Slowly but surely, the United States is waking up to the profound changes afoot in the structure of global power. The rise of China is one sign of this shift, but it is only part of a much bigger process: As the authors of this impressive survey argue, “the geopolitical map of the world is being reshaped.”
Trust that judgment. You would be hard-pressed to find two sharper observers of the forces at work. Morton Abramowitz served as U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Thailand, and held other senior positions at the Departments of State and Defense. Stephen Bosworth was ambassador to South Korea, the Philippines and Tunisia, and also served in various senior positions at the State Department. In addition to knowledge and insight gained from their long careers working in the region, the two spent weeks traveling throughout Asia for this book, interviewing hundreds of people about trends, issues and concerns.
The result is an engaging, slim volume — “just the right length for a flight across the Pacific,” explained Bosworth — that identifies “the new realities” of Asia and calls for increasing U.S. attention to the region and its complexities. The writing is breezy, but the thinking is never superficial.
Many of the themes will be familiar to observers of foreign affairs (and even the most uninformed resident of the region). And while those issues get their due, the real power of this analysis is the way the authors shift perspective, moving from a U.S.-centered to an Asia-centered analysis.
This underscores a central point: The way the U.S. thinks about the region has to change. Old certainties have evaporated and assumptions have to be reconsidered. The military has traditionally been the primary instrument of U.S. engagement with the region, but “the reality is that the utility of military force . . . is not all that compelling to many East Asian countries. . . . It is similarly questionable whether military power remains all that relevant to our desire to guard access to resources and markets in East Asia, or even to our traditional concerns over keeping open the principal sea lanes through the region.”
Instead, the challenge for the U.S., they explain, “seems increasingly one of managing globalization and economic competition — the drive for markets, the growth of new technologies and the critical requirement for human talent.” As they note, “in the long run, what East Asia offers the world is not just inexpensive labor, but impressive intellectual power and enormously hardworking and market-oriented peoples as well.” These guys get it.
The authors identify four “interrelated big issues” that will shape the U.S. relationship with East Asia: China’s emergence as a great power; U.S. handling of the Cold War flash points, Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula; China-Japan competition; the emergence of an Asian community and its associated political and economic institutions.
That last item, the creation of an “Asian community,” is increasingly a conversation topic when talking about Asia. Yet, the concept and the process are little understood, perhaps because Asians themselves seem confused about just what is going on. Still, with the little they do know, most Americans dismiss it as pie in the sky, a dream that will founder upon the same obstacles that prevent other Asian institutions — Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC), Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) — from dealing with serious issues.
Nonetheless, the U.S. must be careful. It cannot be seen as opposed to Asian integration; it doesn’t have the power to stop it and hindering something that Asians desire is the easiest way to make enemies. Washington’s reputation was tarred by its seeming indifference to the 1997 Asian financial crisis. That “may have marked the beginning of the decline in American ‘soft power’ in the region. When we failed to ride quickly to their rescue, we seemed to many in the region to care less about their well-being than we had during the cold war years.”
Abramowitz and Bosworth are optimistic about the future: Flash points can be managed, nationalism won’t get out of hand, and China can become, with proper encouragement, a positive force in the region. Japan’s economic recovery holds out hope for Tokyo to play a larger diplomatic role.
China figures large in their analysis and few assessments are as concise and accurate. It is, they argue, “the most important question in international affairs in the first half of this century.” But as they note, it is a complex and nuanced discussion: China defies simple characterization.
The authors support Japan’s search for a more constructive and assertive role in the region and the world, but worry about the mixed signals it — and its U.S. ally — send about its intentions. Alarm bells ring when former President Kim Dae Jung, a supporter of Japan-South Korea reconciliation, “bluntly told us that he was more worried by Japan’s defense buildup than by China’s and that he feared the resurgence of Japanese militarism.”
The book concludes with a list of ways the U.S. can engage the region on each of these questions (and the others they discuss). All are sensible and ultimately realizable. They constitute an agenda for the last two years of the Bush administration and the beginnings of a “road map” for its successor. They do require “insight, wise policy, and a new willingness to listen to others in the region. . . . It also requires a better understanding of the forces of change in East Asia, the new context in which we find ourselves, and the limitations of military force. None of this should be beyond us.” They are right, but is this the direction of the thinking in Washington?