JPRI Critique Vol. II No. 5: May 1995
American Inertia and Drift in Asia
by Alan Tonelson

At first glance, Japan and other major countries in East Asia can be forgiven for viewing the last several years as a time of triumph in their relations with the United States.

China beat back a major American push to link trade and human rights issues. Moreover, spearheaded by Malaysians and Singaporeans, Asians have boldly thrust their supposedly distinctive views on human rights and social policy into international debates and forums.

Japan has outlasted the Clinton administration's half-hearted efforts to pry open its closed markets and reduce its chronic bilateral trade surplus--and won considerable international support for this effort. The United States has ensnared itself in a new World Trade Organization where it lacks a veto, and whose members are overwhelmingly mercantilist. And the latest APEC summit declarations could effectively postpone the region's economic liberalization for decades.

Meanwhile, the United States still bears most of the cost and risk of containing or rolling back North Korea's nuclear program, and for defending and stabilizing East Asia.

But best of all, from an Asian standpoint, the Clinton administration has decided that today's one-sided relationships should continue indefinitely. The Defense Department has just released a strategic review (the so-called 'Nye' Report, named after Harvard professor and current Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Nye) that announces America's intention to retain present military forces and treaties in the region. The clear message: No one in East Asia will suffer significant consequences for refusing to allow competitive American companies to participate fully in their economic success.

Yet East Asians should not pop their champagne corks just yet. Relations among countries are, after all, not completely controlled by governments or foreign policy elites. Even as Washington remains on automatic pilot, the objective foundations of the current strategy are crumbling. It is much more difficult today to argue that the combination of unconditional defense guarantees and one-way free trade serves U.S. interests than during the Cold War. Before long these changing conditions will overwhelm the combination of intellectual inertia and nostalgia currently driving U.S. policy.

During the Cold War, American leaders rarely attempted to weigh the costs and benefits of U.S. foreign policy carefully. U.S. officials believed that holding onto allies and building security and prosperity throughout the non-communist world were aims so vital to America's own well-being that they were worth literally any risk or sacrifice. These views were reinforced by the reality of America's global military, economic, and technological predominance. As a result, issues of cost and risk were often defined out of existence. The United States even based its defense policy on a promise to risk nuclear destruction--and deployed forces abroad in tripwire, hostage situations to ensure the promise was kept.

Still, the unusual Cold War combination of vast U.S. power and deadly Soviet threat made America's East Asian strategy justifiable--if not beyond criticism. The importance of denying hostile totalitarian forces the raw materials, industrial assets, and vast overall economic potential of East Asia understandably generated a sizeable U.S. military presence. So did the importance of keeping this populous region open to American businesses and workers.

Further, the need to develop and strengthen Cold War allies led the United States not only to provide military protection, but to open its markets wide and wink at Asian protectionism. And because the United States sought to prevent Japan from once again becoming a strong independent actor in world politics--for fear of repeating the tragedies of the 1930s--it needed literally to conduct foreign policy for Japan. Thus America both protected Japan and sopped up its exports.

Meanwhile, during the Cold War years, world politics and East Asian conditions underwent dramatic changes--chiefly the Sino-Soviet split, the loss of American strategic nuclear superiority, and the U.S. defeat in Vietnam. But despite some tactical adjustments (for example, Richard Nixon's opening to China), U.S. leaders remained convinced that they had no choice but to give East Asia a free ride militarily and economically.

The Soviet Union's collapse and the demise of communism as an ideological force have changed everything but the way official America thinks. Not even America's self-styled first post-Cold War president appears to understand how the revolution in world politics has weakened the justification for America's current Asia strategy in particular.

Because the Soviet Union has disappeared, conflict and turmoil in East Asia can no longer be exploited by an anti-American superpower bent on global domination. Not even the emergence of China alters the reality that, from a purely selfish American standpoint, the implications of Asian instability look distinctly local.

In addition, East Asian cooperation with American initiatives to build a more peaceful and prosperous world has been unimpressive of late. Japan, for example, remained conspicuously on the sidelines during the Persian Gulf War in all respects except financial. Tokyo was of no help to the United States in concluding the Uruguay Round of world trade negotiations, either. And its foreign aid programs remain less concerned with bolstering international stability than with fattening the profits of Japanese companies.

Is Japan simply incapable of diplomatic activism? If so, why, in 1993, did Japanese officials fan out all over Asia and the rest of the world to lobby governments to oppose the Clinton administration's market-opening campaign?

The Northeast Asian countries' role in the simmering North Korea crisis shows vividly how objective U.S. and East Asian interests are diverging. Japan, South Korea, and China have all opposed using economic sanctions to speed up North Korea's de-nuclearization. These countries apparently believe that the job can be done solely with incentives, and they understandably want to avoid war on the Korean peninsula at nearly all costs. After former President Jimmy Carter travelled to Pyongyang, U.S. policy fell in line behind this Asian view.

But however desirable accommodation-ism is for East Asia, it makes little sense for America in present circumstances. The North Korean nuclear agreement remains full of holes, and the North remains volatile politically and economically. If accommodation fails, the nearly 40,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea are certain to be trapped.

Why should America remain so dangerously and uniquely exposed? If North Korea's neighbors still view Pyongyang as so threatening that an American shield and tripwire are required, they should shoulder more of the burden and risks of denuclearizing the North. If, on the other hand, they are confident that incentives alone will work, then such a large, expensive, and vulnerable U.S. presence should no longer be necessary.

The economic case for America's current Asia strategy is even less convincing. Not only have Japan and other East Asian countries become formidable rivals to the U.S. but trans-Pacific trade has been so unbalanced for so long that it arguably hurts more American businesses and workers than it helps. Worse, some disturbing evidence indicates that the relationship between America's military role and its economic performance in Asia is being stood on its head. Just before Christmas, Japanese Ambassador to Washington Takakazu Kuriyama told reporters for The Wall Street Journal that if the United States withdrew militarily from Asia, it would face difficulty expanding its economic presence in the region.

Divergence is apparent in the field of values as well. East Asians have every right to stand up for their own views on human rights and on the broader questions of how best to organize societies. But peoples who dwell on how different--let alone how superior--their political, economic, and social priorities are should not be surprised if Americans become less inclined to treat them as allies deserving of both economic and military largesse.

These trends have two fundamental implications for U.S. strategy. First, in the post-Cold War era, America's reliance on its politico-military power to achieve its economic goals around the world--and in East Asia in particular--by manipulating alliance relationships is obsolete. Despite East Asia's continuing worries about the Japanese and the Chinese, in a post-Soviet era, the region is simply less willing to pay a substantial price for U.S. military protection.

Moreover, the North Korea crisis, coupled with America's recent record in Bosnia and Somalia, has surely taught East Asians a sobering lesson about American reliability and military capability. The mere presence of American forces in a region no longer guarantees their use, and their use no longer guarantees a successful resolution of a conflict. No future Pentagon strategy will be able to overcome the new domestic political barriers to risking American lives for interests that are less than vital. As a result, many Asian countries, including Japan, are already beginning to hedge their bets and take actions to prepare for a more passive American role.

Second, Asia has become less than vital to the United States. In the post-Cold War era, U.S. security and prosperity are less tightly tied to the security and prosperity of even major economic partners. Not even the argument that greater instability in Asia or Europe could seriously harm the United States by depressing economic activity and therefore trade stands up to serious scrutiny. For one, the economic costs and military risks to America of trying to hold together fragmenting regions might well outweigh the benefits--assuming that success was possible to begin with.

One emerging lesson of the 20th century--and certainly of the post-1945 world--may be that international economic activity is remarkably resilient. It has continued to grow at healthy rates even as major regions have been wracked by conflicts and upheavals. In fact, the only forces capable to slowing down trade and investment and technology flows seem to be great power conflicts such as the two world wars. And most observers in the States view such wars as less likely to break out today than ever before.

East Asia is still extremely important to the United States, and America still has significant stakes in wielding power and influence in the region effectively. But projecting military power and manipulating alliance relationships will no longer work. The greatest potential source of U.S. leverage in Asia--and elsewhere in the world--will be economic strength. Expanding U.S. stocks of capital and technology, and maintaining thriving industrial and consumer markets will be the new keys to American international success. Traditional foreign policy strategies are largely irrelevant to these goals.

For these reasons, the United States should phase out the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty--as the best way to ensure the long-term survival of a fundamentally cooperative bilateral relationship. This may sound paradoxical. But treaties cannot create power realities; they can only reflect them. Continuing a paternalistic 50-year-old arrangement established when Japan was literally on its knees can only continue fueling the spiral of unrealistic expectations and hurt feelings that have done so much damage to the relationship in recent decades.

The best guarantee of placing ties between the two countries on a solid, durable footing would be to pursue genuine normalization--to recognize that both Japan and the U.S. are great, fully sovereign powers that have much in common but whose interests will not always coincide. By accepting the inevitable complexities of their mutual dealings, rather than trying to shoehorn them into an obsolete Cold War-era framework, the United States and Japan will be better able to prevent periodic disagreements from spinning out of control. Such an approach will undoubtedly be attacked as "isolationism" by those emotionally wed to nebulous notions of America's "global responsibilities" and "leadership." But the aim would not be to wall the United States off from the rest of the world. It would be to empower the United States to engage the world on favorable terms.

ALAN TONELSON is a Fellow of the Economic Strategy Institute in Washington, D.C. This article appeared in Japanese in the February 1995 issue of Foresight under the title


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