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It is now received wisdom that Asia will become the geopolitical pivot of the 21 st century, and that the budding U.S.-China security rivalry will shape the region’s future and, through it, the future of the world. Whether this be so or not, the United States should look back with satisfaction on its post-World War II Asia policy. In a relatively short time, a solid majority of Asian nations has gone from rags to riches and from varieties of chaos and vulnerability to relative domestic order and external security stability. What is more, these countries achieved these goals while embracing democratic capitalism. U.S. policy deserves its share of credit for these achievements on three counts: American power, projected forward, was the shield protecting these changes; the American model itself, embodied in the post-World War II economic and normative order, inspired them; and when necessary American Presidents pushed their Asian friends in the right direction.
At the same time, U.S. policy has also brought forth an irony, and with it the making of a new challenge. Perhaps the greatest benefactor of American policy over the years since the Korean armistice has been China. China has benefitted from the American shield ever since it decided to embrace the international economic system. It benefitted, too, from America’s successful containment of the Soviet Union, as well as from Washington’s decision to maintain its military predominance as the Soviet Union crumbled. But China, unlike its Asian peers, has never accepted the democratic part of “democratic capitalism”, and its consequent hybrid modernization path could imperil Asia’s relatively long peace if Chinese leaders try to translate its newfound clout into an assault on the geopolitical order.
In the crosshairs of Chinese ambitions are America’s Asian allies, whose future orientation represents the currency of regional and global influence. While the United States wants to continue the open trading order, regional peace, the full flowering of democracy and nuclear nonproliferation, the Chinese government seems to have other priorities. It seeks first and foremost to make Asia safe for its continued rule. This means building military strength to ward off political pressure to liberalize. That formula clearly works; as China has grown stronger, the West’s calls for political reform have dissipated. China also builds its military to defeat any “separatist” threat within its current borders, or from Taiwan. The Party, or the People’s Liberation Army (it has become harder to sort out shares of decision-making authority in Beijing) thus seeks greater control of its maritime periphery, particularly the East, Yellow and South China Seas. It is doing so for three reasons. First, Beijing firmly believes that a great power must be able to exercise a veto over anyone seeking to operate close to its shores. Second, it wants the leverage to settle longstanding territorial disputes with Japan, Taiwan and many Southeast nations on its own terms. And finally, Beijing wants to project power farther into the seas through which so much of its maritime trade flows. All of these desiderata challenge the equities of America’s Asian allies and raise questions about the credibility of U.S. alliance pledges.
None of this prefigures a new Cold War. That is too straightforward a metaphor to encompass the new reality. In this case increased levels of trade and economic integration will coexist with an intensified military competition not only between China and the United States but among many regional players as well. To uphold order in Asia, the U.S. government will seek to maintain the ability to deter conflict, reassure and protect allies and, when necessary, command the sea lanes that are the lifelines of the international trading system. In contrast, China will seek the means to coerce and intimidate its neighbors, and to project power into the surrounding oceans while undermining U.S. allies’ confidence in Washington’s ability to protect them.
China also plays an uncertain role in Washington’s other regional challenges in Northeast and Southeast Asia. Unstable, nuclear-armed North Korea can threaten both South Korea and Japan with untold destruction, and should that regime one day collapse, no one yet knows how China would respond. Finally, Southeast Asian partners that are still facing jihadi and separatist threats now have the additional burden of contending with China’s desire to press its maritime claims and expand its operational reach into Southeast Asia’s maritime passageways and beyond into the Indian Ocean.
Washington has been slow to adapt to these realities. It needs urgently to rethink and as necessary refashion its alliance system in Asia. A system erected in Cold War days for Cold War purposes will not also necessarily serve present and future ends. Three administrations over a period of twenty years have only marginally adjusted U.S. strategy to the new Asian reality. In the fast-changing Asia-Pacific, modest American changes are tantamount to failure. This failure is somewhat understandable; after all, nothing breeds failure like success. But to admit that it is understandable is not to say that it is sustainable.
My purpose here is to sketch out in rough form the shape of the Cold War-era model for security in Asia–the “hub and spoke” model–and the shape of what should replace it–a “point to point” arrangement. My outline will primarily deal with security issues. Alliances, to be sure, are about much more than military planning; nevertheless, this is the bedrock of any alliance structure: Fail to lay the proper foundations, and the rest of your efforts will inevitably falter.
Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow at AEI.
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