Commentary

Alliances and Counter-alliances in Asia

By Stanley Kober
This article appeared on FoxNews.com on April 17, 2005.

During her recent trips abroad, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice emphasized the need to strengthen U.S. alliances.

That policy is not unique to the Bush administration; previous administrations have also stressed the need to preserve and strengthen our alliances, even as opposing Cold War alliances disintegrated. But is this emphasis on alliances wise?

In his Farewell Address, President George Washington argued that alliances should be expedients to deal with threats and should not survive the disappearance of those threats. Allowing alliances to become permanent could foster the creation in the mind of the people of a permanent threat or enemy outside the alliance. In those circumstances, “the nation [i.e., the people], prompted by ill-will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the government, contrary to the best calculations of policy.”

In other words, popular opinion, impelled by nationalist sentiment, could lead to a war. Consequently, it is important to look not only at the policies of a government and what its rational calculations might be, but also to popular sentiment.

According to a public opinion poll recently taken in five Chinese cities, public opinion toward the United States is mixed. Although most Chinese like Americans (even if “not particularly”), half see the United States as a rival. Perhaps more ominously, a majority believes the U.S. is trying to contain China and that a clash over Taiwan is likely.

At the same time, more Chinese believe Sino-U.S. relations will improve rather than worsen in the second Bush Administration.

In this situation, with the U.S. emphasizing its alliances with Japan, South Korea and other countries in Asia, it is important to look at whether the Chinese are reacting in the traditional manner of seeking countervailing allies.

The most important of these ties is with Russia, which has viewed the continued expansion of NATO with suspicion. Over the last few years, as NATO has become more ambitious, Sino-Russian relations have become ever closer. Recent events in Ukraine also seem to have spurred closer ties.

“Western countries’ acts of nibbling around Russia have stirred the uneasiness and alert of the latter,” People’s Daily editorialized last December. “The international community should bear in mind the many lessons derived from the Ukrainian electoral crisis, especially it must never take neo-interventionism lightly.”

By “neo-interventionism,” the Chinese did not mean Russia; they meant the United States. Shortly afterward, the two governments confirmed they would be holding military exercises in China this year.

“Chinese Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan and [Russian Defense Minister Sergei] Ivanov agreed in their talks that the joint military exercise will be an important event,” People’s Daily reported. “The bilateral ties between China and Russia have entered a new phase in their relations, with the two sides establishing a strategic co-operative partnership,”said President Hu Jintao.

The other potential major ally for China is India. Relations between China and India hit a nadir in 1998, following the Indian nuclear tests, but in recent years they have improved dramatically. Although India’s relations with the United States have also improved, there is an impression in New Delhi that India needs allies in order to be treated with respect by the United States.

“There are reservations about America’s dominant influence in world policies,” the late J.N. Dixit wrote shortly before he became the Indian national security advisor last year. “The choice is to confront and resist the U.S. and get isolated, or to make ourselves a subordinate ally of the US, or adopt a strategy of engaging the U.S. on the basis of equality while developing equations with other major powers to redress the imbalances of U.S. dominance.”

One of those major powers is Russia, but India evidently views China as another country that can redress the balance with the United States, as the current visit by China’s premier testifies. Although India is a democracy, at least some Indians share the perception of Moscow and Beijing that Washington’s policy of promoting democracy may have ulterior motives.

“The West’s unnecessarily provocative approach appears particularly ill-advised given the strains within Ukrainian society,” the Hindu editorialized. “The West threatens this delicate internal balance through its avaricious drive to push itself into regions where its influence has been minimal. Russia, with its historical and cultural linkages to Ukraine, has a far stronger claim to play a role in the affairs of its neighbor.”

It is unclear how widespread this view is in India, but the Hindu is a mainstream paper. American policy is producing unexpected consequences, and Washington needs to be alert to the way its actions are viewed in other countries as it drives forward with its efforts to assist the development of democracies.

Indeed, it is noteworthy that on the eve of Secretary Rice’s trip to Asia, the Indian government announced the foreign ministers of India, Russia, and China would be holding their first “stand-alone” meeting in June. To be sure, assurances were given that no alliance was envisioned, but at the beginning of the last century the Triple Entente was also not a formal alliance. We should be careful that, by emphasizing the importance of our alliances, we do not foster the emergence of a countervailing “entente.”

Stanley Kober is a research fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.