Mon, Oct 16, 2006 - Page 9 News List

The East Asian triangle

Dialogue between the US, China and Japan, which share a common interest in maintaining peace in East Asia, is crucial to the region's stability

By Joseph Nye

Once again, North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons is threatening Asia's stability. New Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hastily arranged a summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) on the eve of North Korea's nuclear test, a meeting that saw both men agree that such a move was "intolerable."

The meeting is a welcome development. But Abe comes into office with a reputation as a stronger nationalist than his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, whose insistence on visiting the controversial Yasukuni shrine (where Class A war criminals from World War II are buried) helped sour relations with China. For stability to be preserved, Sino-Japanese relations must improve.

Although North Korea's nuclear ambitions are worrying and destabilizing, China's rise is the key strategic issue in East Asia. For three decades, the country's economy has grown by 8 percent to 10 percent each year. Its defense expenditures have an even faster pace.

Still, Chinese leaders speak of China's "peaceful rise" and "peaceful development."

Some believe that China cannot rise peacefully, and will seek hegemony in East Asia, leading to conflict with the US and Japan. Others point out that China has engaged in "good neighbor" policies since the 1990s, settled border disputes, played a greater role in international institutions and recognized the benefits of using soft power.

A decade ago, I oversaw preparation of the US East Asian Strategy Report, commissioned by the Pentagon, which has guided US policy under the administrations of former US president Bill Clinton and now for US President George W. Bush.

During the Clinton administration, there was a debate between those who wanted to contain China's growing strength and those who urged China's integration into the international system. Containment was unfeasible, because, unlike the Soviet Union during the Cold War, China's neighbors did not see it as a clear and present danger. Moreover, treating China as an enemy would ensure that it became one, thus unnecessarily ignoring the possibility of benign outcomes.

The strategy we chose was to "balance and integrate." The East Asian balance of power rested on the triangle of China, Japan, and the US. By reaffirming the US-Japan security relationship in the Clinton-Hashimoto declaration of 1996, the US helped structure a favorable regional balance.

By simultaneously encouraging China's entry into the WTO and other institutions, we created incentives for good behavior, thereby hedging integration by realism in case things went wrong.

That strategy has largely worked. China's military power has increased, but its behavior has been more moderate than it was a decade ago. China is a long way from posing the kind of challenge to US power that the Kaiser's Germany posed when it surpassed Britain at the beginning of the 20th century. The key to military power in today's information age depends on the ability to integrate complex systems of space-based surveillance, high speed computers and "smart" weapons. It is not likely that China (or others) will soon close that gap with the US.

Of course, the fact that China is unlikely to compete with the US on a global basis does not mean that it could not challenge the US in East Asia, or that war over Taiwan is not possible. If Taiwan were to declare independence, it is likely that China would use force, regardless of the perceived economic or military costs. But it would be unlikely to win such a war and prudent policy on all sides can make such a war unlikely.

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