China’s Overreach, America’s Opportunity
This article was originally featured in the American Foreign Policy Council’s Defense Dossier. Read the complete journal here.
Asian states have reacted to China’s rise in several ways. They have deepened economic integration with China in order to benefit from its economic dynamism. Simultaneously, however, they have offset their economic dependence on China by strengthening military and diplomatic ties with each other and the United States. More recently, Asian states and companies have pursued an economic diversification strategy that aims to balance economic ties to China with deeper trade and investment links to other rising Asian economies, including India, Vietnam, and Indonesia. These changes have provided new and significant strategic opportunities for the United States in Asia.
Japan drifts back into the fold
Historically, Japan has shown a striking ability to rapidly transform itself in response to international conditions, as seen in the break from isolation during the Meiji period, its rise to great power in the Twentieth Century, the subsequent descent into militarism, and its renewal as a dynamic trading state. Since 2001, successive Japanese prime ministers have articulated unprecedented ambitions for Japanese grand strategy. These have included: casting Japan as the “thought leader of Asia”1; forging new bilateral alliances with India and Australia2; cooperating with these and other democratic powers in an “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity”3; formalizing security cooperation with NATO4; constructing a Pacific community around an “inland sea” centered on Japan as the hub of the international economic and political order,5 and; building a new East Asian community with Japan at its center.6 These developments reflect the churning domestic debate taking place in Japan about its future as a world power and as a model for its region—trends catalyzed by China’s explosive rise.
The ascent of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to power in 2009 after nearly six decades of unbroken rule by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) convulsed not only Japanese politics but also its foreign policy, turning Tokyo in a more independent direction. In 2009, then-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama mused about constructing a pan-Asian fraternal community based on “solidarity”—not with Tokyo’s closest alliance partner across the Pacific, but with its near neighbors, led by China.7 Such words were followed by concrete initiatives. Then-DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa led a delegation of 143 parliamentarians and hundreds of businessmen to Beijing in 2009, reviving in form if not substance the tributary delegations from China’s neighbors that, in pre-modern times, ritually visited the Chinese court to acknowledge its suzerainty as Asia’s “Middle Kingdom.”
These and other moves suggested a striking shift in Japan’s geopolitical alignment. But Beijing missed its opportunity to drive a lasting wedge between the United States and Japan. China’s aggressiveness against Japan since 2010, including a number of maritime confrontations inside Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone and around the Japanese-held Senkaku islands, an embargo on rare-earth exports to Japan, and rising anti-Japanese nationalism in China, has led Japan to revert back to—and indeed reinforce—its alliance with the United States. Within Japanese politics, China hawks like the DPJ government’s Minister for National Policy, Seiji Maehara, and new LDP leader Shinzo Abe are ascendant, and Japanese public opinion has become more hostile towards China as a result of its bullying. In response to China’s growing power and assertiveness, Japan has focused not only on strengthening its U.S. alliance, but on deepening its security and diplomatic partnerships in Asia as well.
From a U.S. policy perspective, this has turned the U.S.-Japan alliance from a bilateral security mechanism into a hub of multilateral security cooperation in Asia with like-minded, militarily capable Asian powers. Japan has struck new military partnership agreements with Australia and India. Tokyo led the push to launch a new U.S.-Japan-India strategic dialogue to complement the existing U.S.-Japan-Australia security trilateral. Japan has also used its substantial economic resources to strategic ends in an effort to shape a balance in Asia, with India, Indonesia, and Vietnam the top recipients of Japanese foreign assistance.
Additionally, Tokyo has led the international campaign to open up Burma through new investment, assistance, and diplomatic dialogue; Japanese officials have a strategic vision of Burma as an economic and strategic bridge between Japan and India. Japan has also worked vigorously within Asian institutions to ensure that they remain open and pluralistic, rather than more closed and Sinocentric. Japan’s preferred ASEAN Plus Eight format (the Southeast Asian nations plus China, Japan, Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and Russia) increasingly structures important pan-Asian regional meetings like the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Defense Ministerial-Plus Meeting. In short, Japan has quietly pursued a concerted campaign to ensure that Asia remains amenable to its interests and values— and, by extension, those of its U.S. ally—despite the shadow cast by Chinese power.
Since the end of the Cold War, India has re-emerged as a pan-Asian power. It did not have such a profile from 1947-1991, due to the structural constraints imposed by the U.S.-Soviet global rivalry, India’s pursuit of non-alignment, and internal development and security challenges. But the end of the Cold War, economic reforms launched in 1991, the demise of nonalignment, and transformational economic growth since then have expanded India’s strategic horizons. A rising, confident India today is returning to its roots as a wider Asian power, harking back not only to the Raj but to an earlier era when Indian trading and cultural networks tied together a vast region stretching from the Persian Gulf and East Africa to Indonesia.
Shifting power balances caused by China’s rise and new opportunities for trade and investment have led to intensified Indian strategic and economic relations with Japan, South Korea, and key states in Southeast Asia. Not only has India “looked East” over the past 20 years, but its growing role in East and Southeast Asia has been actively encouraged by regional powers determined to diversify their strategic options in order to balance Chinese power while prospering from economic partnership with one of the world’s rising giants.
The contrast with China is instructive: while East and Southeast Asian states have benefited from China’s economic magnetism, they also fear the effects of undue dependence on Chinese trade and investment and worry openly about the implications of a strong China for their security and autonomy. Such concerns largely do not apply with India: Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew posed the key question when he asked why states across Asia acutely fear China’s rise but not India’s.8
Asian states continue to move closer to India even as they hedge against China, which offers New Delhi important strategic opportunities—and dovetails with the United States’ own determination to shore up and enlarge a regional security architecture that preserves pluralism while supporting America’s role as resident power and primus inter pares in the Indo-Pacific.
The implications of India’s emergence as a pan-Asian power are profound. First, India is tying up with countries (like Japan and Australia) that are friends of the United States, creating a new architecture of strategic cooperation in Asia—one that incorporates India as a regional security provider alongside traditional U.S. alliance partners. Second, India’s rise as an East and Southeast Asian power is bolstering strategic stability by creating new security networks linking together Asian powers friendly to the United States and wary of China. Third, India shares America’s objective of maintaining the freedom and security of the Indian Ocean sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) by denying China undue influence in what India considers its “home seas.” Fourth, India is redefining its interests in favor of more active support for good governance and free markets, aligning it with America’s objectives of advancing human rights and democracy as a source of security. This is particularly salient in Asia, where the region’s major non-democracy also happens to be the leading peer competitor to both India and America. Fifth, India’s aggressive military modernization in response to the China challenge will make it a more capable partner for the United States towards the shared goal of maintaining balance in Asia.
A shift in Southeast Asia
The growing wariness of Chinese power and penetration now being evinced by Southeast Asian states has created considerable possibilities for American policy. These states cannot balance China by themselves, or even in combination; for that, they need to pull in countervailing great powers by aligning more closely with the United States as well as U.S. security partners like India and Japan. Political and historical sensitivities mean that this must often be done quietly, and outside of formal alliance structures. But Southeast Asia’s growing economic dependence on China should not be confused with political kowtowing; regional nations have moved closer to the United States and its security partners even as they have become more enmeshed economically with China. There should be no doubt that key Southeast Asian states, including traditional allies like the Philippines and non-traditional partners like Vietnam, seek active and sustained American support for their security and autonomy vis-à-vis Beijing. In this sense, their objectives dovetail with the U.S. interest in supporting a pluralism of power in Asia.
Key elements of Southeast Asian strategies for managing Chinese power include: (1) supporting ASEAN solidarity, so as to create a power bloc that prevents China from pursuing a divide-and-conquer strategy; (2) enmeshing China in regional institutions so that ASEAN can deploy its combined weight in them; (3) engaging the United States, Japan, and India in regional clubs in order to use their power and influence as a balancer against China, and; (4) intensifying bilateral relations with key external powers, traditionally the U.S. and increasingly India (as well as Russia for Vietnam and Australia for Indonesia), to prevent Chinese dominance and preserve foreign policy autonomy.
Likewise, in light of expanding Chinese power and assertiveness, the urgency behind Southeast Asian military modernization—particularly in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam—provides important opportunities for the United States. Southeast Asian states each have their own requirements and sensitivities, but most want to see more U.S. leadership and presence in their region, as well as U.S. security assistance for their military modernization. Countries like Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia are also expanding security ties with India; they view India’s rise as useful ballast against Chinese dominion. The region’s states have long been wary of Japan in light of its imperial history, but acute concern over China is mitigating that legacy, creating additional possibilities for expanded Japanese security assistance. This can take creative forms; for instance, Japan’s Coast Guard has deployed to Southeast Asia to assist with naval modernization in countries like Indonesia.
How might the future defense plans of Southeast Asian states intersect with U.S. objectives in the region? First, regional countries could form a crucial pillar of U.S. plans to diversify its forward presence in Asia. Second, the United States will want to invest more directly in force modernization in Southeast Asia—including in non-allied states like Indonesia and non-democracies like Vietnam—in order to bolster the regional balance. Third, Washington will need to deepen strategic and contingency planning to determine how to protect its national interests in the event of a Southeast Asian conflict with China. Fourth, the United States will also need to ensure that support for Southeast Asian force modernization does not inflame sub-regional security dilemmas. The good news is that sustained economic growth and the region’s expanding diplomatic and security horizons will give Washington more capable partners with which to work to provide regional public goods of security and stability.
The economics of stability
In a rising Asia, economic influence is as important as military power in sustaining American leadership. In that regard, the next U.S. administration must pursue a more expansive agenda to liberalize trade and investment across the Pacific—not only by finalizing and enacting the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but also by securing important new trade agreements with India and ASEAN. Finally, strong U.S. alliances with South Korea and Australia will remain critical pillars of a regional security architecture that encourages China to pursue a peaceful rise—and creates disincentives for Beijing to consider more militarized alternatives.
1 Taro Aso, “Asian Strategy as I See It: Japan as the ‘Thought Leader’ of Asia,” speech at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, Tokyo, Japan, December 7, 2005, http://www.mofa.go.jp/announce/fm/aso/speech0512.html; See also Taro Aso, “A Networked Asia: Conceptualizing a Future,” speech on the occasion of the 12th Nikkei International Conference on “The Future of Asia,” Tokyo, Japan, May 26, 2006, http://www.mofa.go.jp/announce/fm/aso/speech0605-2.html.
2 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Joint Statement: Vision for the Enhancement of Japan-India Strategic and Global Partnership upon entering the year of the 60th Anniversary of the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations,” December 28, 2011, http://www.mofa.go.jp/region/asia-paci/india/pmv1112/joint_statement_en.html; Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Joint Declaration on the Australia-Japan Partnership,” May 26, 1995, http://www.mofa.go.jp/region/asia-paci/australia/join_au.html.
3 Taro Aso, “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity: Japan’s Expanding Diplomatic Horizons,” speech on the occasion of the Japan Institute of International Affairs Seminar, Tokyo, Japan, November 30, 2006, http://www.mofa.go.jp/announce/fm/aso/speech0611.html.
4 Kenichiro Sasae, statement at the NATO Bucharest Summit, Bucharest, Romania, April 3, 2008, http://www.mofa.go.jp/region/europe/nato/state0804.html.
5 Yasuo Fukuda, “When the Pacific Ocean Becomes an “Inland Sea”: Five Pledges to a Future Asia that ‘Acts Together,’” speech on the occasion of the 14th International Conference on The Future of Asia, Tokyo, Japan, May 22, 2008, http://www.mofa.go.jp/region/asia-paci/speech0805-2.pdf.
6 Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Higashi-ajia kyōdōtai kōchiku ni kakaru wagakuni no kangae kata [Japan’s way to consider with regard to forming the East Asia Community],” November 2006, http://www.mofa.go.jp/mofaj/area/eas/pdfs/eas_02.pdf.
7 Yukio Hatoyama, “Japan’s New Commitment to Asia- Toward the Realization of an East Asian Community,” speech in Singapore, November 15, 2009, http://www.kantei.go.jp/foreign/hatoyama/statement/200911/15singapore_e..... http://shadow.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/03/09/chrysanthemum_or_samurai
8 Lee Kuan Yew, “India’s Peaceful Rise,” Forbes, December 24, 2007, http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2007/1224/033.html.