Now that the war in Afghanistan appears to be reaching an end, President Barack Obama has indicated that the United States will shift focus toward the Asia-Pacific.
Some have greeted this declaration with alarm, assuming that strategic redeployments and debates in the region concerning U.S. military presence reflect efforts to contain the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Preoccupied by conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is natural for the dynamic Asian region to reach the conclusion that a renewed U.S. engagement is long overdue. Strategically of course, the U.S. never left the Pacific, nor is likely to do so. The fact that this debate has emerged during the first Obama term highlights its supreme utility.
The Asia-Pacific is a safe option because, despite the rhetoric, nothing much happens here. Mutually dependent on each other for economic survival, China and the U.S. can now devote themselves to a decade or so of debate and discussion, the occasional trade war and hopefully long-awaited trade negotiations. This could be the most productive decade in generations.
The Asia-Pacific is also a safe option because it is a region going somewhere — unlike the Middle East, which despite the Arab Spring seems to have as many problems as there are stars in the sky. The Asia-Pacific is of course not without problems. Some nations struggle with issues surrounding national identity and minority rights, whereas others remain divided, while yet others linger in the full knowledge that past atrocities are unlikely to be ever fully resolved.
Due to history and geographical proximity, the Asia-Pacific is a region that likes to talk. The Europeans talked in order to build a regional bloc, but in the Asia Pacific, countries talk without any real goal in mind. Most countries have no interest in replicating anything like the European Union; nor are contemporary talkfests a series of steppingstones to any grand regional architecture.
In the Asia Pacific, talking is an end in itself. One of the benefits of development is that this region of tightly packed dynamic economies has produced administrative structures fortunately capable of engaging competently in many of the new regional arrangements that have flourished since the end of the Cold War.
The Asia-Pacific is an unusual region in that strategically, given the state of alliances, bases, policies and treaties, virtually all important regional decisions have been made and there is little space for nations to maneuver. The most adventurous excursions are likely to be about tiny islands, disputed boundaries, fishing, whaling and shipping lanes, but even here, given the number of players involved and the number of interrelated issues, it is akin to a game of chess where most of the moves have already been made.
Suddenly, for inexplicable reasons, the specter of war has been raised once more in the Pacific. This centers on the rise of the People’s Republic of China, its ambitions in the region and its attitudes toward the United States. Since the turn of the century, the theme was that of the “peaceful rise” of China, but since 2010 there has been a shift toward viewing an “expansionist” China.
Expansionists believe that the U.S. Japan and India have no option but to step aside for China. This reflects the growing economic might of the PRC and spells the end of early critiques of contemporary China that foresaw economic collapse, implosion or cataclysm. These disasters do not seem likely.
In light of economic growth in the PRC, the new critique from a number of scholars is that economic gains made in China are those that have been made illegitimately based on dubious moral foundations. From the bedroom to the workplace, the environment, to governance and social norms, this new criticism is that the PRC doesn’t deserve the right to be a large power because it lacks the necessary moral constitution.
Beyond academic scribbling, however, lurks a more ominous dynamic in the form of an insidious gloom. This depression has one goal, which is to influence minds to expect the worst and to certainly prepare for it. This gloom shifts attention from the delights of the possible to the drain of the inevitable. Many now believe that some kind of confrontation will occur between the U.S. and the PRC over the course of the decade.
This stems largely from the realist notion that Asians are like Europeans with an insatiable quest for blood and conflict and that, given any opportunity, will bathe the roads with tears, death and retribution.
Copious amounts of ink have already been spilled in blogs, journals, papers and speeches, with everyone a self-appointed seer, able to predict the future of China and the U.S. with incredible ease. One can almost hear the salivating and the licking of lips as these scholars await the new Pacific war, driven by failures to reconcile differences, overcome enmities or relax tensions.
True, there are critical historical grievances, but this is not the Middle East, nor is it the Balkans. Demographically, many of the key players are among the world’s most rapidly aging and most prosperous societies in the world. These two factors reinforce stability not chaos.
Let us not forget that Asian countries were the first outside North America and Europe to achieve high rates of economic growth and post-World War II prosperity. Let us not forget that some of these nations may have had this much earlier had they not been swept aside during the colonial period. More importantly, let us not forget that China and India did not suddenly appear out of the mists of time to disturb the economic supremacy of the U.S. For both nations, this is simply one episode in a rich and long history. Both China and India in and of themselves have played a profound role in shaping the world.
As we look to 2012, accepted across Asia as the Year of the Dragon, we can in our individual capacities challenge the insidious notion that the future of the Asia-Pacific will be bleak.
More difficult, however, is to accept that for most of us, we don’t know nearly as much as we should about China or India, and even, dare we say, Japan.
A good starting point is to begin talking, learning an Asian language and becoming more aware of the politics, economy and social life of the world’s largest nations.
We do not need to be seers, or prophesy about the future. Anything is possible, but to expect or even look forward to war in the Asia-Pacific is a great evil and a thought not worthy of those who lived before us.
Those who died and suffered in the wars in the region during the 19th and 20th centuries would, if they could, rebuke us, for giving up so easily.
After all, given the state of modern technology, any form of confrontation or conflict raises the prospect of stakes the cost of which would be intolerably high.
Michael Sutton, Ph.D., is a research fellow at the WTO Research Center, at Aoyama Gakuin University, Tokyo. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org