The China Bluff

The China Bluff

Forty years after the Shanghai Communiqué, Nixon’s former interpreter says Obama’s Asia pivot must account for new realities.

So, what’s the affordable alternative approach to sustaining stability in the Asia-Pacific region as China rises? My guess is that it’s to be found in adjustments in our psychology. We need to get over World War II and the Cold War and focus on the realities of the present rather than the past.

Japan initially defeated all other powers in the Asia-Pacific, including the United States. We then cleaned Japan's clock and filled the resulting strategic vacuum. We found our regional preeminence so gratifying that we didn’t notice as the vacuum we had filled proceeded to disappear. Japan restored itself. Southeast Asians came together in the Second Indochina War. ASEAN incorporated Indochina and Myanmar. India rose from its post-colonial sick bed and strode forward. Indonesia did the same.

But we have continued to behave as though there is an Asian-Pacific power vacuum only we can fill. And, as China’s rise has begun to shift the strategic equilibrium in the region, we have stepped forward to restore it. We seem to think that, if we Americans don’t provide it, there can be no balance or peace in Asia. But, quite aside from the fact that there was a balance and peace in the region long before the United States became a Pacific power, this overlooks the formidable capabilities of re-risen and rising powers like Japan, South Korea, India, Indonesia and Vietnam. It is a self-realizing strategic delusion that powers a self-licking ice-cream cone.

If Americans step forward to balance China for everyone else in the region, the nations of the Indo-Pacific will hang back and let us take the lead. And if we put ourselves between them and China, they will not just rely on us to back their existing claims against China, they will up the ante. It cannot make sense to empower the Philippines, Vietnam and others to pick our fights with China for us.

The bottom line is that the return of Japan, South Korea and China to wealth and power and the impressive development of other countries in the region should challenge us to rethink the entire structure of our defense posture in Asia. Unable to live by our wallets, we must learn to live by our wits. In my view, President Nixon’s "Guam Doctrine" pointed the way. We need to find ways to ask Asians to do more in their own interest and their own defense. Our role should be to back them as our interests demand, not to pretend that we care more about their national-security interests or understand these better than they do, still less to push them aside to take on defense tasks on their behalf.

We need to think very differently than we have done over the nearly seven decades since the end of World War II. To be sure, a less forward-leaning American approach to securing our interests in Asia would require painful adjustments in Japan’s and South Korea’s dependencies on us as well as in our relations with the member states of ASEAN and India and Pakistan. It would almost certainly require an even stronger alliance with Australia. Paradoxically, it would be more than a little unnerving for China, which has come to like most aspects, even if not everything, about the status quo.

It is not in our interest to withdraw from Asia. But, more than six decades after we deployed to stabilize Cold War Asia, we should not be afraid to adapt our strategy and deployments to its new post–Cold War realities. Both the strategic circumstances of our times and the more limited resources available to us demand serious reformulation of current policies. These policies cannot effectively meet the evolving challenges of the world the Nixon visit to China—forty years ago this week—helped to create.

Chas Freeman, chairman of Projects International, is a former Assistant Secretary of Defense, International Security Affairs and U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

This article is adapted from remarks delivered at The Center for the National Interest on February 16, 2012.