Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Asia has enjoyed considerably more stability than has Europe, the other critical theater of the Cold War. It’s fair to say that there has been far more continuity in the region than change. That, however, no longer appears to be the case. The historic June 2000 summit between South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il raised hopes for a normalization in relations between the two countries. Nuclear tests by India and Pakistan signaled a shift in the strategic situation in South Asia. China’s economic modernization could transform the regional balance of power. Southeast Asia is still grappling with the effects of the 1997 economic crisis and increasing economic integration.
In other words, report the authors of this new study, “This is a dynamic security environment. The only certainty is that it could and likely will evolve rapidly over the next decade.”
The stakes are especially high for the United States. In many ways, the U.S. is the security guarantor for East Asia. Its military presence provides reassurance to friends and deters forces that might try to cause trouble or hope to profit from instability. For Washington, an understanding of the forces at work in the region is critical. Even business professionals would do well to understand the “big picture” as they too benefit from the stability that the U.S. presence provides.
While this study does not reflect official U.S. policy, several of its authors have taken positions within the Bush administration. Zalmay Khalilzad, for example, is the point man for Afghanistan; Ashley Tellis is a key player in South Asia policy. Since they have input into the policy process, the insight the study provides into U.S. thinking about the region is valuable.
On the most basic level, U.S. thinking is shaped by its goals. According to the authors, “the overall long-term U.S. objective for the region should be to preclude in Asia the growth of rivalries, suspicions and insecurities that could lead to war. This overall objective necessitates, in turn, three subordinate goals: prevent the rise of a regional hegemon, maintain stability, and manage Asia’s transformation.”
The chief tools in this endeavor are the bilateral alliances the U.S. has with Japan, South Korea and Australia, along with the security relationships it enjoys with Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand. The authors believe the time has come to extend these ties and create a more interlinked network of relationships. “The United States should deepen as well as widen its bilateral security alliances in the form of a larger partnership. This multilateralization — which would be a complement to and not a substitute for the existing bilateral alliances — should include the United States, Japan, South Korea, Australia and perhaps Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand.” Curiously, a similar proposal was the subject of much speculation late last year during U.S. defense consultations with Australia; the idea was dismissed, but it clearly has a constituency in Washington. Some would even extend it to include India.
The U.S. doesn’t have to make those relationships formal to achieve its objectives. At a minimum, it should encourage communication with and among its partners in Asia, foster increased political and military transparency, and cast its net broadly in search for security partners. If security is as much psychological as physical, confidence building can go a long way toward enhancing peace and stability in the region.
The study itself — and its recommendations — makes up one-third of the volume. For most readers, the real value is in the rest of the book: background papers on the political-military environment in Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, China and South Asia.
For Japan Times readers, the chapters on Northeast Asia and China are probably the most interesting. The starting point for analysis is simple: Asia is in the midst of a transformation. “Major uncertainties persist concerning the region’s dominant political and strategic characteristics and America’s place in it. . . . Policymakers need to assess the likelihood and consequences of alternative futures that are not simply marginal adjustments to the status quo.”
Japan is trying to adapt to this new environment. A decade of economic stagnation, the rise of China and renewed appreciation of the utility of military force — a product of the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis and North Korea’s 1998 missile test — have had a profound effect on Japanese thinking. The political debate lags behind, but developments since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks show that there is a new approach to security in Tokyo.
Although this study was completed before those tragic events, the Japanese reaction seems to confirm its thinking. Jonathan Pollack, a distinguished scholar of Northeast Asia and the author of the paper on the region, concludes that “security debate in Japan has advanced well beyond its prior conceptual and policy restraints. While the potential fragility of the ruling political coalition remains a limiting factor, it has not inhibited the development of more innovative Japanese policies.”
For the most part, those changes are continuations of the existing defense framework: They pose no threat to the bilateral alliance. Still, Pollack notes that “evidence of shifting directions is palpable.”
Accommodating those changes and encouraging responsible behavior on Tokyo’s part is Washington’s main task. That may sound condescending, but historically the U.S. has played big brother in the relationship and been prepared to shoulder Japan’s defense burden.
Establishing a new balance for those duties and responsibilities will not be easy. Finding a new equilibrium is complicated by concerns that any restructuring of U.S. forces will raise questions about the U.S. commitment to the region. Pollack believes that prudent changes will allow the U.S. to “be better prepared to protect and advance its goals in East Asia as a whole even if it is moved to reduce the absolute size of its military forces permanently stationed in the region.”
This is a key issue. Pollack continues, “Reducing and/or relocating (the large U.S. Marine Corps force in Okinawa) — to Guam, perhaps, or to Hawaii — would remove a perennially contentious issue from the agenda of U.S.-Japanese relations and will not significantly diminish U.S. capabilities for rapidly responding to events in East Asia. . . . the maintenance of a large U.S. Marine Corps presence on Okinawa may not be an effective use of limited U.S. political capital in the region.” I am not sure the alliance managers in either Tokyo or Washington want to hear that argument.
The study makes a number of other critical points:
* A unified Korea is more likely to view Japan “as its main regional rival or as a security threat.” Much depends on the circumstances of Korean unification: A united Korea with weapons of mass destruction (inherited from the North), missile programs and South Korea’s economic strength would redraw (literally and figuratively) the map of the region. The authors note that the failure to resolve historical antagonisms between Japan and Korea could drive Seoul closer to China.
* Within two decades, China could emerge as a “multidimensional peer regional competitor” for the U.S. That does not mean that China would be equal to the U.S. globally, but it would be capable of asserting itself — and frustrating U.S. intentions — in the region.
* Southeast Asia’s instability presents “unprecedented opportunities for internal and external actors — whether political dissidents, religious extremists, separatists, or perspective hegemons — seeking to overturn the status quo. In particular, it could present a rising China with opportunities to extend its presence and influence in the region.”
* Finally, the authors note India’s rise and its desire to project influence in South Asia and beyond, but caution against trying to harness that power; in other words, the hope of enlisting India in an anti-China strategy is probably unrealistic. “Indian security managers believe that the best insurance against asserted Chinese power lies not in participating in any evolving anti-China coalition, but rather in emerging as a strong and independent power center on China’s periphery. . . . Indian policymakers are convinced that the challenges of guaranteeing Indian security, status, and autonomy require that the country play an active and responsible role abroad . . .”
That could have implications for Tokyo. The authors also note that “India and Japan could see a common interest in balancing Chinese influence in the region and in protecting sea lanes of communication from the Middle East.”
When “The United States and Asia” was released, it was viewed as a key document for the (then) new Bush administration. That gives the document too much importance: It is not a blueprint for U.S. policy. As a “tour d’horizon,” however, it is invaluable.