China’s increased weight. The report reemphasized the U.S.-Japan alliance, saying the two countries will “define significantly the security and stability of the Asia-Pacific,” yet recognized China’s new prominence as well.

An Alliance of Asian Democracies?

Supporters of the Tokyo alliance view Japan, the world’s second biggest economy, as part of a U.S.-aligned group of Asian democracies that includes Australia, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Michael J. Green, Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who worked on the committees that produced both Armitage-Nye reports, says Japan has “credibility as a democracy” and “is at the center of a growing movement in the region” in which nations can integrate in a similar fashion as the European Union and foster regional democracy. The March 2007 security pact between Australia and Japan—which focuses on military cooperation, counter-terrorism, and disaster relief efforts—serves as an example of how closer ties in the Asia-Pacific could serve as a counterweight to China’s increasing diplomatic heft in the region. Yet Australian Prime Minister John Howard quickly tried to calm China over the deal, stressing Sydney’s “good relationship” (BBC) with Beijing.

Some experts believe the confidence in the U.S.-Japan alliance and a regional democratic alliance belies the reality of China ’s rising regional importance. “We hitch our wagon to Japan while the rest of Asia is hitching its wagon to China,” says David C. Kang, a regional expert at Dartmouth University. Hellmann says U.S. officials should stop hoping that all Asian states will turn to democracy. “The challenge is going to be how to create a framework where successful models different from the United States’ can be incorporated,” he says. “The future institutions are going to have to deal with the fact that China may be rich and non-democratic.”

India, the Counterweight

During a July 2006 speech about the U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called India a “pillar of stability in a rapidly changing Asia and a strategic partner for the United States.” According to 2007 CIA figures, India’s economy ranks as the sixth largest in the world; only China has a larger labor force. With an eye to India’s growing economic might, Washington sees New Delhi as a means to balance China ’s rise.

But even as experts see India as a player of increasing importance in Asia, some say the United States is pinning its hopes on New Delhi without understanding the regional power balance. U.S. support for an alignment with India involves “a lot of it is wishful thinking by people who think it will be a counterweight to China,” says Kang, who warns New Delhi does not have the weight to play a large role in East Asian affairs and serve as a balance to China’s influence. Others see the U.S. alignment with India in the framework of regional democracies as flawed, given the resolution of Sino-India border disputes and closer economic ties. “It would be a mistake to think that Indiais going to act on the behalf of anyone but India,” says Kenneth G. Lieberthal of the University of Michigan, who served as senior director for Asia at the National Security Council under the Clinton administration.

Hedging the China Bet

While campaigning for president in 2000, George W. Bush called China a “strategic competitor.” Early in his administration, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggested developing a military strategy to contain China. But as the threat changed to terrorism, so did Sino-American relations in the years following 9/11. “There has emerged the view that China can be part of a structure of cooperation among the great powers to address the major foreign policy changes of our time,” says Richard C. Bush III, director of Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution.

In September 2005, Robert Zoellick, then deputy secretary of state, called on Beijing to serve as a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system, at once recognizing China’s growing global prominence while suggesting it use its influence with rogue nations—such as North Korea, Sudan, and Burma—on human rights and security issues. The concept defined the latest current in U.S. policy toward China, seeking a middle ground between divergent views on how to approach Beijing. In an article (PDF) covering U.S. policy toward East Asia since the early 1990s, Thomas J. Christensen, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, describes the opposing views about China’s rise: One perspective promotes economic and diplomatic interaction with Beijing while the other sees a need for China’s containment to counter the threat to Washington’s standing in Asia as well as China’s large, modernizing armed forces. Christensen promotes the former as a middle ground to achieving the latter, while loosening Chinese authoritarianism along the way.

But some experts question the feasibility of the approach. Dan Blumenthal, an East Asia expert at the American Enterprise Institute, says the integration policy is “not effective—China obviously hasn’t liberalized.” Green recognizes the policy risks allowing China to emphasize wealth and development over democracy. “We don’t want to make it too easy for China to co-opt the language and do nothing,” he says. “We want countries like Japan to be pushing for higher norms.” But Hellmann suggests another way to influence Beijing: economic pressure. Even as the United States runs a trade deficit with China, he argues, Beijing runs a trade deficit with most other East Asian countries, including South Korea and Japan. “We are absolutely essential to the economy of Asia,” says Hellmann. “Let’s look at what the trade pattern is and say, ok, we’ve got some leverage.”

The North Korea Negotiations

The Six-Party Talks, begun in 2003, served as a stage for the “responsible stakeholder” concept, with Beijing hosting the summits aimed at hemming in North Korea’s nuclear capability. Talks stalled when Pyongyang walked away from the negotiating table with other members Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, and the United States in 2005. Since early in the Bush administration, the White House focused on North Korea as a major security threat, taking a hard-line approach and refusing bilateral talks with Pyongyang. “The administration came into office with a perfectly manageable problem and transformed it into a huge and unmanageable problem,” says Lieberthal. After Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006, China served as the mediator bringing North Korea back to the talks, which led to a February 2007 denuclearization agreement.

Brookings’ Bush points out that the Six-Party Talks brought Japan to the same table as China and the Koreas, countries with which its relations have long been troubled by the history of Japanese militarism in the region and rising nationalism over the past decade. The recent pact also involved a series of bilateral talks on the sidelines, not just between Washington and Pyongyang, but also North Korea and Japan. The Tokyo-Pyongyang talks, however, faced hurdles over the abduction of Japanese citizens during the 1970s and 80s by North Korean spies. Blumenthal says Washington’s failure to firmly support Tokyo on the abduction hurt the alliance. “Unfortunately, because of the North Korea deal we’re beginning to create a crisis of confidence with Japan,” he says.

China’s Other Asian Connections

China has not only expanded its influence in terms of the North Korea nuclear issue, but in energy-rich Central Asia as well. In 2001,China and other members of the Shanghai Five—Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan— strengthened their confidence-building organization, originally founded in 1996 to demilitarize the border between China and the former Soviet Union. Adding Uzbekistan as a sixth member, the group became the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). As this Backgrounder explains, China and Russia strengthened the alliance in part to counter American influence in the Central Asia. Both countries see the presence of U.S. military bases there as part of its goal to contain Moscow’s and Beijing’s interests in the region.

In 2005, the SCO issued a declaration that the United States should remove its bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The demand served to speed up troop withdrawals from Uzbekistan by the end of 2005. Although the SCO’s strength remains limited because it is not a mutual defense organization like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, its importance continues to grow, with India, Pakistan, Iran, and Mongolia joining as observers in 2004.

China’s influence has made a deep impact in Southeast Asia as well. Beijing had limited contact with the nations that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which include Burma, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. But in 2001, China and ASEAN member nations unveiled plans for a free trade zone, the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area, across a region with a population of nearly two billion people and a combined gross domestic product of $2 trillion. The zone would be the third largest free trade area after the European Union and the North American Free Trade Area. China and ASEAN plan for the free trade zone to come into effect by 2010, and, as a step toward that goal, signed an agreement lowering tariffs on more than seven thousand goods in 2005.

According to a paper (PDF) published by Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, China’s trade agreement with ASEAN nation is part of a Beijing policy that “advocates a multi-polar world and multilateralism to dilute U.S. unilateralism in world and regional affairs.” 2005 China-ASEAN trade was sixteen times its volume of 1990, and increased 23 percent between 2004 and 2005. “Southeast Asia is becoming an appendage of China in terms of economics,” says Hellmann.

The United States and Southeast Asia

As part of its counterterrorism efforts in the region, the United States conducts joint military exercises with Thailand and the Philippines and, on an annual basis, runs exercises aimed at military cooperation called Cobra Gold ( in Thailand, with 2006 participants including Indonesia, Singapore, and Japan. In a March 2007 report highlighting guidelines for U.S. policy in Southeast Asia, Heritage Foundation expert Walter Lohman advocated maintaining the American military presence in the region as an “indispensable” means for “hedging against rapidly growing Chinese military capabilities.” Lohman also stresses closer ties with ASEAN, U.S. economic stakes in the region, and the importance of Southeast Asian nations in “combating international terrorism.”

Experts say the U.S. counterterrorism tactics that dominated American foreign policy after 9/11 harmed America’s standing ASEAN states, particularly among countries with large Muslim populations who eyed the strategy with suspicion. But some also acknowledge U.S.-Southeast Asian policies had already frayed following the 1997 Asian financial crisis. “One of the biggest legacies of the Asian crisis was to impose our ideals on them,” says Hellmann. “And they’re still reacting against that.” Since 1997, Asian nations placed greater importance on overlapping regional multilateral organizations such as ASEAN and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). Bush, of the Brookings Institution, says one way for the Untied States to raise its standing inAsiainvolves the ratification of pacts such as ASEAN’s nonaggression treaty, which advocates solving disputes through peaceable means in the region. “It’s better to be in this tent than outside,” he says.

Regaining Prestige in the Region

While experts disagree on the need for one unified U.S. strategy in Asia, a consensus remains that America’s standing in the Asia-Pacific region has suffered over the past decade. “We’re still incredibly important. We’re still number one,” says Kang. “But the days that we were the sole focus are gone.” Some experts such as Armitage, Nye, and Green support a circle of democracies and engagement with China in hopes of advancing U.S. interests and regional security. But Lieberthal says even as the Untied States promotes democracy in the region, it does so when anti-U.S. sentiment runs high, leading to the election of officials with policies running contrary to Washington’s. Experts say future American policies need to concentrate on strengthening multilateral organizations such as ASEAN and APEC as a means to recoup U.S. prestige in the region. “There is a recognition that we need to work harder to reassert our political influence, that we perhaps have focused a little too single-mindedly on counterterrorism,” says Bush, adding that countries in the region will likely be more comfortable with a balance of power involving China, Japan, and the United States and that, through building multilateral alliances, Washington can regain its footing in Asia. “The game is not lost by any means,” he says.

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