Magazine | October 18, 2010, Issue

Eastern Approaches

Will the U.S. remain dominant in the Asia-Pacific region?

Thirty-five years ago this past March, the Vietnamese port city of Da Nang was convulsed by artillery shelling, bloody street violence, and chaotic evacuations, as Communist troops approached and throngs of desperate refugees tried to escape. In August 2010, a very different Da Nang received a visit from the guided-missile destroyer U.S.S. John S. McCain, which hosted bilateral “naval-engagement activities” to mark the 15th anniversary of normalized diplomatic relations. It was the first time since the war that American and Vietnamese servicemen had participated in joint military-training exercises. “This is indicative of the increasingly closer ties between the U.S. and Vietnam,” declared Rear Adm. Ron Horton, commander of Logistics Group Western Pacific.

Their emerging partnership symbolizes one of history’s great ironies. As BBC journalist Bill Hayton has noted, “There are few places in the world more pro-American than modern Vietnam.” Young Vietnamese are enamored of American culture, and the government in Hanoi, which enjoyed massive aid from China during its struggle against the U.S.-backed Saigon regime, now values American power both as a catalyst for economic development and as a check on Chinese ambitions. Shortly before the John S. McCain docked in Da Nang Harbor, U.S. and Vietnamese officials gathered aboard another American vessel, the aircraft carrier U.S.S. George Washington, cruising in the hotly contested South China Sea. Following their subsequent naval drills, America and Vietnam formally launched a high-level defense dialogue.

These actions delivered a clear message to Beijing, as did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum on July 23. Calling the South China Sea territorial disputes a matter of U.S. national interest, Clinton pledged that America would seek to promote a peaceful, multilateral resolution in accordance with international law. That may sound innocuous — but not to the Chinese government, which claims maritime jurisdiction over nearly the entire body of water and rejects “outside interference” in the negotiations. Right on cue, Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi blasted Clinton’s comments as “virtually an attack on China.”

In fact, those comments were a necessary (and overdue) response to persistent Chinese bullying. They signified a wider effort by the Obama administration to bolster America’s security posture in East Asia. Since mid-June, the U.S. has signed a defense-framework agreement with Indonesia, announced the resumption of military cooperation with the Indonesian special forces, sponsored multinational peacekeeping exercises in Cambodia, and conducted large-scale war games with South Korea. It has also introduced new financial sanctions against the other Korea, targeting senior members of the ruling regime in Pyongyang.

All of these moves occurred against the backdrop of Beijing’s increasingly aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, its rapid arms buildup, and its unflagging support for the North Korean dictatorship. The Pentagon’s 2010 report on Chinese defense policy, released in August, warns of a growing military imbalance in the Taiwan Strait, with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continuing to deploy advanced weaponry that could be used against the small island democracy. More broadly, the Pentagon report highlights the dangerous opacity of Chinese intentions: “The limited transparency in China’s military and security affairs enhances uncertainty and increases the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation.”

That uncertainty helps explain why so many Asian governments are wary of China’s burgeoning influence in the region. Hopes that Beijing would prove a “responsible stakeholder” in global politics have been diminished by its efforts to shield North Korea from international pressure, undermine sanctions against Iran, and intimidate neighboring countries such as Vietnam and Japan. Official assurances that China’s rise will be “peaceful” conflict with surging military expenditures, the buildup opposite Taiwan, and heightened maritime tensions caused by Chinese provocations. Many foreign analysts have drawn disturbing parallels between contemporary China and Wilhelmine Germany.

#page#Such parallels can be exaggerated, of course, and it’s important to acknowledge that there are myriad differences (economic, ideological, geographical) between the two rising powers and their historical circumstances. The PLA and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are divided over key strategic issues, and their internal battles are likely to intensify prior to the next CCP national congress in 2012. A student of Confucianism, Chinese president Hu Jintao has urged the creation of a “harmonious society” with social cohesion and internal stability. To that end, he and Chinese premier Wen Jiabao have brought renewed attention to rural development and stressed the need to squash corruption — while also maintaining tight political controls and rigid censorship. In some ways, Chinese repression has gotten worse under Hu, disappointing those who initially saw him as a potential Gorbachev figure.

China’s younger generation is fiercely nationalistic, thanks in part to a state-led “patriotic-education campaign” begun in the 1990s. “The Communist Party has embraced nationalism as its new ideology in an age when almost nobody believes in communism anymore,” wrote former State Department official Susan Shirk in her 2007 book, China: Fragile Superpower. Yet the CCP is also paranoid about being toppled by a nationalist revolution, as the Qing Dynasty was in 1911. These fears increase Beijing’s willingness to “take risks to defend China’s national honor,” said Shirk, adding that the PLA is usually more hawkish than the CCP.

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, Beijing officials of all stripes seem convinced that American power is on the wane, and that Chinese dominance of East Asia is the natural order of things. During its first year in office, the Obama administration may have inadvertently encouraged these attitudes through a series of conciliatory gestures designed to foster bilateral trust. For example, when President Obama visited China in November 2009, the two countries released a joint statement that said “respecting each other’s core interests is extremely important to ensure steady progress in U.S.-China relations.” The trouble is that Beijing’s self-described “core interests” include Taiwan, Tibet, and the South China Sea.

Speaking of Taiwan and Tibet, Obama angered Chinese leaders in early 2010 when he approved a $6.4 billion arms sale to Taipei and then hosted the Dalai Lama at the White House. These decisions affirmed that the broad strokes of U.S. policy toward China had not shifted much since the departure of George W. Bush. Indeed, Obama’s Asia strategy has largely built on the Bush legacy. “There’s far more continuity than change,” says Michael Green, who managed Asian affairs at the National Security Council from 2001 to 2005. Hillary Clinton has privately told former Bush officials that they got Asia right.

Unfortunately, many reporters are still wedded to the narrative that Bush ignored or neglected the region after 9/11. This is simply false. Yes, Condoleezza Rice skipped the ASEAN Regional Forum in 2005 and 2007, when she was serving as secretary of state, and her non-attendance was perceived as a slight. But the Bush team significantly boosted U.S. relations with countries throughout East Asia and the Pacific — including Japan, Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Singapore — while simultaneously deepening American engagement with China.

“From our perspective, U.S. policy on East and Southeast Asia under President George W. Bush was constructive and good for the region,” Singaporean foreign minister George Yeo said in February 2009. Indonesian leader Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, head of the biggest Muslim country on earth, has extolled Bush as “one of the most pro-Indonesia presidents” ever. And the China Daily, a state-run newspaper in Beijing, has praised his handling of U.S.-China ties, editorializing that Bush “laid a decent foundation for one of the world’s most influential relationships.”

#page#In other words, Bush bequeathed his successor a wealth of diplomatic progress. Though U.S. relations with South Korea experienced some friction during the presidency of the late Roh Moo Hyun (2003–08), a left-wing populist, they have improved considerably since the 2008 inauguration of conservative Lee Myung Bak. “Obama and Lee love each other,” says a veteran Asia hand. “They hit it off immediately.” The U.S.-Korea alliance has become even stronger since international investigators confirmed that Pyongyang was responsible for torpedoing a South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, and killing 46 sailors on March 26.

North Korea’s unprovoked sinking of the Cheonan reverberated across Asia. Washington and Seoul responded by holding joint military exercises, both at sea and on land. Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, a hapless bumbler who had strained the American alliance, ended his opposition to the stationing of a U.S. Marine base on Okinawa Island; shortly afterward, he was forced to resign from office. Meanwhile, China’s global image took another bruising when the Communist government refused to condemn Pyongyang for the torpedo attack.

Without its patron in Beijing, the ghastly North Korean regime would have imploded long ago. Obama has now toughened sanctions against the Hermit Kingdom, at a time when Kim Jong Il is working to consolidate a leadership transition and elevate his son, Kim Jong Un. The specter of a regime collapse haunts both U.S. and Chinese policymakers, who have divergent priorities on the Korean peninsula but share concerns over its stability.

If the Pyongyang government were truly on the verge of dissolution, that could trigger a crisis in U.S.-China relations, which have been somewhat frosty ever since Washington authorized the new arms package for Taiwan and Beijing retaliated by freezing bilateral military exchanges. Chinese leaders originally expected the Obama administration to pester them about human rights and trade but be less assertive on national security, writes China scholar Minxin Pei. Instead, roughly the opposite has happened. The administration has soft-pedaled criticism of Chinese abuses and resisted designating Beijing as a “currency manipulator,” yet it has also sought to upgrade defense links with China’s neighbors.

The Obama team deserves credit for its stewardship of the U.S.-Korea alliance, for making the best of a difficult political situation in Japan, and for building on Bush’s accomplishments with Vietnam and Indonesia. (However, Jakarta is upset that Obama has twice postponed a trip to the country where he spent part of his youth — the visit is now scheduled for November — and President Yudhoyono was conspicuously absent from the September 24 U.S.-ASEAN summit in New York City.) Its one major Asia-policy mistake has come, not in East Asia, but in South Asia. India’s centrist government got on famously with the Bush administration, but Obama has shown much less commitment to the strategic partnership. New Delhi is also worried about U.S. staying power in Afghanistan, whose rampaging militants have close ties to anti-Indian terrorist groups based in Pakistan.

The overriding question in Asia is whether, given the severity of its economic and fiscal plight, America has the fortitude to sustain a robust regional presence and counter the challenge posed by Beijing. The Obama administration has striven to offer the necessary reassurances; yet it has also exacerbated federal budget woes, raising concerns about future levels of U.S. defense spending. For now, America remains the dominant Asian-Pacific power. A world without that dominance could look much different.

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