The US’ network of alliances is critical to maintaining its role as the Asia-Pacific’s indispensable, predominant power. Seemingly, all sides of the debate over the US’ Asia policy converge on this key point, and, to its credit, the administration has logged its fair share of frequent flyer miles and speech text underscoring it. But what is the network’s purpose?
Standing vigil with the South Koreans on the demilitarized zone requires a military commitment both on the Korean Peninsula and in Japan. The US military flies through Utapao Air Base, Thailand, on its way to Iraq and Afghanistan. The Australians are among its most highly regarded partners on the ground in Afghanistan. They are helping their Filipino allies put down a dangerous insurgency in their south.
The network of US alliances in East Asia is delivering, but these missions are transitory. US President Barack Obama is clearly intent on ending the US military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Filipinos will one day achieve peace in Mindanao, or at least isolate the violence to the point where the US presence becomes unnecessary. One day, even the conflict on the Korean Peninsula will be settled. Besides, some of the most effective cooperation with any of these countries — on humanitarian relief for instance — does not necessarily require a military alliance.
Fortunately, US alliances in Asia do have a real geostrategic objective — managing the rise of China. All of the other things they do with their allies, while important in their own right, are ultimately secondary.
THE CHINA CHALLENGE
The policy crowd in Washington has largely coalesced around some version of a China-hedging strategy — trying to bring China into the existing international order as a “responsible stakeholder” while preparing for an alternative, more adversarial outcome.
In government circles, however, this clarity is obscured by the real-life complexities of the US-China relationship: economic dialogue and diplomacy around hot-button political/security issues like the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs.
The Obama administration, like the administration of former US president George W. Bush, has reconciled these complexities through indirection. The North Korean threat is a problem on its own, but it also stands in for the China threat. Administrations talk about the security of sea lanes, but the real problem is not pirates in the Straits of Malacca, but Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. Weapons sales to Taiwan are about an imbalance in arms strongly in favor of China. The trilateral dialogue between the US, Japan and Australia was about China. The US-India relationship is in large part about China. Engagement with ASEAN is about China.
By denying the hedges, the US keeps open the full range of options in working with the Chinese. Regrettably, this also obscure, the real rationale for the US’ alliance network and creates uncertainty over its long-term staying power.
NEW POWER PERCEPTIONS
The US’ allies are patient with indirection. Indeed, they are accomplices in the charade, but their comfort level depends on their faith in the underlying realities, and the past 18 months have shaken that faith. They need reassurance about the fundamentals of US strength and leadership in Asia.
Until the global financial crisis hit in September 2008, the US’ allies were worried, but essentially okay with the pace of change in the region. It was happening at a rate they could understand and to which they could adapt. Thirty years of double-digit growth in China’s economy and 20 years of similar growth in its military spending was only gradually transforming China into a major power.
The financial crisis turbocharged this change. The US was seen struggling with its own economy, racking up massive debt with no plan or concern for righting it. The other side of this picture highlighted Chinese economic strengths and influence. Massive US dollar reserves have come to symbolize Chinese strength instead of the massive waste of resources that they truly are.
That the crisis was largely the fault of the US did not help matters. Never mind that it was not “excesses” of economic freedom, banking or otherwise, but politically selective regulation, excessively loose monetary policy and government intervention in the market’s mechanism for shaking out failure that brought about the crisis; it is the US “neo-liberal” economic model that has come under assault. The “Beijing Consensus,” an authoritarian manipulation of markets in furtherance of state mercantile interests, is now presented as the safe alternative.
Most of what people know about China, they read in the papers, and the newspapers are deceptively clear — China’s model survived the crisis; the US’ is shaken. Headlines for years now have been foreshadowing the arrival of Chinese predominance, and here it is, much sooner than anyone in the region was expecting.
The Obama administration seems to have overlooked the enormity of this change in perception. Unfortunately for the new team, what might have (barely) passed for prudent indulgence of China two years ago looks like obeisance today.
Indecision on desperately needed F-16s for Taiwan is a perfect case in point. Of course, the Bush administration was no more eager than the Obama administration to fill this critical part of what the Taiwan Relations Act calls Taiwan’s “sufficient self-defense capability.” Then, it looked like a matter of setting priorities (and deep presidential-level displeasure with Taiwan’s leadership); today, it looks like an unwillingness to offend “America’s banker.” Deference to the UN Security Council on North Korea and Iran, then seen in the region as a welcome resort to traditional multilateralism, today is seen as seeking China’s blessing. Even something as minor as the bare flagpole in the courtyard of the American Institute in Taiwan (the de facto US embassy), once just simple over-reach by State Department lawyers, today could be construed as a bow to Chinese sovereignty.
This new context is what makes the impasse over US bases in Okinawa so unsettling. This conflict has been percolating since the administration of former US president Bill Clinton. Today, it is cast as a crisis in the US-Japan alliance and a harbinger of regional realignment.
The new context has made indirection look less like prudence and more like a changing of the guard in Asia.
What can the US administration do to reassure its allies?
First, they must get their finances in order. US public debt amounted to 53 percent of GDP last year and is on track to practically double over the next 10 years. That will put the US halfway to Japan’s level of debt and somewhere between the levels currently carried by Sudan and Greece. To economy-focused Asia, this screams weakness.
Improving the US economy doesn’t mean mercantilism and protection. Obama should dust off the free-trade agreement with ally South Korea and move it through Congress and he should move to conclude a comprehensive free trade-oriented Transpacific Partnership with APEC by next year. The US currently has two free-trade partners in the region: Australia and Singapore. By contrast, consider the proliferation of Chinese trade agreements with, among others, the 10-country ASEAN, New Zealand, Singapore, Pakistan and soon with a country that without the US would already have been swallowed whole — Taiwan.
Second, stand by the principles that have made the US great. Democratic presidents used to be famous — and dreaded in Asia — for speaking up for human rights. China’s human rights record is abysmal. Twenty years of US State Department human rights reports make that absolutely clear. We share basic democratic values with all of our treaty allies in the region. This distinction is a moral and strategic strength.
Third, sustain US capacity to engage in high-intensity conflicts. The US needs a military that can win its current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it must be no less able to deal effectively with an increasingly capable China. Procurement decisions like cancellation of the F-22 and shrinking their naval forces send allies a signal that their core interests — the things they are willing to fight for — lie in regions of the world where such assets are not necessary.
Fourth, talk clearly about the Chinese military threat and its relationship to territorial claims. Taiwan’s sovereignty remains “unsettled” in international law. The US should know that the Taiwanese consistently oppose unification with the mainland. Their economic ties to the mainland have not changed that. Taiwan needs the US presence to avoid being dragged unwillingly into unification. The single most important thing the administration can do to support Taiwan is to sell it the F-16s it so desperately needs.
There is another territorial issue once again gaining currency. China claims virtually all the South China Sea — an issue of particularly critical interest to the US’ treaty allies in the Philippines and friends in Vietnam. The demonstration effect of US naval vessels conducting operations in international waters is useful, but the US should also be explicit: The Chinese claim to the South China Sea is exceptional (not least because of the aggressiveness it takes in asserting it). It is not simply one co-equal claim among six.
Fifth, look, talk and behave like a superpower. A US president’s every move is frozen in time and scrutinized in the media. He should use these moments to convey US strength, not deference. In Asia, deference does not ease one into a relationship; it establishes the basis for the relationship. Why did the Chinese respond so hysterically to Obama’s sale of US$6.4 billion in arms to Taiwan and his meeting with the Dalai Lama? Because he created expectations in his first year in office that he would go the extra mile to avoid offending them.
Sixth, make an honest assessment of how much cooperation the US can really expect from the Chinese in international hotspots. Protracted negotiations with the Chinese over any number of issues, but particularly North Korea and Iran, are not worth the sacrifice of other interests. They run interference in the UN Security Council for both regimes and others besides, more than they contribute to solutions.
US allies in Asia and friends who depend on them have long wrung their hands at the prospect of US withdrawal. At no time since the administration of former US president Jimmy Carter, however, has their concern looked more plausible. Countries in the region are in the early stages of planning against that eventuality. They need reassurance. All the trips to the region and speeches in the world, however helpful to the cause, will not fill the gap alone.
The region wants a “resident” US. It wants a strong US. It is even good for the Chinese themselves, because it precludes some of the most aggressive scenarios in their own development. The Obama administration needs to consider the full range of policy decisions and diplomacy in this light. The future of US alliances and, by extension, US long-term security, depends on it.
Walter Lohman is director of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.
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