National Security & Defense

In Asia, a Dance for Five Partners

Chinese president Xi Jinping visits the White House, September 25, 2015. (Yuri Gripas/AFP/Getty)
Pivoting right past Asia

In 2012 Barack Obama announced a “pivot” to Asia, which lasted for about five minutes until he pivoted right back to his forte, which is picking largely symbolic culture-war fights with Republicans over domestic issues that play well among affluent white suburbanites.

The “pivot” was, in fact, intended to be the beginning of a marketing push for the presidential campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who outlined the essentials of the program in an article in Foreign Policy. The path in this case is sixfold: expanding bilateral security commitments with Asian partners; raising the American profile in Asia’s international institutions; expanding trade; increasing the U.S. military presence in the Pacific; taking a leadership role in Asian human-rights issues; and generally renewing our diplomatic efforts to cultivate richer relationships with China and with Asian powers worried about being dominated by China.

The main policy outcome so far has been the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade-liberalization pact that Mrs. Clinton has been walking sideways away from for months. TPP is a proposal that is good and necessary in its generalities, worrisome and sometimes unpersuasive in its particulars, and currently caught between a Democratic electorate that hates free trade per se and a Republican electorate that is one-third composed of people who hate free trade per se and otherwise dominated by those who believe, not without some reason, that President Obama would not put forth such an agreement without a rascally purpose, occult though it may be. This leaves the United States in the very difficult position of needing to make the case for free trade abroad when it is a minority taste at home.

There are Pacific powers among the TPP countries that are established and natural allies of the United States (Australia, Canada) and countries that are important to us for economic (and other) reasons (Singapore, Chile, Brunei), but, without slighting any of the other players, our main interests in Asia proper have to do largely with four countries: China, India, Japan, and the Republic of Korea, which is necessarily considered jointly with its constant tormenter, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which is named with the usual Stalinist-Orwellian precision that is the hallmark of the socialist style.

RELATED: It’s Time to Rethink How We Talk about China

Beijing fears that the “pivot” communicates an unsubtle American desire to contain China and its influence. This is not entirely mistaken, but to see U.S.–China relations as a zero-sum iteration of the Great Game would be both an error and a tragedy. American prosperity is very closely linked to Chinese prosperity. The main driver of the large U.S. trade deficit with China is not, contra Donald Trump et al., wily trade policy produced by Beijing, or tariffs, or other barriers to exchange. It is the fundamentally different economic conditions of the countries: Americans are productive and rich, Chinese are productive and poor.

The most direct path to a more prosperous United States is a more prosperous China.

The Chinese buy, for example, enormous quantities of American soybeans. That isn’t because Beijing loves American farmers or because Beijing has neglected to construct a sufficiently crafty soybean policy, but because China is hungry, and, on the matter of soybeans, we got ’em and they want ’em. There are many other American-made products that Chinese consumers would like to have, too, but cannot. While Trump explains away his tacky Chinese-made ties by insisting that it is impossible to manufacturing clothing in the United States, a great many firms have significant success doing just that, but at the higher end of the market. Brooks Brothers will happily sell you a suit made in the United States, and presumably would be happy to sell those suits to Chinese buyers, too, but for one problem: They cost upward of $1,200, which is a hard sell in a country where the median household income is about $8,800. The typical Chinese worker does not wear American-made clothes for the same reason the typical American worker does not wear a Rolex.

RELATED: Will the Chinese Economic Giant Stumble?

The United States produces between a fifth and a fourth of the world’s economic output; China has nearly a fifth of the world’s people. The most direct path to a more prosperous United States is a more prosperous China. The optimistic view is that a more prosperous China would be a more “normal” China, a country with something more closely resembling liberal norms rather than a totalitarian one-party police state. But China is a totalitarian one-party police state, one with a nationalist streak a mile wide and a confrontational, defensive stance toward its neighbors that is not, in the light of history, entirely unjustified.

#share#But in the long run, it is not in the interest of the United States or Asia for Americans to take the lead role in making sure that Chinese nationalism stays within Chinese borders. It is much more sensible to have that role filled by Japan and India.

India already is a nuclear power, one that was invaded by China in 1962 and remains involved in territorial disputes with its eastern neighbor. Japan is a country whose military resources and options are artificially constrained both by external obligations and by domestic cultural considerations. India is young and churning; Japan is aged, ailing, and stagnant. But Japan remains a century ahead of India economically (The Onion was exactly right to joke about an imaginary earthquake setting Japan back to the year 2147) and it is, for the moment, a much more stable diplomatic partner, one in which foreign policy is less likely to be suddenly redirected in response to domestic political developments. (Indeed, Japan is more stable than the United States in that sense.) Encouraging Japan to slowly normalize its military and self-defense capacities would be controversial, and, if handled poorly, worse than that. But doing so would in the long run be good for Japan and for its neighbors. It would also give Beijing something to worry about for the next century or so at very little expense to the United States.

RELATED: Don’t Abandon Japan

If Japan plays for Americans the role in Asia that the United Kingdom plays in Europe, then India might be compared to France, a country with which we have not nearly so close a relationship as one would expect given the similarity of our values. India is democratic, capitalistic, liberal, and secular, with China on one side and an Islamic terror zone on the other. Like China, it offers a large potential consumer market for American goods and opportunities for investment, and it presents some eccentric barriers to commerce, too, such as its oddball protectionist restrictions on foreign retailers, which currently are in the process of being somewhat loosened. Given the current attitude toward free trade in the United States, it will be difficult for an American president to press New Delhi to liberalize its own trade restrictions, which are, after all, intended to protect small businesses, domestic manufacturing, and local farmers. Making the case for a bilateral trade-liberalization deal between the two countries will not be easy — not in Washington, and not in New Delhi — but it is essential to the long-term interests of both republics.

Such a trade deal was negotiated with the Republic of Korea during the George W. Bush administration, and the Obama administration subsequently fouled it up. Obama had opposed the deal in the Senate and as president insisted on reopening negotiations. Without sliding too deeply (as some critics have) into stereotypes about face-saving in East Asian cultures, Washington’s forcing a series of humiliating one-sided concessions on Seoul at the behest of U.S. labor unions for no reason beyond domestic political necessity was unpopular in South Korea.

RELATED: How America Should Respond to North Korea’s Recent Threats

But the dominant U.S. concern in the Koreas right now is the dozen and a half nuclear weapons in Pyongyang’s arsenal. The autarkic and confrontational regime in the Hermit Kingdom is unsustainable, as every serious observer knows. And every serious observer knows how it is going to end: violently. There is exactly one stable and desirable outcome in the case, which is the deposition of the Pyongyang regime and the reunification of the Koreas under Seoul. Getting that done cleanly is going to require the involvement of the United States, which hasn’t much appetite for such fights, and of China, the acquiescence of which will be necessary — and will not be purchased on the cheap.

#related#There are many dances for four partners. Dances for five partners are awkward and rare. But the near-term economic and security interests of the United States are, in all likelihood, going to be influenced less by events in Europe (which is in the process of deciding exactly how sclerotic it intends to be under the management of Brussels) and more by those in young, hungry, dynamic — and unstable — Asia. The pairings are complicated: Delhi to Beijing, Beijing to Pyongyang, Pyongyang to Seoul, Seoul to Beijing, Beijing to Tokyo, Washington in the middle of all. We already know that Mrs. Clinton has two left feet here; her tenure as secretary of state established that beyond doubt. Whether there is a fleet-footed alternative on the right remains unknown.

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