“We have managed the aftermath of the Cold War,” President Clinton declared grandiloquently in the first presidential debate. That Clinton gets away with his masquerade as a foreign policy titan represents a sad commentary on the Republicans’ feckless indolence in this field. How have they failed to hold the administration to account for so many failings? Of which none is greater than policy toward Asia.
The charge sheet against the administration contains some well-known tactical miscalculations with regard to China over human rights and Japan over trade. Much more serious, however, is what the administration has not done: its strategic failure to attend to Asia’s security needs as the next century unfolds.
Nearly seven years after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. and its Asian partners still depend on the 1950s-era “hub and spoke” system of defense alliances. As a result, Asia lacks up-to-date security structures, a highly dangerous situation at a time of rising Asian outlays for new high-performance aircraft and bulk purchases of former Warsaw Pact naval ships.
The administration’s Asia specialists have an explanation for the absence of change. They argue that the end of the Cold War matters less in Asia than in Europe. In Asia, the theory goes, fear of Soviet domination was never the single, overriding principle of foreign policy. Consequently, the Soviet demise does not bring with it any need to review the traditional arrangements.
For those who value complacency, this theory is manna from heaven. No need to think. No need to act. Just sit back, content with business as usual. Or to put it in operational terms, it is a theory that allows the secretary of state to devote more time to Syria than to China, Korea, Japan and India combined.
Complacency, however, is rarely a valid option in international relations. In contemporary Asia, it is a recipe for disaster.
Start with China, a country that received not a single mention in either presidential debate. The real concern here is not that China is such a looming presence. Nor that on nearly every current issue—trade, human rights, nuclear proliferation, Taiwan—the U.S. and China approach one another from diametrically opposed standpoints. More important is that China is embroiled in disputes with nearly all its neighbors. Some are relatively petty like the recent flare-up with Japan over the Senkaku islands off Taiwan. Others are much more serious, such as China’s hard-to-read intentions toward Hong Kong and North Korea, or potentially catastrophic, such as the determination to repossess Taiwan. Still others, China’s exploding energy consumption, for example, lurk just below the horizon.
Alongside this free-form arrangement of China-related disputes, a second set of disagreements plagues intra-Asian relations. As demonstrated by the bizarre September submarine incursion, North Korea has no intention of docilely accepting its fate. Japan faces the renewal of simmering territorial disputes with Korea and Russia. Korea and Japan even have different names for the stretch of ocean that divides them.
In Southeast Asia, the Nobel Peace Prize committee has brought Indonesia’s East Timor problem back into world attention at a time of rising political discontent and subsequent government crackdown. Farther west, India and Pakistan teeter from time to time on the brink of nuclear war over Kashmir.
The list of problems could go on, but the search for solutions is going nowhere. The missing ingredient is an Asian security structure in which they can be mediated. China and Japan, for example, could benefit from a forum for discussion of the Senkaku problem. To fill this gap, leadership is required, something that none of the bigger Asian countries can provide. China faces generational transition. The new Japanese government is wary of new ideas. Korea, despite its economic success, is reluctant to adopt a forward posture.
Why should the U.S. concern itself? If intra-Asian rivalries get out of hand, the U.S. risks getting dragged into messy shooting wars on matters of peripheral importance to U.S. interests.
A multilateral security system such as exists in Europe and, in fledgling form, in Southeast Asia promises the best way forward to defusing tensions. The sooner an American initiative on these lines can be presented, the better. An excellent opportunity comes at this month’s Manila summit meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. The administration has done well in support of APEC; now is the time to add a political dimension. If this can be achieved, the administration’s self-congratulation will sound less hollow.