A CENTRAL theme in the Obama administration’s recent foreign-policy narrative has been that the United States is returning to Asia after a decade of distractions in the Middle East. It is easy to argue that Asia should be America’s highest foreign-policy priority. After the financial crisis, Asia emerged as the growth dynamo on which the hopes for the revival of the American and global economies are pinned. At the same time, this very economic dynamism produces huge bilateral trade deficits and is largely responsible for the steady decline of American manufacturing. And Asia is home to the United States’ most serious strategic competitor: China.
America is about to discover that Asia has changed dramatically over the past decade. Its main strategic competitor is now its largest creditor; its most important regional ally, Japan, has entered its third decade of economic stagnation, demographic decline and toxic politics; and once-estranged countries such as India and Vietnam have become promising but demanding partners. America has changed too. It is constrained by a war-weary population and a stifling government debt burden.
The big question is where the United States fits into this changed Asia. Its current approach appears to be a mixture of updated Asia strategies of old and tactical responses to various demands of Asian competitors, allies and partners—some wanting the United States to be a guarantor; others wanting it to be a balancer; and yet others viewing America as an opponent. What is missing is a careful reappraisal of Asia’s new strategic dynamics, a hardheaded assessment of what America’s Asian interests are and a considered approach to fulfilling these interests.
Such a reappraisal requires a proper understanding of the pillars of America’s successful Asia policies in the last quarter of the twentieth century. It should include an analysis of the fundamental changes that have undermined these pillars and will likely erode them further in coming decades. It must then identify American interests within the new Asia and find the best policy levers for securing them.
IN THE quarter century after the 1975 fall of Saigon, U.S. policy in Asia was highly successful, based on economic and security returns against strategic investments. During this period, the economies of Pacific Asia grew faster than any region in human history and pulled the American economy into a robust growth cycle. Meanwhile, American strategic interests across the region were unchallenged, while political tensions over U.S. basing were managed effectively. Conflict within and between states declined steadily. Alliance relationships were straightforward and uncomplicated.
America’s successful policies in Asia were built on four interlocking pillars. The first was the inability of any Asian state to aspire to regional leadership. The region’s largest states were too poor and internally focused to make serious bids for predominance, while the richest and most cohesive were too small. With no state making a bid for leadership, Asian nations generally accepted Washington’s regional footprint.
But the United States carefully crafted a “hegemony-lite” alliance structure that maintained the region’s noncompetitive dynamic by ensuring a high cost to any Asian state that tried to assert its leadership. The alliance network and historical memories discouraged Japan, the only country large and wealthy enough to contemplate the possibility, from attempting to assert regional dominance. After the Vietnam War, the United States itself reduced its regional presence, and Asian nations viewed its footprint as light enough to ensure America was a nonthreatening guarantor of regional order.
The second pillar, interlocking with the first, was the belief among Asian elites that economic development trumped all other priorities and no political or strategic dispute should threaten the stability essential to development. The postindependence leaders in Southeast Asia believed that rivalry and confrontation resulted in widespread poverty and unrest. The formation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967 created a regional ethos—that stability was essential for development and development was essential for stability. This stimulated regional growth and spread across Pacific Asia in subsequent decades.
The United States invested in the second pillar by adding a third: it let Asian states institute distinctive political and economic models allowing them to nurture and mobilize domestic wealth and expertise free of external competitors and to minimize the impact of economic retardants. Japan, for example, constructed an economy closed to outside investment, structured around the domestic mobilization of capital and the close involvement of the state in the economy, and oriented toward the maximization of manufactures exports managed by a controlled exchange rate. South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore adopted elements of the Japanese model. But they added a form of soft authoritarian governance to forestall any internal resistance to their rapid development.