How America Can Lead in Asia

U.S. and China flags on display. Flickr/Creative Commons/U.S. Department of Agriculture

China is in no position to seek regional dominance.

America in a Multipolar World: New Challenges Require New Approaches

As the Trump administration assumes leadership of American foreign policy, questions prevail about how it perceives the United States’ role in the world and how it will exercise that role.  The appearance of a potentially unconventional U.S. president amidst a world in flux highlights the enormous uncertainties and the potential risks to U.S. stability and prosperity that are now confronting us.

The United States is today facing a fundamentally different world from the one it has known for many decades. In fact, the scope and magnitude of global change represents the greatest challenge since America’s emergence as a world power a century ago. Economic, technological, political and military power has dispersed globally in ways that make it impossible for the United States to pursue its interests unilaterally at acceptable costs and untenable for it to sustain indefinitely its economic and military primacy throughout the world.

Domestically, the United States confronts a range of problems and trends that further challenge its ability to adjust to this changing global environment. A highly polarized political and social environment is inhibiting efforts to rejuvenate vital foundations of the economy, and to deal with mounting national debt, growing income inequality, eroding infrastructure and spiraling entitlement costs. If allowed to continue, such U.S. political and economic difficulties will constrain Washington’s ability to compete in a multipolar world, diminish confidence in U.S. staying power among friends and allies and probably intensify downward pressure on U.S. defense spending.

Notwithstanding these challenges, the United States remains the world’s largest economy and boasts a relatively young and optimistic population, the best universities, and an outstanding capacity for scientific innovation. Even faced with constraining economic and political forces, it still retains the world’s strongest military and an extensive system of global alliances. Moreover, the United States continues to exert enormous influence through its soft power.

Given this decidedly mixed picture of unprecedented challenges despite lasting strengths, Washington cannot continue business as usual. While leveraging its many strengths more effectively, it must recognize and adjust to the emerging limits on U.S. capabilities and influence.  This will require a serious review of U.S. strategic goals and the means of pursuing them, to include:

— Defining America’s primary and secondary interests more clearly.

— Matching objectives more closely with both capabilities and resources.

— Adopting a more judicious approach to the deployment and use of force, with a much keener appreciation of which issues are susceptible to military solutions and which are not.

— Nurturing and funding the full range of American foreign policy tools in addition to those in the military realm.

— Recognizing the need to work through coalitions and stable balances of power rather than relying on continued primacy.

East Asia Will Remain Critical

Nowhere are these needs more clearly evident than in East Asia. As almost certainly the foremost center of global economic growth and great power rivalry in the 21st century, it presents by far the greatest long-term challenge but also the greatest opportunity for the United States. It will almost certainly remain the primary source of U.S. economic growth for decades to come. It contains some of America’s closest allies, and presents enormous opportunities for expanding collaboration with the major powers of the region on a growing array of regional and global challenges. Indeed, in contrast to the protracted problems afflicting the Middle East and Europe, East Asia could constitute an anchor of global stability and prosperity if key relationships and friction points are managed properly.

Unfortunately, many of these friction points have seen increasing tensions in recent years.

— North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are on a path that could foment a dangerous crisis.

— Sino-Japanese ties have deteriorated, and the bonds between key U.S. allies Tokyo and Seoul are strained.

— New uncertainties have emerged in relations between Taiwan and mainland China.

— The South China Sea has become a cauldron of sovereignty disputes as China’s expansion into maritime territories also claimed by other countries has created deep anxieties across the region.

— Political winds from the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand are testing ASEAN unity and raising questions about their commitment to cooperation with the United States.

— Russia has drawn closer to China and is determined to expand its role in the region.

Compounding these problems is the fact that, despite growing areas of cooperation, Washington’s relations with a rising China are in danger of being overshadowed by deepening levels of distrust and strategic rivalry.  Most notably, the changing power configuration in East Asia resulting from China’s growing military capabilities and economic and diplomatic influence is increasing the potential for confrontations between Beijing and Washington over contentious regional issues. It is also fueling an emerging regional arms race that taxes U.S. resources.