A reality check in Asia

by Brad Glosserman

The hearts of Asia-Pacific strategists are all aflutter. The desire of Japan’s new government to “rebalance” its foreign policy between East and West and the subsequent tensions between Tokyo and Washington are seen as portents of a shift in the regional balance of power. Propelled by a global recession that is widely seen as “made in the USA,” and the striking contrast of China’s resilience and rising confidence, there is a growing sense that we are witnesses to the first stages of a fundamental transition in the way the world works. This is a compelling idea — but it is simplistic and the implications that many draw from the changes under way are way overdrawn. This is crude zero-sum thinking, and it doesn’t capture the dynamics of contemporary Asia.

The case for change is straightforward. The Obama administration talks about a new commitment to Asia, but it is distracted by wars elsewhere and absorbed by bruising political fights at home. Its capacity for action is limited by rising debt and dependence on other nations whose interests often differ from those of the U.S. or who would like to see Washington humbled, if not humiliated, by foreign adversaries.

The chief beneficiary of these constraints is China, which is eager to pursue its place of prominence in Asia and whose economic dynamism has put it at the very heart of a newly integrated regional order. China’s appeal is increasing — and when seduction doesn’t work, Beijing has shown little compunction about playing hardball to get its way.

The canary in this coal mine is Tokyo. Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has said that he seeks to “rebalance” relations with the U.S. and forge a new relationship with Asia as a whole, and China in particular.

The “meaning” of this shift is reputedly evident in rising tensions with Washington, triggered by delays in the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa Prefecture, which is seen as part of a more general devaluing of the alliance as a whole. The visit of Democratic Party of Japan kingpin Ozawa Ichiro to Beijing with several hundred businessmen and politicians in tow and Ozawa’s push to arrange, on short notice, for visiting Chinese Vice President (and heir apparent) Xi Jinping to have a meeting with the emperor in Tokyo — a violation of protocol — contrast pointedly with the growing antagonism between Tokyo and Washington. Hatoyama’s call for an East Asian community that excludes the U.S. completes the case for a shift in the global balance of power — advantage Beijing!

Not exactly. Yes, the world is changing. Asia is assuming a more prominent role in the global economy. Thus far, its political influence has lagged and the desire to fix that is driving many — but not all — policy decisions in regional capitals. The creation of an East Asian community is one expression of that desire. Yes, China is playing and will play a key role in that process and in any resulting community. And yes, Japan is debating its place in the region and the world, and that debate has taken on new intensity in the wake of changes since the end of the Cold War. But once again, that isn’t the whole story.

China is rising, but there are real limits to its influence, strength and allure. Economic growth is creating unprecedented strains in Chinese society and it isn’t clear how the political system will cope — much less deliver on expectations of rising prosperity. China is a big presence, but Asian governments have little faith or confidence in Beijing. Beijing is a stalwart defender of the principle of noninterference in domestic affairs, but it has shown little inclination to provide the international public goods — security and stability — that have made Asian prosperity possible.

Japan is debating national identity — but that discussion has been going on since the Meiji Restoration. Governments in Tokyo have always been tugged between East and West, and compromises have been made, modified and discarded since the isolationism of the Edo period was abandoned. That is exactly what any country should do as internal and external circumstances change.

While rapprochement between Tokyo and Beijing is a good thing — the region’s two leading powers should be on good terms and no regional community is possible without some form of reconciliation — there are fundamental conflicts of interest, values and perspective that limit those countries’ room for diplomatic maneuver. It is telling that despite the “new look” in Tokyo, the two countries had another one of their periodic spats over disputed territory in the East China Sea earlier this year.

Similarly, Japan’s call for respect and equality in the U.S.-Japan relationship is not new. Every Tokyo government has chafed at being the “junior partner” — what ally doesn’t? Significantly, public support in Japan for the alliance is at historically high levels.

This DPJ government, like other governments in the region, looks to the U.S. to provide regional security and stability. Washington’s power may be diminished, but it remains an integral part of the Asian order. It provides international public goods to the Asia Pacific. It is the trusted “great power” in the region. Washington remains a key partner as Asia — and the world — undergoes a transformative period. We must prepare for those transitions, but we shouldn’t be scared of them.

Brad Glosserman is executive director of Pacific Forum CSIS and a contributing editor to The Japan Times. This article originally appeared in PacNet Newsletter.