ince the end of World War II, U.S. strategy in Asia has rested upon two pillars. The first has been the need to maintain “preponderant” power, to guard against the rise of a great-power challenger who could dominate the eastern part of the Eurasian landmass and its Asian rimlands. This strategy historically required a continued military presence in locations where the United States had fought during World War II and the early Cold War: Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. The U.S. military also had to retain the ability to surge its forces into the region at any time and any place they might be needed.
The second element of U.S. strategy in Asia called for building a regional political order that would advance American interests and values. To accomplish this, first and foremost the United States helped rebuild Japan and forged an alliance with it. It also aligned itself with other non-Communist forces in North and Southeast Asia to support their development as decolonized independent countries and their growth as liberal democracies.
This two-pronged strategy was successful—both in heading off the Soviet Communist threat to the region and in providing space for Western-aligned Asian countries to develop. By the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse in the late 1980s and early 1990s, experts were predicting that the 21st century would be an “Asian Century.” Lending force to this prediction was the fact that Japan’s economy was then booming, and that the so-called Asian Tigers (South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore) were likewise experiencing high levels of economic growth.
But then came the economic “explosion” of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)—according to the Economist, the most rapid accumulation of wealth in human history, lifting millions out of poverty and bringing China into the family of nations. At the same time, India, too, appeared poised to unburden its economy of socialist shackles, and the rest of Southeast Asia seemed no less eager to follow northeast Asia’s path. But the big story was, and remains, China.
Starting with President’s Nixon’s “opening” to China in the 1970s, the main thrust of U.S. strategy toward the Middle Kingdom had been focused on integrating it into the liberal world order: the panoply of organizations and institutions that historically enabled the development of peaceful nation-states. But by the early 1990s, it was becoming clear that Asia’s continued peace was not preordained.
With Beijing translating its wealth into greater military and political power and making a frank bid for dominance of the region, the strategy of integration, however necessary it remained, was no longer sufficient. In the post–Cold War world, the U.S. needed an answer to China’s rise as the potential great-power challenger in Asia whose emergence Washington had long sought to prevent.
The answer—less a departure from than an amendment to the strategy of integration—was to take hedging actions against a more aggressive China. Under Bill Clinton and both Presidents Bush, Washington kept American troops forward-deployed in Japan and South Korea and shored up its extant alliances not only with Japan but also with South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines. In addition, it strove to strengthen non-allied security partnerships with Taiwan and Singapore while searching for new partners in Indonesia, Malaysia, India, and Vietnam. The idea was to continue seeking the benefits of the hoped-for “Asian century” while actively protecting our forward-based security position.
Enter the Obama administration, which from early on brought to Asia policy a new assumption. Obama believed that the United States had been too distracted by the Middle East, and lately by the war on terror, to pay sufficient attention to Asia policy. Indeed, over-involvement in the Middle East, so this thinking goes, had been a strategic mistake. While his predecessors’ approach to China wasn’t altogether wrongheaded, it had been insufficient on both the hedging and the integration sides.
Obama made the case that in a time of allegedly limited resources, the U.S. needed to “rebalance its portfolio,” shifting capabilities away from the Middle East and Europe and toward Asia. From this perspective, the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, coupled with Obama’s decision not to intervene in Syria, was not to be seen as (in the former instance) just an agreement on nonproliferation or (in the latter) an expression of caution—but as a way out of the Middle East morass. If that exit could be achieved, it was posited, the U.S. would be in a stronger position to hedge against China’s aggressive behavior.
This new attitude implicitly unwound the strategy of American preponderance across the critical regions of Eurasia, and also the relative weight given to the hedging and integration aspects of that strategy. When it came to order-building in particular, Obama brought a new verve and vigor to his predecessors’ efforts. The administration joined such Asian groupings as the East Asia Summit, signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and became a more frequent attendee at ASEAN+ meetings. The guiding assumption appeared to be that Asia already had, or could soon have, the kind of liberal order that defines present-day Europe.
And so the next administration will be handed an Asia strategy based on three main assumptions. First, that China will continue to grow more powerful, and the United States must continue to hedge against its aggression. Second, that there already exists a “liberal order” in Asia that simply needs to be strengthened. Third, that the U.S. can achieve success on both fronts even as it retrenches from Europe and the Middle East—regions long thought to be critical elements of a strategy of Eurasian preponderance.
Each of these assumptions is deeply flawed.
Will China Grow More Powerful?
China, it is now agreed, has entered a period of prolonged economic slowdown. Its own reported 2015 numbers showed that the economy grew only 6.9 percent, down from the breakneck double-digit rates of the first decade of the 21st century. But the true number is surely far lower. Economist Derek Scissors argues: “If Xi [Jinping] does not quickly move beyond talk to profound pro-market reform, China will not slow or struggle—it will just stop.”
China’s economic slowdown has had many causes, including an abysmal demographic situation, high levels of debt, and an inefficient and corrupt financial system. Global demand is shrinking, which means China’s export-driven growth model is approaching its end. And the regime’s response to the 2008 global financial crisis—namely, government stimulus and the accumulation of massive debt—will continue to cause more problems down the road.
A strategic reassessment is in order, and the first question to be asked is what China’s slowdown means for the regime’s internal stability and external behavior.
Tough choices clearly lie ahead for President Xi Jinping. Internally, he must find new ways to build legitimacy for a Chinese Communist Party that faced little organized resistance as long as most Chinese living standards were improving. Theoretically, of course, China could reverse direction and implement substantive market reforms. But politically those reforms do not seem to be in the offing—it is simply too risky to let capital leave Chinese banks and flow freely, as was envisioned by the 2013 Communist Party Plenum. So far, the approach of Xi Jinping has instead been a high-profile “anti-corruption” campaign that has helped to further centralize power and featured a crackdown on the media, lawyers, intellectuals, and churches.
Washington has come to expect that continued high levels of economic growth in China would sustain its double-digit increases in annual defense expenditures and impressive military-modernization program, which has produced the world’s most active missile-, ship-, and aircraft-building programs. In addition, Beijing deployed a toolkit of economic inducements to purchase the support of countries it has deemed strategically valuable—from the eastern coast of Africa, where it wants naval bases, to the Middle East, where it needs oil, to Asian countries that it wants to keep from allying fully with the United States.
Under worsening economic conditions, can China be expected to sustain its national-security policy abroad, and for how long? So far there have been no signs of abatement in Beijing’s policy of militarizing the South China Sea and challenging Japan in the East China Sea.
Nor has the PRC displayed any inclination to deviate from its historical willingness to engage in adventurism during times of trouble, earlier instances of which reach back to Deng’s post–Cultural Revolution attack on Vietnam and Mao’s pre–Great Leap Forward bombardment of Taiwan’s offshore islands.
Meanwhile, won’t a slowing economy cause internal trouble that will require Beijing to make further investments to police the large Chinese empire, spanning from Tibet and Xinjiang to Hong Kong?
Washington has not even begun to think about an alternative strategy for this slowing China. There is no consensus about such basic questions as whether the lethargic growth and political decay in China might actually benefit the American interest in keeping Asia free of a hostile hegemonic power.
In that light, a wise strategy would alter the current policy of hoping for greater Chinese economic growth. While it is detrimental to global economic growth, China’s slowdown provides an opportunity to better align our economic interest with our security interest. Under such a strategy, for example, the United States could work harder to push its open-markets agenda throughout the rest of South and Southeast Asia, with particular attention granted to countries that we want to befriend. Especially in the case of a China that might be prone to lashing out, the U.S. would benefit from economically successful Asian partners able to invest in a more serious, region-wide hedging policy.
Has the ‘Liberal Order’ in Asia Been Strengthened?
The purpose of current U.S. diplomacy in Asia has been increased engagement with Asia’s multilateral organizations—hence, the Obama administration’s signing of the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2009, joining the East Asia Summit in 2011, sending high-level officials to the ASEAN Regional Forum, and successfully negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership that has become a major sticking point in the U.S. presidential election. But do these institutions really amount to a functioning and coherent Asian political/security order?
The answer is no. When we speak of a functioning regional liberal order, we have one model: post–World War II Europe (granting all of its manifold problems). European politics and economics have long been “ordered” around a security system based on a preponderance of American power tied into a collective alliance, NATO. American primacy within the alliance system provided the time and space for Europe to develop a political-economic system both regional and international in scope.
This is a “liberal” order in the classical sense that it encourages free trade, free markets, and a respect for liberal interpretations of international law and custom. Its institutions include the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization at the global level, and the EU, OSCE, and NATO at a regional level. And this order was not conjured up out of nothing in 1945; ultimately it was based on what Walter Russell Mead has described as centuries of an Anglo-American order.
This order was rooted in the pre–World War I British belief that “free trade would promote peace between nations based on common interests, and increasing prosperity,” according to Mead. “People-to-people contact, facilitated by international human rights and religious organizations, would remove the misunderstandings that led to war and create bonds of friendship as well.”
Before the breakdown that led to the two world wars, Europeans had gone through a “Westphalian” progression in which empires, kingdoms, and religious movements became nation-states with agreed-upon sets of customs, rules, and practices, often referred to as “classical diplomacy.” These rules included sovereign equality among nations, respect for territorial boundaries, promises to stay out of one another’s domestic politics, and attempts to resolve disputes peacefully while circumscribing the use of force. Most of Europe’s constituent countries also shared common political cultures and a common civilizational legacy.
Without those shared civilizational and cultural legacies, statesmen on both sides of the Atlantic could not possibly have been as optimistic as they were about the prospect of rebuilding a liberal system in Europe. American and European leaders spoke in urgent and almost spiritual terms about the need for a Western order. As Undersecretary of State Robert Lovett stated, the “cement” of the NATO treaty “was not the Soviet threat, but the common Western approach and that Western attachment to the worth of the individual.”
The postwar European order was animated by a positive vision for what type of order the constituent states wanted to create and a strong sense of the principles that the system would defend. Over time the European nations felt safe enough to abandon much of the Westphalian system and create “postmodern” supranational institutions that weakened the importance of national sovereignty.
This same “European world order” has now become the reference point for discussions of an “Asian order.” But that Asian order simply does not exist.
Asia does not enjoy a history of a functioning system of independent nation-states. In postwar Asia, the United States arranged its strategy around Japan, the only Asian country that had modernized and industrialized and participated in the international order before the war. The only other candidate for a great-power partner was China—and indeed, before and during the war, Western statesmen saw China as a potentially key part of the new international order. But then it fell to Mao in 1949 and joined the other side.
As for Asia’s other countries, none has ever really made the transition into a “Westphalian” nation-state. After the war, Indonesia, India, Burma, and Vietnam struggled for independence from European and American colonization. Malaysia and Singapore were created as nation-states when the British pulled out of Asia. Many Southeast Asian countries did not gain full independence until the 1960s and ’70s.
In Northeast Asia today, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan do operate within a semblance of a liberal order thanks to the U.S. alliance system and Japan’s prewar processes of modernization. Yet these countries do not have habits of mutual cooperation.
This is why all attempts to arrange Asia into a collective alliance (as in the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) have fallen apart. Potential member countries simply do not share a common perception of threat, and efforts to build political and regional organizations with teeth are still limited. To be sure, Asian nations have joined such institutions as the WTO, the IMF and World Bank, and UN organizations. They have thereby benefitted from access to international markets and capital, as well as from the free use of the commons.
From time to time, Asian states have also searched for ways to make common cause regionally, as when Chinese and Soviet subversion was spreading and America was beginning to lose the Vietnam War. In 1967, the Southeast Asian nations created ASEAN as a bulwark against Communism; today, its member countries are fitfully learning to play balance-of-power politics in order to maintain their sovereign independence, increase their strategic autonomy, and block new forms of hegemony.
Still, ASEAN is no EU or NATO—and should not have been expected to be so. When it was founded, countries were still fighting for their independence and to define their territorial limits. Until 1966, Indonesia, the largest Southeast Asian nation, was still trying to undermine the formation of Malaysia as an independent country. Mutual suspicion between Indonesia and Vietnam blocked the resolution of the third Indochina war until 1991. Whenever key national-security interests were at stake, ASEAN members went outside the confines of ASEAN to resolve their problems. With little security cohesion among the Asian countries, the Asian security system still today depends on U.S. primacy and in particular on the American commitment to an open maritime order.
Given this brief history, is postwar Europe really a model for Asia and regional integration? The next administration should ask itself that question, and also what can realistically and fruitfully be expected of emergent Asian countries facing the stresses and convulsions of a declining China. The first requirement of a liberal order is constituent liberal nation-states.
Thus the first order of business for the United States is to continue encouraging the development of strategically autonomous countries developing along liberal lines. Given their short histories as independent nations, the U.S. should be satisfied with a Southeast Asia that can engage in the kind of “classical diplomacy” that resolves territorial and maritime disputes on the basis of sovereign equality and international custom, and that can defend itself against the uncertainties attendant on China’s rise and current turmoil. The region must undergo its own modern Westphalian progression before it is urged to jump into postmodern diplomacy.
Can Our Strategy in Asia Succeed While We Retrench Elsewhere?
The most important question to be asked of the new approach to Asia is not about its tactical mistakes but about its misguided strategic conception that the U.S. can “pivot” away from Eurasia’s other critical regions.
The Cold War grand strategy of containment had its roots in the view that, to preserve its security and way of life, America could not abide the dominance of a hostile power in any critical region in Eurasia. That is still the case. Put in a more positive and activist light, America has an interest in making the liberal order open to all comers, particularly in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. To do so, it still needs a global maritime strategy that can tip balances in its favor and keep trade functioning well.
Take U.S. commitments to Asian friends and allies. These depend upon security of energy supply and transit from the Middle East and therefore upon the dominant role of the United States in the Persian Gulf. It is doubtful that China or Russia will step into that role, and if they did, Asian allies would be right to be concerned.
On the issue of nonproliferation, Japan and South Korea in particular look to the U.S. global role in stemming the tide of nations anxious to acquire weapons of mass destruction. When Syria broke a longstanding taboo in 2013 by using chemical weapons, and got away with it, the event and its significance did not go unnoticed in Tokyo. America’s friends in Asia wait in nervous apprehension as Iran, allegedly in nuclear purgatory, nevertheless continues its slow march toward nuclear weapons. They have seen this happen in North Korea in the face of very similar attempts by American diplomats to prevent it. A nuclear Iran will most certainly change the calculation of Asian countries like Japan and South Korea that have the technological capabilities to acquire their weapons.
Add to these negative developments in the Middle East the festering jihadist threat in Iraq and Syria. The terrorists who have fought in these conflicts are making their way back to Muslim-majority countries in Asia such as Indonesia. And what of Russia, busy annexing Crimea, menacing Europe—and reestablishing its influence in the Middle East? Asian friends pay close attention to territories that are forcefully changed, to the rise of another revisionist power like Iran, and to the potential for unfavorable alignments between Moscow and Beijing.
The Obama administration has had some real accomplishments in Asia, from defense agreements with the Philippines and India, to the successful negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But these advances will be fleeting if the next administration gets U.S. global strategy wrong. The good news in Asia is, unlike in 1945, there are now many countries that share Washington’s liberal values. Even so, order-building in Southeast Asia should be mindful of the relatively short history these countries have as independent, strategically autonomous, Westphalian countries. They will be jealously protective of their sovereignty, will still work out their territorial boundaries, and will remain skeptical of grand institutionalist schemes. Washington can start to help build a solid foundation for 21st-century Asian states by understanding them better and learning to work with them as they are rather than as we would wish them to be—and, crucially, by helping them to hedge more effectively against a China whose rough road ahead will likely result in more aggressive behavior against them, both economically and militarily.