Refashioning the East Asian Order

Refashioning the East Asian Order
Remarks to the U.S. National Defense University’s College of National Security Affairs

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Senior Fellow, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University
16 November 2022

When Deng Xiaoping opened China to the world four decades ago, Americans were ready to do what we most enjoy doing – showering foreign countries with insistent, well-meaning advice about how to conduct themselves at home and abroad. Henry Kissinger wryly observed at the time that China had somehow managed to get along without American counsel for 4,000 years before the United States was born. This is a useful reminder that the state system or “order” in East Asia did not spring into being when we Americans arrived there. It has taken many forms over the millennia, only a few of which have involved an American presence – and then only in the past 180 or so years.

Now a renewed version of the pre-American dynamic may be in prospect. Geography is the DNA of geopolitics. It has a way of re-expressing familiar patterns that history seemed for a while to have killed off.

Historically, the East Asian order was a sort of “three-body problem.” In physics and orbital mechanics, a three-body (or n-body) problem describes the difficulty of charting the patterns and predicting trajectories created by the interaction between competing gravitational centers, each of which is in motion. In East Asia, the three centers of gravity were China, the Northeast Asian nations of Japan and Korea, and the great sea empires of Southeast Asia – Srivijaya and Chola – which linked South India with what are now Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore. Of these, China had the greatest mass, but the others had their own independent political systems and cultural identities and projected their own fields of influence. The interactions between these three bodies politic and their effects on those in the spaces between them wrote the geopolitical history of East Asia.

The replacement of native Southeast Asian empires by European imperialism in the 16th and 17th centuries did not really change this dynamic. But Japan’s turn inward under the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603 and its adoption of a “national lockdown” [鎖国 – sakoku] policy in 1633, combined with the Choson Dynasty in Korea’s earlier self-isolation, removed Northeast Asia as an active participant in the region’s dynamics, leaving Western powers based in Southeast and South Asia to contend bilaterally with China. This birthed a Sino-Western contest that set the longstanding three-body interactions of the East Asian order aside.

The United States became a factor in regional affairs only in 1835, when President Andrew Jackson established an American “East India Squadron” off the China coast. Jackson’s initiative was driven by the weight that China then had in the global economy. At the time, it accounted for over one-third of the planetary product. The new American republic did not want Britain and other European powers to corner the markets of Northeast Asia, as they had those in South and Southeast Asia. So, in 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry forced Japan to open itself to relations with the United States and, by extension, to other foreign countries. As Japan adopted the norms of Western political economies and modernized, it began to project its power throughout the region, briefly restoring a three-body dynamic to the region involving China, itself, and Western imperialism.

In 1874, the Japanese army occupied southeastern Taiwan. In 1876, Tokyo forced Korea to follow it in opening to foreigners, something an American military expedition five years earlier had failed to achieve.

By then, China was imploding under the combined impact of European efforts to divide it into spheres of influence and internal rebellions – the Taiping (太平) and Nian (捻乱). These disturbances took some 20 – 30 million lives, many more than the 14 – 17 million people of all nationalities who died in the First World War. China ceased to be an actor in regional affairs, becoming instead the playground of global imperialism. In 1900, the combined armies of Austria-Hungary, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, and the United States suppressed the Chinese “Boxer” rebellion against foreign domination, killing tens of thousands of Chinese, and looting Beijing.

For the next five decades, China was mired in domestic anarchy, foreign invasion, and civil wars. Only in 1949 did it re-emerge as an independent force. By then China’s GDP had fallen from one-third of the global total to a mere four percent of it. China’s new rulers adopted a planned economy and turned to the Soviet Union to help their country restore its vanished wealth and power.

While China was falling apart, Japan was on the rise. The Meiji period (1868 – 1912) saw Japan become the first non-Western country to industrialize and emerge as a modern military and economic power. Having absorbed and adapted Western knowledge, Japan then introduced it to China, Korea, and other neighbors, creating a Japanese sphere of cultural influence with lasting linguistic and other effects. But when the Taishō democracy of 1912 – 1926 yielded to the militarism of the early Shōwa period, Japan went to war first with China and then, in 1941, with the United States, Britain, France, and the Netherlands, quickly erasing their empires in East Asia.

Japan’s defeat in World War II left it destitute and disarmed. This created a power vacuum in the region, which the United States filled from bases in the occupied Japanese home islands. Soon thereafter U.S. forces found themselves compelled to defend Japan’s strategic perimeter in Korea. The U.S. then built a “hub-and-spokes” security system for East Asia, assumed the central responsibility for its strategic stability, bilateralized US-Asian military relationships, and effectively preempted the possibility of any NATO-like collective defense arrangements among the states of the region.

Over the seventy years since its militarist catastrophe, Japan has become the third largest economy in the world, coyly rebuilt formidable military capabilities, and ceased to be a political wallflower in its region. Korea, divided by the Cold War into two states, has seen the Republic of Korea (in the southern half of the peninsula) develop a larger economy than Russia or Brazil. Despite practicing what a Soviet leader once called “pantsless communism,” the rival regime in north Korea now has the world’s fourth-largest army and nuclear weapons.

Southeast Asia is also back as an independent participant in the region’s affairs. ASEAN coordinates the policies of its ten member states, including assertively independent and rapidly developing Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, an increasingly independent Philippines, and relentlessly realistic Singapore.

China remains deeply divided by its unfinished civil war, but, from a standing start in 1949, both Taiwan and the mainland have rapidly achieved unprecedented wealth. The People’s Republic of China, which controls the China mainland, has emerged as the economic nucleus of its region and a credible contestant for global preeminence.

The regional vacuum the United States filled after World War II has long since ceased to exist. This is a sea change that demands a change in U.S. policy and the regional security architecture. Most East Asian states are now both prosperous and rapidly developing the robust self-defense capabilities that U.S. military dominance of their region long seemed to make redundant. But despite all the evidence – for example, the failure of the U.S. humiliation in Indochina to do anything other than mark a transition to a more peaceful and prosperous regional order – U.S. policy continues to presume that a large U.S. military presence is essential to sustain stability in Asia. Meanwhile, the nations of the region increasingly seek to ensure their independence by reaching out to each other and rearming as well as courting U.S. support. Only Taiwan continues to delegate its defense to Americans.

This is ironic. Self-reliant assumption of responsibility for self-defense is a fundamental attribute of sovereignty. Elsewhere in the region, nation-states whose sovereign independence is not in dispute are embracing that responsibility as the basis for their self-government and politico-economic independence. But seven decades of American protection[1] have allowed both habits of dependence on America and aspirations for secession from China to take root in Taiwan. Many there now assert that the island is – or should be – a sovereign state separate from the rest of China. Rather than relying on its own efforts to secure or expand its autonomy, Taiwan prefers the comfort of assigning its defense to an ideologically sympathetic United States.

Others in Asia combine diplomatic dialogue, economic statecraft, and defense policies to cope with the return of China to wealth and power. By contrast, echoing its American protector, Taiwan has adopted a purely military approach to managing its relations with Chinese across the Strait, with whom it remains technically engaged in a civil war. In effect, Taiwan’s aspirations for a sovereignty distinct from the rest of China represent a gamble on its continued inclusion in a U.S. military sphere of influence in the Asia-Pacific region. Taiwan’s failure to develop a credible self-defense capability manifests a hope that American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines will be prepared to sacrifice themselves for an independence it is unprepared to ask its own people to die for.

But the U.S. sphere of influence in Asia that Taiwan has chosen to rely upon is eroding. The United States has effectively ceded economic leadership in the region to China, Japan, and ASEAN. Doubts about American reliability have made most Asian countries less inclined to follow the U.S. lead. At the same time, a series of Sino-American crises over Taiwan have supplied a focus and rationale for China’s rapid military modernization. The balance of military power in the Taiwan area now favors China over the United States. Meanwhile, the island has become the focus of U.S. military planning in the Indo-Pacific region – the Schwerpunkt of U.S. strategy there and by extension – given the region’s increasing centrality in the global order – the world.

There are many drivers of Sino-American hostility, but Taiwan has long been the only one with the potential to produce a mutually devastating nuclear exchange between China and the United States. Until recently, Beijing and Washington honored diplomatic understandings that, backed by superior American military power, preserved the peace in the Taiwan Strait. More recently, as those understandings have withered and U.S. military supremacy has eroded, both China and the United States have come to treat the Taiwan issue as a casus belli. Ironically, since the purpose of any U.S. intervention in a war over Taiwan would be to preserve its prosperity and democracy, a war – whatever its outcome – would surely destroy both.

Destroying something “in order to save it” is perverse, if not insane. But it is not without precedent. And as George Kennan observed, “a war regarded as inevitable or even probable, and therefore much prepared for, has a very good chance of eventually being fought.” A war over Taiwan’s status is becoming ever more likely, despite increasing awareness that it would be catastrophic for Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, the United States, and any country that invited Chinese retaliation by joining the U.S. in war with China. This explains why not a single country in the region has officially committed itself to support the U.S. armed forces in a war to determine Taiwan’s status. None wants to see Taiwan absorbed into the CPC-ruled mainland, but they all want someone else to ensure that this doesn’t happen.

For U.S. security partners in Asia, the primary strategic challenge is not to defend Taiwan’s separation from the rest of China, but to find the basis for an equilibrium that includes both acceptable relationships with an ever more wealthy and powerful China and continued support for their freedom of action by an engaged United States. They clearly prefer self-interested relationships with competing hegemons to any choice between them. But current U.S. policy privileges American concerns and preferences over theirs. It asks them to help defend a crumbling status quo in East Asia and the Western Pacific in which the United States remains in charge and China plays no accepted role.

It is in this context that the United States has come to center its approach to Indo-Pacific stability on sustaining Taiwan’s place in a continuing American ideological and geopolitical sphere of influence. U.S. policy aims to exclude China from any significant role in managing the affairs of its own region. But Washington has chosen to rely on purely military means to accomplish this. The United States and its ‘allies’ and friends lack a grand strategy to sustain a stabile balance in a newly dynamic Asia.  Such a strategy would link diplomacy, economic policy, and force structure to interlocking assurances and constraints that would together inhibit potential challenges to the region’s peace and prosperity.

Washington’s current approach ignores both the current and potential capabilities of the region’s independent states as well as their need to find a basis for coexistence with a reinvigorated China. The United States seeks to perpetuate a commanding U.S. role in the region’s security while disinvesting in its economy and asking next to nothing of the countries it has volunteered to protect. This places a hugely disproportionate defense burden on Americans. The U.S. approach aims to hold onto a degree of American strategic management of the region’s interactions with a continually strengthening China that is both increasingly unrealistic and concerning to China’s neighbors. This is a uniquely costly and inherently unsustainable approach to the management of Asian security. It increases rather than reduces the danger of war.

Here is why:

  • Unlike the diplomatic framework Washington and Beijing worked out in 1971-1982 to manage the Taiwan issue, current U.S. policy now provides China with no reason not to pursue Anschluss with Taiwan as an urgent national priority.
  • Instead, U.S policy now seeks to preclude Beijing’s embrace of Taiwan by threatening a war that American military planners recognize would be catastrophic for the U.S. as well as Taiwan and the China mainland.
  • The evolution of U.S. policy toward ever more explicit commitments to defend Taiwan’s continued ideological and geopolitical separation from the China mainland is now the main factor driving Beijing’s rapid enhancement of both its conventional and nuclear capabilities. China views its major defense challenge as deterring and, if necessary, countering U.S. intervention in Taiwan contingencies.
  • Sino-American interactions include no mechanisms for escalation control or the mitigation of current conventional and nuclear arms races.
  • technological supremacy has visibly eroded. Many aspects of the U.S. qualitative edge over China may already be unrestorable.
  • The United States is addressing the ongoing shift in relative power and prestige between it and China with sanctions and export controls directed at retarding China’s advance, rather than with a convincing effort at domestic self-strengthening and economic rejuvenation.
  • The U.S. has opted out of participation in the crafting of global or regional trade and investment regimes. In East Asia, China – now the economic heavyweight – shares leadership with a politically resurgent Japan, formidably competitive south Korea, and prospering ASEAN.
  • Washington expects cooperation and wartime support of U.S. forces against China from Asian security partners but offers no offsets to their increasing interdependence with China or effective protection from Chinese retribution if they facilitate a U.S. war with China.
  • The United States has no answer to China’s neighbors’ need to live alongside a wealthy and powerful China, regardless of the status of Taiwan or the state of Sino-American relations.
  • U. S. policy has no endgame or apparent strategy for resolving – rather than perpetuating – tensions with China. If an attempt by Beijing to bring Taiwan to heel were to fail, there would be every reason to expect a successor Chinese regime to regroup and try again. If a Chinese use of force were to succeed, a humiliated United States would have to deal with a wounded China animated by a desire for revenge.
  • No Indo-Pacific order that excludes the region’s greater and lesser powers – including China, India, Indonesia, Japan, the two Koreas, Thailand, and Vietnam – can hope to be stable. But the United States continues to rely on a “hub-and-spokes” alliance system designed to deal with the threat of a long-vanished ‘Sino-Soviet bloc’ to equally long-gone Asian weaknesses.

In practice, Washington remains opposed to the creation of any inclusive security architecture it cannot lead or dominate. This approach effectively inhibits regional cooperation to balance China’s rise. It does not promote it.

The first step in devising more fruitful approaches to stabilizing the Indo-Pacific must be to reexamine the conventional wisdom, set aside delusions based on obsolete realities, and look at the world as it now is. There is a lengthy list of shibboleths to scrutinize and reconsider.

Reasoning about China by analogy to Germany, Japan, or the USSR in the 1930s misconstrues the challenges to the existing order that China now presents. The Chinese are focused on domestic tranquility, economic development, and ending the division of their country by civil war. They are not engaged in a search for Lebensraum, a program of imperial annexation of neighbors, or a campaign to impose their authoritarian ideology abroad.

China has benefited greatly from the American-sponsored world order. It is for the most part supportive of it and seeks adjustments to it, not its overthrow. If, indeed, the United States is right that China is the only country capable of reshaping this inherited international order, it is folly for Washington to sever respectful dialogue with Beijing about how to improve the international system to mutual advantage.

The Asia-Pacific region is much readier for self-reliant security architecture than current U.S. polices presume. These policies foster continued dependence on U.S. capabilities by American security partners in the region, rather than encouraging them to enhance their own. It would serve U.S. interests to initiate an open-ended process of international consultation with allies and friends, as well as China, to define common interests and to map a path to their realization.

President Trump’s “America First” policies stimulated allies’ concerns about the reliability of U.S. defense commitments everywhere, but especially in Japan and south Korea. This had the salutary effect of forcing them to focus on greater self-reliance. But the Trump presidency also coincided with the breakdown in US-China understandings that now threatens to reignite combat in the long-suspended Chinese civil war. At the same time, decades-long U.S. policies stimulated north Korea to acquire a capability to strike the United States with indigenously developed ICBMs and nuclear warheads. Both developments intensified regional concerns that the United States might not be willing to risk nuclear attacks on its own cities to defend those it has pledged to protect abroad. And now, as the level of belligerence in Sino-American relations rises, U.S. security partners like Japan and the ROK have begun to worry that the U.S. will insist on involving them in wars they would much prefer to sit out.

Asian governments have taken note of Washington’s reluctance to challenge Russia directly in Ukraine. This has made Ukraine the battleground in a Russo-American proxy war in which Ukrainians, not Americans are dying. Asians have also noticed that the major burden of Washington’s sanctions against Russia has fallen on U.S. allies in Europe and Russia’s other trading partners rather than on the United States itself.

Meanwhile, American economic influence in Asia has unmistakably declined. U.S. engagement with Asian institutions is increasingly sporadic. And the U.S. military’s qualitative edge over the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has eroded. Yet Washington is ever more insistent that its Asian security partners join it in attempting to isolate and weaken Beijing. From the perspective of the countries in the region, this does not compute. The prospect that the next U.S. administration might return to a grudgingly self-centered approach to relations with allies like that of the Trump presidency just adds to the pressure on American allies and friends to hedge.

When Washington withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership,[2] Tokyo stepped up to lead it. Japan, which has the world’s third largest economy, is also an influential participant in the regionally contrived Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP),[3] from which the United States is conspicuously absent. America appears to have abandoned its traditional aspiration to set the economic rules in Asia.

As part of its return to status as a ‘normal country,’ Japan now plans to double its defense spending and to develop its own strategic power projection capabilities to supplement or, if necessary, replace its previous exclusive reliance on the United States for deterrence. Every step Japan takes for the declared purpose of enhancing its contribution to its alliance with the United States also increases its ability to act independently of that alliance. Japan already has the world’s fourth-largest navy and its ninth-largest air force. It has begun to draw on its industrial might to strengthen others in its region, like Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, and to cooperate and exercise bilaterally with Australia and India, not just as a member of the “Quad.”

The emergence of an independent Japanese-led regional defense network is something the United States has every reason to encourage and support. In their own interest, the countries of the region must discover ways to band together as they also accommodate the ineluctable reality of China’s return to wealth and power. The development of regional defense relationships beyond the U.S. hub-and-spokes ‘alliance’ system is laying the basis for a more mutually agreeable and balanced U.S. partnership with Japan. This opens the way to an Asian-based security system in which Washington participates without assuming the entire burden of maintaining regional stability.

Japan is far from alone in developing bilateral military cooperation with others in the region. South Korea has become the world’s fifth-largest export economy. It has the best educated workforce on the planet and ranks at the top of the world’s most innovative societies. The ROK boasts a robust defense industry that produces a wide variety of aircraft, naval vessels, ground vehicles, and other weapons. It has become the world’s tenth-largest arms exporter and the largest vendor of naval vessels and aircraft – both rotary and fixed wing – to the Philippines. Just last month, ROK marines conducted their first exercise with their Filipino counterparts. Seoul is helping Jakarta develop fighter aircraft and submarines.

Northeast Asia is not the only subregion of Asia to demonstrate an increasing degree of self-reliance and interconnection with other subregions. There is no need to dwell on the ability of Vietnam to defend itself against China or other foreign powers. What is more notable is Vietnam’s emergence as an economic powerhouse with an increasingly vital role in global supply chains. ASEAN, to which Vietnam belongs (like Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and other major Southeast Asian nations), accounts for about seven percent of global GDP and contributes 8.4 percent of world economic growth. India, already the world’s fifth largest economy, with its second-largest army, fourth-largest air force, and sixth-largest navy, is just over the horizon and increasingly intent on linking itself, at least militarily, to the countries to its east.

Many assume that if the U.S. were to withdraw its commitment to military primacy in East Asia (as it seems to be doing both economically and politically) or to back off its current support for Taiwan’s indefinite separation from the China mainland, China would dominate the region. But this ignores the nationalism of both northeast and southeast Asian societies as well as the natural opposition of India to any such outcome.

The historical three-body structure of East Asian order seems to be reemerging, with a revitalized Japan and Southeast Asian coalition resuming their independent interactions with both each other and a rejuvenated China. In light of this, the question for the United States is not how to hang onto its monopoly of power on China’s periphery, but how best to support the countries of Northeast and Southeast Asia in their efforts to balance China while accommodating it. These efforts by them are firmly grounded in contemporary realities.

Without explicit support from the United States, Japan (one of the world’s largest economies and technology originators) is reemerging as an Asian politico-military power. North Korea has given up on its earlier aspirations to develop relations with the United States to keep China at bay and is perfecting a transoceanic nuclear deterrent directed at America. South Korea, with the seventh-largest armed forces in the world, is seriously considering supplementing its U.S. nuclear umbrella with its own nuclear weapons.

In Southeast Asia, a prosperous, stable, and resolutely strategic-minded Singapore provides exemplary counsel to ASEAN on relationships with the world’s great powers. Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam are careful to maintain mutually agreeable relations with China, but none needs U.S. encouragement to resist Chinese encroachments on its economic interests and claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea. Thailand is back to its historically successful strategy of flexible balancing between potential foreign hegemons – in this case China and the United States. The Philippines is in search of an accommodation with China that reduces but does not eliminate its dependence on the United States. Cambodia and Laos have turned to China to offset domination by either Thailand or Vietnam.

Every country in East Asia would welcome a stable order that relied on a US-backed balance of power among the countries of the region rather than on bilateral confrontation between the United States and China.

The basis for such a US-supported regional order now exists. A balance of power does not – as many in the United States appear to believe – require the capability to annihilate a great power rival, but only the capacity to inhibit or check undesirable actions by it. In association with a less dominant but still impressively powerful United States, the Indo-Pacific states are now rich and strong enough to provide the foundation for an effective system of regional political, economic, and military checks and balances. Such a system would prevent the replacement of U.S. with Chinese hegemony; avert challenges to the national interests of China, its neighbors, and the United States; and preserve peace and stability in the region. But for such a regional order to emerge, the United States would have to:

  • Base its policies on interests rather than ideology.
  • Accept that its post-World War II primacy in Asia is no longer necessary or affordable.
  • Agree to participate in regional economic groupings in which China has a position of parity or leadership (like the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank, the Japanese-sponsored successor to TPP[4], or the RCEP[5]).
  • Insist that its regional partners assume primary responsibility for their own strategic defense rather than volunteering to provide this regardless of what, if anything, they contribute; and
  • Focus on promoting the development of U.S. regional partners’ economic, political, and military capabilities and connectivity rather than on preserving American primacy.

A transition to a regional balance of power in which neither the United States nor China is in command but that both are committed to sustain and help manage would require intensive consultations by both with each other and with others in the region. A shift to an inclusive balance of power arrangement for the Asia-Pacific would not be politically easy for Washington, Beijing, Tokyo, or other regional capitals but, with far-sighted and resolute leadership in these capitals, it could be realized.

In such an order,

  • Both China and the United States would accept Japan’s return to a status as a great politico-military as well as economic power. Such a Japan would have a continuing special relationship with the United States but its own independent defense relations with other Indo-Pacific countries, like Australia, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.
  • The United States would reaffirm the “interest in a peaceful settlement” by the parties to the Taiwan issue themselves that it officially espoused in 1972 and encourage negotiations between Taipei and Beijing to accomplish this goal.
  • A peace treaty would replace the armistice in Korea and the United States would recognize the DPRK (repulsive as its political system is), ending Pyongyang’s fears of U.S. attack to accomplish regime change. The two states on the Korean Peninsula would be left to assert their geopolitically strategic independence, balance each other, and resume the traditional role of states on their shared peninsula as independent buffers between China and Japan.
  • All participants in the Indo-Pacific balance would accept the freedom of ASEAN member states to coalesce and cooperate as necessary to temper and counter great-power rivalry in Southeast Asia, and to draw on India and other outside powers, including China, the EU, Japan, Russia, and the United States, to this end as required.
  • All would acknowledge the logic of ASEAN member states, like Cambodia and Laos, seeking protection from the ambitions of more powerful neighbors with great powers both in the region and outside it.
  • The United States would support the development of regional associations and processes to support negotiated solutions to territorial and resource management disputes like those in the South and East China Seas, rather than take sides in these disputes.

This agenda may sound diplomatically challenging – even utopian – and it certainly would not be easy to achieve. But if the United States does nothing, currently shifting balances of power and increased hedging of the sort that the regions’ countries are already engaged in will likely produce a ragged facsimile of it. With or without American encouragement, Japan will sooner or later reemerge as an independent great power. Taiwan’s status will one way or another be resolved. Unless allayed, the DPRK’s paranoia will further increase the lethality of its hostility to America. ASEAN nations will make their own accommodations with China either in concert with the United States or in defiance of it. National security concerns by regional states will drive them to seek support for their independence from each other as well as external powers. Territorial disputes will fester until armed conflict resolves them. But wise statecraft can anticipate adverse trends and turn them to the national advantage.

There is no advantage to leaving the future of the Asia-Pacific region to chance or to the impact of adverse trends. U.S. and allied countries’ statecraft and diplomacy should instead shape the regional order, backed by political, economic, and military capabilities whose configurations reflect the strategy the diplomacy is designed to advance. The object should be to dissuade China from any effort to control or dictate the region’s future and to reduce the need for war to prevent this. It is not in the U.S. interest – nor is it in the interest of the countries in the region, including China – for peace and prosperity to depend on military confrontation and the threat of armed conflict between China and the United States.

The Asia-Pacific region needs an American and Chinese-backed balance of power that leverages the rising capabilities of the region’s independent states to counter any great power effort – American or Chinese – to coerce them. Such a balance would enable the United States and China to offset each other’s wealth and power at levels of commitment that are affordable in terms of both blood and treasure. It would provide affordable security for American interests in Asia. And it would benefit China by averting the temptation of neighboring states to join the United States in hostility to its rise, setting aside some drivers of bilateral confrontation with the United States, re-enabling the development of a mutually beneficial Sino-American relationship, and restoring credibility to the prospect of a peaceful resolution of Taiwan’s political status. For all in the region, such a balance would provide both surer and more affordable political, economic, and military security.

In his inaugural address as president in January 1961, John F. Kennedy electrified America and the world with his declaration that: “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”  That remarkably combative spirit led Americans and our allies into the abyss of Indochina and subsequent ‘forever wars.’  Kennedy’s call still resonates but it is not a guide to a more peaceful and prosperous world.

The United States is beset with debilitating problems at home that ideological adventures abroad cannot cure and will only exacerbate. These problems must be addressed to ensure that the U.S. remains both prosperous and internationally competitive. It is time to recognize that, in the Asia-Pacific, sound policy must be rooted in the capabilities and intentions of nations there, not on ruinous, inevitably futile efforts to retain U.S. dominance. The United States cannot be more willing than the countries of the region to resist coercion or to coalesce to assert and defend common political, economic, and security interests. But in America’s own interests, it should be willing to help them do so.

It is time to replace hubris with realism in U.S. Asian policy and time to temper military confrontation with strategy, statecraft, and diplomacy. It is also time to replace paternalism in U.S. relations with Asian ‘allies’ and friends with a respectful regard for the dilemmas they face and with careful listening to their ideas about how best to sustain their independence and development as the distribution of military, economic, and political power in their region continues to shift.

[1] The Taiwan issue arose from Japan’s 1895 seizure of what was then an island province of China and its fifty-year-long occupation of it, the island’s post-World War II recovery by China under the Cairo and Potsdam declarations, the retreat of Chiang Kai-shek and his US-backed Guomindang (KMT) forces to Taiwan in 1949 after their defeat in the Chinese civil war on the mainland, and the U.S. decision in the early 1950s to use the Taipei-based KMT regime to deny the People’s Republic of China legitimacy and contain it during the first phase of the Cold War.

[2] To bipartisan applause, President Trump withdrew the U.S. from TPP on January 23, 2017.

[3] RCEP members include Australia, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

[4] The Trans-Pacific Partnership, from which the United States withdrew, and which was then promoted by Japan as the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (“CPTPP”).

[5] The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is a free trade agreement (FTA) between the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam) and its five FTA partners (Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, and Republic of Korea).