implications for U.S. leadership in Asia
Author: Robert G. Sutter,East-West Center Washington
Category: Political Science
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Executive Summary:Foreign policy makers in the United States should not be misled by prevailing media and scholarly assessments that exaggerate China?s influence in Asia relative to that of the United States. In particular, it would be a mistake for the Bush administration to give in to recent congressional, media, and interest group pressures that employ overstated assessments of China?s increasing power in order to push for tough U.S. government policies to confront and compete with China. This study shows that overt U.S. competition with China for influence is unwelcome in Asia, counterproductive for U.S. interests in the region, and unwarranted given the limited challenge posed by China?s rise. Prevailing assessments and commentaries about China?s rise in Asia are unbalanced, emphasizing China?s strengths and the United States? weaknesses. With few exceptions, they give inadequate attention to Chinese weaknesses and U.S. strengths. This study demonstrates that China?s recent success in Asia rests heavily on a fairly narrow foundation?that is, generally adroit Chinese diplomacy and intra-Asian trade that is less significant than the reported figures of annual trade between China and its neighbors would suggest. China?s willingness and ability to lead in Asia is undermined notably by many domestic preoccupations, nationalistic ambitions at odds with Asian neighbors, and economic complications posed by China?s rise as many countries in Asia are left further behind.Moreover, Chinese leaders and officials continue to follow policies that do not require either China or its neighboring countries to make significant changes, sacrifices, or commitments for one another that they would not ordinarily make. Thus, China?s Asian approach focuses on ?easy? things?the ?low-hanging fruit??and avoids costly commitments or major risk. By contrast, U.S. leadership in Asia, though challenged by unpopular policies in Southwest Asia and Korea, along with insufficient attention in dealing with Asian governments, remains strong in undertaking responsibilities and providing needed security and economic benefits to Asian states. The United States continues to show influence in Asia in concrete ways, notably by influencing Asian governments to do things they would not be inclined to do.Predictions of an emerging order in Asia led by a rising China that will marginalize the United States illustrate how far many of the predominate, unbalanced media and scholarly assessments have gone. They reflect a poor understanding of the ambitions of Asian governments, the resilience of U.S. power and leadership, and the actual status of China?s influence relative to that of the United States in Asian states around China?s periphery. To some extent, a rising China that generally accommodates its neighbors benefits from the fluid post-Cold War Asian order, as various Asian governments seek to broaden international options with various powers in a continuing round of hedging and maneuvering for advantage. But as China rises in influence in Asia, this study shows that these same neighboring governments hedge and maneuver against possible Chinese dominance. In this process, they quietly seek closer ties with one another and particularly with the region?s dominant power, the United States. America?s advantages in this situation are strong. The United States has a proven record of being able and willing to commit significant resources and prestige to protect allies and friends. The United States is very powerful?a superpower?but it is far away from Asia and has none of the territorial and few of the other ambitions that characterize Asian powers. Thus it is less distrusted by Asian governments in comparison with how these governments view one another, including China. As a result, most Asian governments?including China and all the major powers in Asia?give higher priority to relations with the United States than to relations with any power in Asia.In addition to being Asia?s economic partner of choice and acknowledged security guarantor, the United States has a leadership position in Asia that rests on a determined U.S. administration prepared to confront adversaries and opponents. This position gives pause to Asian governments seeking to challenge or displace the United States. The analysis in this monograph demonstrates that even hard-line Chinese critics of U.S. ?hegemony? in Asian and world affairs have been compelled in recent years to adopt alow posture in dealings with the United States, choosing to wait as China builds comprehensive national power over the coming decades.Chinese leaders are often frustrated by U.S. policies and power, and desirous over the long term to see their periphery free of constricting U.S. great power involvement. However, they show little sign of deviating from efforts to expand influence in selected ways that tend to avoid directly challenging the United States. Thus, for the most part, China?s rise in Asia does not come at the expense of U.S. interests and is not a part of a zerosum game resulting in the automatic decline of U.S. influence.To enhance its position in Asia, Washington should focus on repairing negative features of recent U.S. policy in Asia related to the fallout of its actions in Iraq, the Middle East, and Korea; U.S. unilateralism in international politics; and inattentiveness to the concerns of Asian governments over economic development, nation building, and multilateral cooperation. This recommendation requires adjustments, not a wholesale revamping of U.S. policies. Backed by continued, careful management of U.S. security commitments and economic relations with regional governments, they will enhance the leading role of the United States in Asian affairs. The prevailing tendency of Asian governments to hedge in the post- Cold War environment seems likely to continue to pose challenges for U.S. management of alliance and other relations with Asian governments seeking more independence and freedom of action, inclining some to seek closer ties with China, among others. Policymakers in the United States should not overreact to such maneuvers, recognizing that such hedging continues to provide a prominent role for the United States as the region?s well-recognized security stabilizer and economic partner of choice. In particular, Chinese government leaders found that their overt efforts in the late 1990s to compel Asian governments to choose between a rising China and the United States failed in the face of Asian governments? long unwillingness to do so. The government should learn from this experience in seeking to advance its leadership in Asia without the overt competition with China that would try to force Asian governments to make such a choice, probably with negative implications for U.S. leadership in Asia.