Commentary

The Asian Century

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is off on her first foreign trip, and the destination of Asia is well-chosen. Economic, cultural and political ties with Europe remain strong, but Asia is likely to dominate the future, containing two possible superpowers as well as several other states with growing international influence. American power won’t disappear anytime soon, but the twenty-first century seems likely to be the Asian Century.

More challenging than the destination is the agenda. The Bush administration remained committed to U.S. domination in Asia just like everywhere else. Multiple alliances were to be strengthened, potential adversaries were to be contained, client states were to be defended, U.S. leadership was to be asserted.

But domination will be increasingly hard to maintain. China has started from a low economic and military base and faces enormous social challenges as it develops, but is not inclined to passively accept U.S. hegemony along its border or elsewhere. Helpless dependence on Washington once characterized South Korea and Japan, but nationalism has stirred in both countries, whose interests will increasingly diverge from that of America. India is moving from a south Asian to an Asian power, and, like Beijing, has larger global ambitions.

All of these developments may make Washington policy makers uncomfortable, but none threaten fundamental U.S. security interests. Only since World War II have American administrations been able to routinely dictate orders to anyone other than helpless Central American and Caribbean states. Only with the collapse of the Soviet empire could Washington imagine directing world affairs largely unimpeded. The end of Charles Krauthammer’s “unipolar moment” was inevitable. It just seems to be coming a bit more quickly than most observers expected.

Thus, rather than attempt to shore up a disappearing past, Secretary Clinton should use her trip to Asia to begin adapting U.S. policy to the looming future. The Obama administration’s overarching theme should be one of regional responsibility.

That message should be delivered with greatest clarity in Tokyo. This great trading nation remains a military midget, hesitant to use its modest “self-defense” forces to do much more than act as international social workers. That is Japan’s prerogative, of course, and it is not Washington’s place to say what Tokyo must do.

However, Secretary Clinton should paint a portrait of the future in which the United States will not be guaranteeing Japan’s territorial integrity or access to Pacific sea lanes. With the world’s second or third largest economy (depending on the measure used), Tokyo no longer to needs rely on America. And with World War II having ended more than six decades ago, Tokyo’s neighbors should welcome greater Japanese efforts to promote regional stability. The Japanese are frustrated when their opinions are disregarded, as in the case of North Korea. That will change only when they demonstrate both the ability and will to do more of their region’s security heavy lifting.

Secretary Clinton should impart a similar message in Seoul, though with a somewhat different twist. First, Washington should in effect turn over the issue of North Korea to the South. America got involved in the peninsula only as World War II came to its messy close; reluctant U.S. policymakers had trouble locating Korea on the map. Since then American forces have been on call to defend America’s ally from the Soviet Union’s ally.

But the cold war has disappeared in Asia as well as Europe. The Republic of Korea is well able to construct the military units and form the diplomatic relationships necessary to deter North Korean aggression. Whether the best approach to Pyongyang is the “Sunshine Policy” of the previous two South Korean governments or President Lee Myung-bak’s harder line is up to the ROK to decide. But there’s no longer any need for U.S. forces stationed in South Korea or nearby to backstop that nation’s defense. With forty times the GDP and twice the population of its erstwhile adversary, Seoul should take over responsibility for its own defense.

American power won’t disappear anytime soon, but the twenty-first century seems likely to be the Asian Century.”

Washington also should give the South a shove towards rapprochement with Japan. For obvious historical reasons relations between the two countries remain strained, but neither country can continue to rely on America to make everything right. Should China’s rise prove to be less than peaceful, these two Asian states will be on the front-line. They need to work together, and with their ASEAN neighbors, to constrain potential Chinese adventurism. And that means encouraging Japan to do more, though in a way that most promotes regional security and least unsettles its neighbors. Seoul should lead a concerted effort to smoothly integrate Tokyo into regional-security affairs.

Secretary Clinton’s message for China is even more important. The trajectory of the twenty-first century is likely to be determined by how the American superpower accommodates the incipient Chinese great power. Some have pointed to the rise of Germany in Europe as an analogous situation, but two world wars were necessary to sort out that new global order. No one, especially America and China, can afford one, let alone two, wars to establish their future relationship.

Thus, Washington should emphasize the importance of cooperatively working through areas of disagreement, whether security, trade or human rights. For the Obama administration this means restraining the worst instincts of such liberal lobbies as organized labor. On China’s side that means respecting the international norms that a global leader should, and is widely expected to, respect.

Moreover, Secretary Clinton should indicate that while U.S. influence may not soon recede, Washington does not intend to engage in an arms race in an attempt to maintain military predominance along China’s border. However, the more clearly Beijing demonstrates its intention to peacefully resolve potentially contentious issues, such as Taiwan’s status, the easier it will be for Washington to step back from confrontation. It bears continually reemphasizing that peace in East Asia is in the interest of both America and China.

Secretary Clinton also is visiting Indonesia, a potentially significant nation that happens to be the world’s most populous Muslim state. Washington should encourage Jakarta to play a larger regional role. Indonesia continues to face serious internal challenges, including intense poverty, Islamic extremism and persecution of religious minorities. Nevertheless, it, more than Turkey, may become the representative tolerant Islamic democracy. A more prosperous and stable Indonesia also could work more effectively with ASEAN and Australia to encourage democratic development and discourage religious radicalism in Southeast Asia and the south Pacific.

The U.S. won’t be leaving Asia soon, or perhaps ever. And Washington’s influence will remain significant even as America’s dominance fades. Nevertheless, Secretary Clinton should use her time hop-scotching across Asian capitals preparing for the emerging new order. Ultimately, the United States will be more secure if it shifts primary responsibility onto its friends to promote regional stability. Washington should accommodate rather than resist the rise of the Asian Century.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to Pres. Ronald Reagan, he is the author of the forthcoming book Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire