With Friends Like These …

April 18, 2001 • Commentary
This essay appeared in The Washington Post on April 18, 2001.

Critics of the Bush administration’s diplomatic compromise with China over the spy plane incident worry that Washington conveyed weakness and damaged its credibility with East Asian friends and allies. But if anything, it is the credibility of those countries as friends and allies that has been damaged, given the statements and actions of East Asian leaders in response to the crisis.

Vocal support for the U.S. position was notably absent. Even Washington’s treaty allies in the region — including Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines — declined to say that a U.S. apology to Beijing was unwarranted. Only Singapore’s elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew unequivocally supported the U.S. position.

Japan’s tepid, ambiguous stance epitomized the reaction of America’s so‐​called friends and allies. Kazuhiko Koshikawa, a spokesman for Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, said, “We strongly hope this case will be settled in an appropriate and acceptable manner.” Beijing could take as much comfort as Washington from such a comment.

This is not the first time America’s East Asian allies have abandoned the United States in the midst of a crisis. Indeed, that sort of behavior has become a pattern. The motto of the East Asian governments appears to be that they will always stand behind the United States — about as far behind as they can get.

Their behavior in this episode is disturbingly reminiscent of their actions during the 1996 crisis in the Taiwan Strait. As China conducted provocative missile tests in the strait, the United States dispatched two aircraft carrier battle groups to waters near Taiwan. The reactions of the allies were most revealing. South Korea and the Philippines emphasized that their mutual security treaties with the United States did not cover contingencies involving Taiwan. Other countries contented themselves with the banal response of urging restraint on both sides. Japan went no further than to express “understanding” of the reasons for the naval deployment.

The incidents underscore a potentially dangerous flaw in U.S. East Asia strategy. Throughout the Cold War, Washington could operate with confidence that its security clients would not form close economic ties with America’s strategic adversaries. In other words, there would be no serious tension between the economic interests of those allies and their security relationship with the United States.

The situation today is much more ambiguous. A chilly relationship (to say nothing of an armed confrontation) between the United States and China would put the East Asian countries in a difficult position. Most of them have extensive investments in China and maintain lucrative trade ties.

That accounts for their repeated ambivalence. In essence, the East Asian allies seek the best of both worlds. They view the United States as an insurance policy to protect them from Chinese aggression or intimidation, if that problem should arise. But they don’t want to incur Beijing’s wrath — or even jeopardize their commerce with China — by endorsing a hard‐​line U.S. policy on any issue.

That may be a smart (albeit cynical) strategy for them, but it puts the United States in a most unappealing position. As East Asia’s protector, the United States might find itself involved someday in a perilous military confrontation with China over Taiwan or some other issue. Even worse, it might have to wage the ensuing struggle virtually alone. American leaders would be wise to rethink a strategy that puts all the burdens and obligations for East Asia’s security on the United States while the countries that benefit from U.S. protection seem inclined to stand on the sidelines whenever a crisis erupts.

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