Walter Russell Mead’s column in the Wall Street Journal last week praises America’s bipartisan policy in Asia, claiming that it may be as influential as NATO or the Marshall Plan. The core of this policy “encourages Asian powers to get rich by participating in the most open trading system in the history of the world . . . in exchange for commitments to abide by that system’s rules.” It has, by accident or design, formed the basis of a U.S.-centered balance-of-power system. Obviously, the country most concerned about this system, and perhaps most constrained by it, is China, even as it has benefited the most from the system’s openness. Yet the goal of the American system is not to contain China but to create a free and prosperous Asia that China should want to join by playing by the system’s rules (rules that Mead notes but does not define).
As proof of this strategy’s success, Mead cites a raft of recent events: the Canberra-Washington decision to station U.S. Marines in Australia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Burma, Japan’s decision to buy F-35 stealth fighters, and the first U.S.-Indo-Japan trilateral meeting. All in all, Mead believes the U.S. policy — which predates the Obama administration and will survive it — is in the highest traditions of U.S. statesmanship.
Mead is an astute observer of foreign policy, and in the main, he seems to get it right. Most importantly, he is right to stress that America’s Asia policy is not about China, it’s about Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region, which we too often reduce to two or three countries. Obviously, with China rising for the past few decades, our focus on Beijing has grown and will continue to grow for the foreseeable future (or until China stops rising, in which case we will turn our attention to the next country that promises profit to investors; see: Japan in the 1990s). Still, there are over 2 billion people in the Indo-Pacific outside China’s borders; to myopically obsess over one country would be a failure of leadership and vision.
But as someone who travels through the region regularly, I’m a bit less optimistic than Mead on the depth of strength our policy has. It’s not a Potemkin village, but I think it falls short of the informally cohesive structure he sees.
First, it’s easy for everyone to adhere to “rules” of conduct when no one has the ability to challenge them, in which case no one really thinks about the rules at all. These rules are nothing more than accepted behavior; they have not been clearly defined, and the actors have not all pledged to uphold them. Therefore, they can be changed at any time. Whether such acquiescence holds in coming years — and it may not, either because of perceived American decline or because more actors have the ability to challenge norms like freedom of navigation — will be the real test of how successful we have been in inculcating a cooperative pattern of behavior in Asia.
Second, as much as U.S. allies and partners are helping us, preserving stability in the region still depends overwhelmingly on American forces. Almost every government I talk with in Asia remains focused on their own national interests, while assuming the United States will keep regional peace. To put it another way: To the extent that smaller states are developing their various militaries, they are looking to protect their front yard, but expecting America to keep the whole neighborhood peaceful.
It’s an open question whether the nascent balance of power that Mead sees will become meaningfully effective, and here concerns about America’s military capacity in coming lean years is particularly worrisome. The less we have to operate with far from our shores, the less credible we will be and the less effective in times of need. As much as the Australia agreement is a positive move, if rebasing 2,500 U.S. Marines to Australia serves to keep peace in Asia, then that peace is probably not much threatened; on the other hand, if things go bad, those 2,500 Marines won’t settle the issue.
Third, to the extent that the U.S. and all Asian nations remain dependent on China for our economic wellbeing, everyone remains wary of opposing Beijing’s occasional bursts of petulance, pique, and intimidation. Some may say it’s all bluster, but from a “broken windows” perspective, China has gotten away with affronts to norms of behavior on the high seas and in the air (such as pointing over 1,000 missiles at Taiwan). So far, no state, including America, has been willing to risk its economic health by challenging China over these geopolitical faux pas. Therefore, while Mead is right to see an overall prosperous Asian system based on rules that benefits all who participate, China remains a free rider, and it is less than clear that the system actually works to constrain China’s assertive behavior.#more#
It’s important to question when the United States would actually intervene to curb China in a dispute with a non-U.S. ally (and perhaps even with a U.S. ally). Washington would likely be very hesitant to get in the middle of a squabble, even one that turned into a conflict, unless it clearly and immediately threatened regional security or our direct interests. Yet if we refrained from getting involved, then our commitments would be called into question and the environment in Asia would change, perhaps dramatically. Countries may well decide to bandwagon with China rather than try to go it alone. As a result, Washington would be forced to operate in a more unstable region that makes our policy choices narrower (i.e., either to intervene dramatically the next time, or to draw back until our interests are directly threatened). At some point, U.S. rhetoric will give way to reality.
Mead has rightly shown how our strategy in Asia has been a prudent, farsighted approach to supporting the natural growth tendencies of the world’s most dynamic region. Yet in many ways, its results are more than the sum of its parts. No real challenger has attempted to upend the system, and whether that happens or not will likely have less to do with the strength of the system itself and more to do with calculations of national interest on the part of major regional players. Should that calculus change, then what once seemed like a prudent U.S. policy may look more like luck than wisdom.
— Michael Auslin is a resident scholar in Asian and security studies at the American Enterprise Institute.