With Friends Like These …

This essay appeared in The Washington Post on April 18, 2001.
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Critics of the Bush administration's diplomatic compromise with China overthe spy plane incident worry that Washington conveyed weakness and damagedits credibility with East Asian friends and allies. But if anything, it isthe credibility of those countries as friends and allies that has beendamaged, given the statements and actions of East Asian leaders in responseto the crisis.

Vocal support for the U.S. position was notably absent. Even Washington'streaty allies in the region -- including Japan, South Korea, Thailand andthe Philippines -- declined to say that a U.S. apology to Beijing wasunwarranted. Only Singapore's elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew unequivocallysupported the U.S. position.

Japan's tepid, ambiguous stance epitomized the reaction of America'sso-called friends and allies. Kazuhiko Koshikawa, a spokesman for PrimeMinister Yoshiro Mori, said, "We strongly hope this case will be settled inan appropriate and acceptable manner." Beijing could take as much comfort asWashington from such a comment.

This is not the first time America's East Asian allies have abandoned theUnited States in the midst of a crisis. Indeed, that sort of behavior hasbecome a pattern. The motto of the East Asian governments appears to be thatthey will always stand behind the United States -- about as far behind asthey can get.

Their behavior in this episode is disturbingly reminiscent of their actionsduring the 1996 crisis in the Taiwan Strait. As China conducted provocativemissile tests in the strait, the United States dispatched two aircraftcarrier battle groups to waters near Taiwan. The reactions of the allieswere most revealing. South Korea and the Philippines emphasized that theirmutual security treaties with the United States did not cover contingenciesinvolving Taiwan. Other countries contented themselves with the banalresponse of urging restraint on both sides. Japan went no further than toexpress "understanding" of the reasons for the naval deployment.

The incidents underscore a potentially dangerous flaw in U.S. East Asiastrategy. Throughout the Cold War, Washington could operate with confidencethat its security clients would not form close economic ties with America'sstrategic adversaries. In other words, there would be no serious tensionbetween the economic interests of those allies and their securityrelationship with the United States.

The situation today is much more ambiguous. A chilly relationship (to saynothing of an armed confrontation) between the United States and China wouldput the East Asian countries in a difficult position. Most of them haveextensive investments in China and maintain lucrative trade ties.

That accounts for their repeated ambivalence. In essence, the East Asianallies seek the best of both worlds. They view the United States as aninsurance policy to protect them from Chinese aggression or intimidation, ifthat problem should arise. But they don't want to incur Beijing's wrath --or even jeopardize their commerce with China -- by endorsing a hard-lineU.S. policy on any issue.

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