Friday, July 22, 2005

The New Politics of the Asia-Pacific

This is the second article going into AAP. Bit less work than the Iraq one as I've been breathing Asia-Pacific politics since December, when I started interning at the East Asian Institute at NUS in Singapore. Stay tuned for follow-up posts on individual countries over the coming weeks, starting with the big one. That's China, if you hadn't guessed.


For over half a century the framework for Asia-Pacific international politics has been the so-called ‘San Francisco system’, a US-dominated alliance network built on bilateral security treaties and underpinned by the US military. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan form the northern limb of this system. The first two countries have large and permanent US military deployments on their soil, with the US 7th Fleet based at Yokosuka in the Japanese home islands. Taiwan is no longer formally recognised by the US as a sovereign state, but continues to benefit from US arms sales and the protection of the US navy. The southern limb of the alliance system consists of Thailand, the Philippines, Australia and (more recently) Singapore. These countries do not host large US military deployments but have close security relationships with the US, manifested in Australia’s case by the Pine Gap listening facility, access to US military technology and the commitment to US-led projects in Afghanistan and Iraq. New Zealand ceased to be an operative part of the alliance system with the withdrawal of US security cooperation after 1985.

Unlike the collective security order represented by NATO, the San Francisco system is clearly dominated by the US, having been structured and operated on Washington’s terms. Regional states have accepted this unequal relationship because of the benefits they derive from it: the alliance system has provided security and open markets, allowing them to concentrate on export-driven growth and development. For its part the US receives a forward defence line in the western Pacific, based on regional deployment of the US military and alignment of allied states’ security policy with that of Washington. The system thus represents a ‘grand strategic bargain’ between the US and its regional states, founded in post-1945 conditions of US economic and military preeminence, Cold War security threats and regional underdevelopment.

As these conditions have changed, the US-centric order has come under increasing strain. Three main trends can be identified as direct challenges to its continued existence. Foremost is the rise of China, both economically and militarily. Historically the trust and stability fostered by the US alliance system opened markets, most crucially that of the US itself, to the countries of the Asia-Pacific. Today these countries’ economic interests are increasingly shifting to China; the ASEAN states have already signed a free trade agreement with Beijing and Australia is making rapid progress towards doing so. This economic shift is now manifesting itself politically, seen in China’s growing prominence in regional forums and in the policy stances taken towards China by individual states; consider the Australian government’s recent equivocation over its reaction to a conflict in the Taiwan Strait, or its subdued response to the controversy generated by Chinese defector Chen Yonglin. On the military plane, PLA reform and modernisation coupled with a steady increase in Chinese defence spending is starting to erode US dominance in the western Pacific, a goal dictated by the post-Cold War shift in China’s main security concern from a Soviet land invasion to maritime confrontation. To achieve this China does not need to build a military capacity equal to that of the US, only one that poses a credible threat to US naval assets. These structural changes are being actively exploited by China in the political arena; Beijing’s diplomacy now emphasises multilateralism and the cultivation of ‘strategic partnerships’ with key nations and political groupings as means of countering ‘hegemonism’. China’s internal problems and even prospective political reform are unlikely to significantly affect these foreign policy fundamentals.

The second main factor putting strain on the San Francisco system is the post-9/11 shift in US security policy, which now prioritises the prosecution of terrorist networks and rogue states at the expense of traditional alliances. This resulted in US pressure on South Korea and Japan to make military deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, deployments which are domestically unpopular and do not serve these states’ immediate security interests. New priorities are also guiding the Bush administration’s policy towards North Korea, specifically the demand for Pyongyang to unilaterally dismantle its nuclear weapons program as a precondition for bilateral dialogue or aid. This stance contradicts South Korea’s ‘sunshine policy’ of supporting the North economically and has strained relations between Seoul and Washington, which are presently at an historic nadir. These are only the two chief examples of how US unilateralism is forcing Asia-Pacific allies to reevaluate their relationship with Washington.

The third factor is the growth of both nationalism and regionalism in the Asia-Pacific. As the nation-building and development projects that occupied regional states in the early Cold War decades have progressed, and as democratisation has given their populations a greater voice, demands for more national autonomy have increased. As obvious security threats recede, popular resentment of a US troop presence subsidised by local taxpayers and immune to local court gains strength. Popular pressure caused the Philippine senate not to renew the US leases over Clarke Field and Subic Bay in 1991, effectively forcing the US military to withdraw from the Philippines, and it remains an ever-present factor for policymakers in Seoul and Tokyo. Regional development also gives rise to an imperative for regional governance; from the early 1990’s this has produced a growing network of multilateral forums such as ASEAN Plus Three and the North Korean Six Party Talks, in which Washington participates as an equal or is even excluded. The inaugural East Asian Summit scheduled for November this year is a prime example of this trend; it represents the failure of long-standing US opposition to an exclusively Asian economic grouping, opposition that was effective as recently as the Asian financial crisis of 1997-8. At that time the US and IMF response to regional economic distress, including that of several US allies, ranged from unsympathetic to exploitative and compared poorly with China’s decision not to devalue the renminbi. Today it is tempting to see Beijing’s action as the harbinger of an emerging regional solidarity that is displacing an anachronistic Cold War security structure.

Nevertheless, the US-centric order is so deeply entrenched that its basic features are likely to persist for several decades. China is still a long way from posing a credible challenge to the US military’s regional dominance. Despite Washington’s recent foreign policy frolics, US leadership retains solid credentials based on five decades of stability and peaceful economic growth; China by contrast suffers from a legacy of mistrust among other regional states and ongoing suspicion about the direction of its self-proclaimed ‘peaceful rise’. Asia-Pacific regionalism remains biased towards the informal, non-institutional style typical of its ASEAN prototype; it does not yet have the depth needed for a bona fide security community that could substitute for the US alliance network. The limits of the new regionalism are evident in the inability to resolve (for example) the festering territorial disputes in the South China Sea, not only where China is concerned but even among the ASEAN claimants. Nor is the US likely to withdraw from the region given the significance of its strategic interests there; to the contrary, Washington has been expanding its security tries with alliance partners over the past fifteen years. Most importantly the US-Japan partnership, which has always been the alliance system’s keystone, was reaffirmed and updated for the 21st century following the 1996 Sino-US confrontation in the Taiwan Strait.

The system will however need to evolve to take account of regional trends, in particular to accommodate China. Given China’s growing integration with the world economy and the size of its own economy, which on current trends will surpass that of the US around mid-century, it is most unlikely that it can be ‘contained’ in the manner of the USSR. A more realistic option is the development of a regional ‘concert of powers’, i.e. a roughly symmetrical system less benign than a security community but based on consultation and consensus rather than confrontation. In practice this would mean drawing both China and Japan into the existing security structure as active and independent players, requiring a flexibility in attitudes and decision-making that is not yet evident in either Beijing or Washington. There are moreover a number of unresolved regional issues with the potential to compromise the Asia-Pacific’s development along stable, non-confrontational lines.

The most dangerous is the ‘Taiwan problem’. So long as China and the US remain strategic rivals, an independent and US-aligned Taiwan will be intolerable to China; it compromises China’s coastal defence and maritime trade routes and restricts the Chinese navy’s freedom of movement. So long as China remains a one-party state, reunification will never occur voluntarily. As neither situation is likely to change in the foreseeable future, Taiwan represents a perpetual flashpoint for Sino-US conflict. To make things worse, the Beijing regime has backed itself into a corner on this issue by nailing its political legitimacy to Taiwanese reunification. China now possesses or will acquire within the next decade the military means to force reunification on Taipei, assuming US non-intervention. Such non-intervention is however unlikely, given Taiwan’s strategic value to the US vis-à-vis a hostile China and the alliance system’s dependence on a credible US military deterrent. A major conflict between the US and China would severely disrupt China’s development, with flow-on consequences across the region; it would certainly destroy any prospect of a ‘concert of powers’ and set the stage for hostile great power confrontation as the paradigm for the Asia-Pacific.

The second issue is North Korea. Nuclear program notwithstanding, North Korea does not pose a credible military threat to any state; to the contrary, Pyongyang is losing control of its already derelict economy and even of the country’s infrastructure, as shown by the growing number of technical accidents. Prospects like a nuclear disaster or a massive refugee exodus are the real threats posed by North Korea, threats that will not be solved by the current US policy of pushing the regime to the wall. The strategic interests of the Asia-Pacific’s three great powers (US, China, Japan) in the Korean peninsula ensure that state collapse there will have regional ramifications. Even best case scenarios are fraught with difficulties; given the relative sizes of South and North Korea and the wealth disparity between the two countries, peaceful reunification presents a problem of far greater magnitude then it did for Germany. In short North Korea represents a geopolitical ulcer similar to that of Taiwan, one that is seemingly incurable but will constantly menace regional stability until resolved.

The third issue is Japan’s behaviour. A sequence of legislation and bilateral agreements with the US over the past decade has laid the ground for a more active Japanese military role in the region. Japan is already the world’s fifth largest defence spender and has the capacity to quickly acquire power projection instruments: nuclear weapons, aircraft carriers, ballistic missiles. With Japan now covering 70% of the cost of the US military deployment on its soil, and a right wing foreign policy school alive and well in Tokyo, the prospect of Japan leveraging its growing security autonomy into an independent great power role cannot be discounted. This may catalyse the development of a regional concert of powers, which would necessarily turn on a triumvirate of Beijing, Tokyo and Washington. Alternatively it could result in a trilateral zero-sum power game that will overshadow the Asia-Pacific for the better part of the 21st century.

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