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Getting Realism: U.S. Asia (and China) Policy Reconceived

Getting Realism: U.S. Asia (and China) Policy Reconceived

Mini Teaser: True realism about Asia transcends the Bush Administration's narrow focus on geopolitics and China.

by Author(s): George J. GilboyEric Heginbotham

Seen historically, American grand strategy has tended to be both Eurocentric and oriented toward meeting military threats. Both characteristics are easily understood. It was only for fear of war coming to North America from the Old World, or actually during wartime in the 20th century, that the United States developed strategies for specific regions of the world. Not only was Europe the main source of such concern, but cultural contiguity and a good bit of history, going back to the origins of the American polity, gave Europe pride of place in American thinking. Even today we have an easier confidence in our ability to understand the major factors at play in Europe than we do with regard to Asia. As a result, America's Asia policy seems conceptually less mature and, in practical terms, more fragmented, with individual countries or particular functional issues like trade or weapons proliferation tending to drive policy as a whole.

The Clinton Administration's Asia policy exemplified the fragmented approach. In its early years, the administration tried to recast relations with nearly every major country in the region, aggressively pursuing a broad array of issues from human rights to strategic trade--frequently without establishing priorities. It subsequently narrowed its Asia policy focus mostly to China, but the U.S.-China relationship was itself blown by the prevailing winds of discrete issues as they arose. The Bush Administration, pre-September 11, developed a more focused approach--but it was wrongly focused. Given the rising influence of the Defense Department and other national security organizations on foreign policy, and the prevalence of structural realist ideas among civilian practitioners, the United States is perhaps prone to define its international interests in narrow military terms. The Bush Administration has reinforced these trends: prior to September 11, 2001, the United States pursued a neo-Bismarckian Asia strategy aimed at isolating China. Not surprisingly, the administration's initiative to revive the U.S.-Japanese partnership and to improve relations with India both emphasized military initiatives. The expression of support for Taiwan, too, came in the coin of arms sales and declarations to "do what it takes" to protect the island from Chinese use of force. Since September 11, U.S. Asia policy has become an adjunct to America's war on terrorism, but the essential elements of the pre-September 11 approach remain.

An Asia policy that focuses exclusively on political-military issues--particularly in terms centered overwhelmingly on China--is flawed. America needs an Asia policy that is conceptually the reverse of what is developing today: rather than focus on military issues alone, it needs to be connected as well to political and economic realities. Rather than focus on a potential great power in the making, China, it needs to pay more attention to the wider Asian context--one that is generating underappreciated opportunities to influence political outcomes, as well as creating non-traditional security challenges. As China contemplates political reform in response to the vast social and economic changes underway there, the health and increasing stability of market economies and democratic regimes elsewhere in Asia will have a profound impact on its direction. Thus, the quality of U.S. relations with Japan, Korea, India, the Philippines, Indonesia and other Asian states will strongly affect China's diplomatic and military options.

A wise U.S. Asia policy would therefore concentrate on bolstering the most prominent and generally positive feature of the region's current political landscape: the transition of the majority of Asian states toward political pluralism and market economics. There have been unprecedented gains for economic and political liberalism since the end of the Cold War, but rapid domestic change combined with global economic integration can be profoundly disruptive. Many Asian states are now finely poised between progressive stability and widespread unrest. While preventing all forms of unrest is impossible, and while some upheaval is often an unavoidable by-product of social and economic progress, there is nothing inevitable about failed states, collapsing societies and large-scale communal violence during periods of transition. America has a huge stake in ensuring the maximum feasible number of positive Asian outcomes, and U.S. policy choices can make a difference.

America's interest in sustainable progress toward liberal institutions in Asia is not merely ideological. Increased economic and political liberalization makes America more prosperous and secure. It gives all Asian states a greater stake in the evolving global system, which is one that favors America's values and interests. A U.S. Asia policy that fails to support these developments--or worse, that inadvertently undermines them--could turn the Asian democratic "Third Wave" of the 1980s and 1990s into an anti-liberal riptide in the first decades of the 21st century.

That is why America's security interests in Asia are best served by a broad policy of strategic engagement that emphasizes two goals: consolidating the political and economic liberalization of late 20th-century Asia; and cautiously promoting further victories for liberalism in key transition states while guarding against fragmentation and collapse. Such a policy would of necessity accord non-military means pride of place. Its strategic nature nevertheless derives from its ends (to promote American security); its means (the flexible but steady employment of America's comprehensive power); and its pragmatism (a commitment to deal with states that cannot yet meet all the demands of Western idealists from either the Left or the Right). We now turn to the Asian realities that should shape a new American regional strategy, after which we elaborate the elements of a policy of strategic engagement.

Asian Realities

Asian states are undergoing a fundamental shift toward economic and political liberalism. Although the absolute balance of power between state and society differs greatly from case to case, the reforms that are taking place in every state in the region are causing a dramatic relative strengthening of society in each of them.

The last 16 years have produced five new democratic governments in East Asia: the Philippines (1986), South Korea (1987-88), Thailand (1988), Taiwan (1996), and Indonesia (1999). While national elections in these countries provide dramatic proof of progress, those elections are best understood as the culmination of a transformation process one or more decades in the making. In other words, Asia's new democracies were liberalizing before they were liberal.

In some cases, the leaders of Asia's authoritarian states have themselves initiated liberalizing reforms. General Prem Tinsulanonda in Thailand (prime minister from 1980-88) and General Roh Tae Woo in South Korea (president from 1988-93) both presided over civil and political institution building, eventually ceding power to civilian officials. In Taiwan, strongman Chiang Ching-kuo (prime minister 1972-78, president 1978-88) acquiesced to legislative and institutional reforms that eventually facilitated direct national elections called by Lee Teng-hui in 1996. Even where rulers have been intent on maintaining power rather than laying the groundwork for transition, the rationalization of authority in response to economic reform and global integration has created multiple power centers that weaken authoritarian rule. Most importantly, the increasing prosperity that once legitimated authoritarian rule has created new social classes with an interest in political representation and the means to demand it. Even many of Asia's remaining authoritarian states, such as China, Malaysia and Singapore, have opened their trade, investment and financial markets, strengthened their legal systems, and relaxed some restrictions on the press and social organization.

The progress of liberalism, however, has not been linear in any of these states. In many states--including Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and China--bitter and often violent ethnic and religious rivalries further complicate the task. Thus the fundamentally liberal transformations in Asia--liberal here understood in its socio-economic sense--have brought new opportunities and freedoms for most, but they have also created new vulnerabilities for many individuals as well as the state. The transition process therefore remains exposed to multiple threats: social instability caused by economic dislocation, opposition from entrenched elites, political gridlock, and shocks from increased exposure to volatile global markets.

Essay Types: Essay