Indo-Pacific Dynamics in Trans-Pacific Perspective

Remarks to The George Washington University’s Elliott School of Foreign Affairs Conference on Power, Identity, and Security: Regional Cooperation and the U.S. Role

Since the end of the Cold War, the Indo-Pacific region has emerged as the world’s most dynamic geopolitical zone. Shifting balances of power there are reshaping international perceptions. They are also fueling apprehensions about economic, military, and political trends; hardening territorial disputes; and driving change in the U.S. economic, political, and military roles in Asia. The uncertainties these shifts entail are causing Asian nations to seek reassurance in reaffirmations of civilizational, cultural, and historical identity. They are redefining relationships with the United States. The principal, but far from the only force at work in these complex interactions is the return of China to wealth and power.

The psychological impact of China’s rise has been amplified by its apparent competence at simultaneously coping with immediate problems, removing structural barriers to future prosperity, and strengthening national competitiveness. (This view may be about to be overtaken by events, but never mind that for now.) China’s global and regional peers brood about their apparent inability to do nearly as well. China has advanced amidst repeated demonstrations of European entropy, Japanese political palsy and economic torpor, temporizing in India that threatens that country’s much-ballyhooed reincarnation as a great power, and disarray and dysfunction in many, if not most systems of global governance. Meanwhile, a dismaying mix of fiscal embarrassment, economic lethargy, and political paralysis continues to erode American self-confidence and clout.

For the past two decades, Asian economies have been growing steadily more interconnected. By a significant margin, almost every Asian country now has China rather than the United States as its largest trading partner, and China’s share continues to grow. In the case of Japan, trade with China is now a bit over 20 percent of the total, while the United States accounts for just 12.5 percent. In the case of India, China trade is one-sixth and U.S. trade one-eighth of the total. South Korea’s trade with China is equal to the total of its trade with both the United States and Japan. Indonesia’s trade is 14 percent with Japan, 12.5 percent with China, and 7 percent with the United States. As a sign of the times, total U.S. trade with greater China — including Hong Kong and Taiwan — is now greater than U.S. trade with Canada!

Asian prosperity — and to a lesser extent that of the world — has therefore come to depend more on continued Chinese success than that of America, even though the American market powered the initial Asian lift-off. The result is an increasingly integrated economic region that is at once Sino-centric and less dependent on North American and European markets than in the past. The United States has recently embraced the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This has been portrayed as a move to offset Chinese influence in Asia. But TPP will not alter, still less reverse current trends even if it is realized in the foreseeable future. (For many reasons, this seems unlikely.)

Asian nations remain intimately connected with the United States. For example, there are nearly 160,000 Chinese students here, over 100,000 from India, nearly 75,000 from South Korea, almost 25,000 from Taiwan, and a bit more than 20,000 from Japan. China, by contrast, hosts only 10,000 Indian students at present. Amazingly, however, for a country that only recently opened its universities to foreigners, there are now more Japanese and almost as many South Korean students in China as in the United States. (More students from Taiwan now study on the Chinese mainland than in the U.S.) Both the trends and the future seem clear.

More to the immediate point, China’s neighbors have become actively engaged with it in a remarkable range of fora, dialogues, and consultations on matters of mutual concern or interest. Still, China’s emergence as an immovable military object — if not yet an irresistible military force — concerns them. Those nations with active territorial disputes with China — a list that includes India, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam — are particularly apprehensive.

The responses of individual Asian nations to these trends differ, but they follow a common pattern. No Asian country, including China, wants to see a Cold War-style division of the Indo-Pacific region into competing spheres of influence. Rather than countering potential Chinese hegemony by re-embracing that of the United States, Asians seek to craft a rule- and relationship-bound regional order. They hope that this can maximize economic potential and mitigate political risks while enhancing national strategic autonomy. Each Asian country strives to consolidate its own borders and boundaries while reducing the danger of armed conflict with China or others over disputed territories.

Outreach to the United States by U.S. allies and former adversaries in Asia is an important part of this effort on their part to adjust to change. In some ways, however, it is less significant than their efforts to accommodate themselves to China’s rising power. Generally, enhancements to their cooperation with the United States are followed by equal and opposite enlargements in their interactions with China. Meanwhile, all Asian nations, other than China, aim to balance regional intercourse with diversified global relationships. None wishes either to provoke China or to become a pawn in Sino-American strategic rivalry.

As China has risen in influence and prestige, U.S. allies as well as other Asian nations have therefore reacted cautiously. Few, other than India, are actively concerned about the prospect of military conflict with China. But all feel intimidated by China’s huge size and growing military weight.

All have been attempting to strengthen themselves both economically and militarily, while reaching out for the added reassurance of American and other foreign backing. At the same time, all have been cultivating cordial relations with China. Their objective is peacefully to incorporate China into a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region, not to exclude it. In their view, the American role should be to stabilize the process of accommodating the realities of Chinese power, not to obstruct this process. The sharper their differences with China with regard to territorial disputes, therefore, the more they seek to offset their bickering by drawing closer to China.

Almost all Asian nations have initiated some form of security dialogue and mechanism for crisis management with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). They do this bilaterally, rather than as groups of nations. In addition to beefing up their armed forces, however, some have also been building new relationships that hint at the potential for future intra-regional coalitions. Japan and Vietnam are particularly active in this regard, as illustrated by their recent courtships of India.

The America that must deal with this evolving new order in the Indo-Pacific is not the same country that hunkered down there after World War II. The Cold War both militarized U.S. foreign policy and birthed a fiscally insatiable American military-industrial complex. The political vector of these developments has made militarism a defining element in contemporary American national identity. We have come to see security issues in predominantly military and coercive terms. In Asia, in particular, we equate military presence with influence.

But military power is only one aspect of national security or, for that matter, of influence. Concepts of both power and security in and around Eurasia are less unidimensional than ours. Despite the tremendous diversity of Asia, there is recognition from India to Japan that national security involves much more than the ability to mount an effective military defense of the homeland or to impose the national will on foreigners by force. The use of force is seen as but one of many means by which to change men’s minds and alter their behavior, and, in most respects, as the least desirable.

Outside the United States, including in China, national security is widely seen to derive from domestic tranquility, social unity, economic resilience, and strategic vision, as well as from military prowess. National security policy has as its objective the preservation of what Chinese, Japanese and Koreans once called the “national essence [国粹 guocui / kokusui / kuksu],” a concept that is civilizational, cultural, historical, and sometimes racial, but not ideological. In Asia, by contrast with America, national security doctrine does not posit a need to export any value system or impose any particular political culture on others. Preserving national independence, dignity, and pride entails sound statecraft that can recruit allies, frustrate enemies, and deflect domestic and foreign challenges to the geography, cultural traits, and social structures that define a nation. It does not require converting others to one’s national value system. Security is measured in the welfare of citizens and their families, their confidence in their future, and the tranquility of their lives as well as in the projected outcome of potential armed clashes with foreigners.

In this context, ironically, while others see rising Chinese strength, China’s leaders fear the prospect of internal instability born of policy missteps, foreign humiliations, or natural disasters. Where our military has been schooled to the thought that “there is no substitute for victory,” the Chinese military tradition sees such a substitute in the achievement of desired political results through right-sized efforts on the battlefield. China’s rulers are, for the most part, risk-averse, conservative, and patient. But they are very much aware of the great power their country is acquiring.

Americans, by contrast, increasingly dread a future of lessened prestige and diminished international sway. This predisposes us both to strut our stuff and to take risks. Our political culture leads us to emphasize military and coercive means to solve problems or meet challenges. But U.S. allies and partners in Asia view combat and threats to engage in it as an undesirable last resort. They consider persuasion more likely to yield lasting diplomatic success than intimidation. They distrust Chinese assurances that China “will never seek hegemony” but they are also wary about entrusting their national security to possibly trigger-happy Americans.

American policy has now officially recognized that the Indo-Pacific region is the world’s new economic center of gravity and that the balance of power within it is evolving. Notwithstanding the clumsiness of our proclamation of a military “pivot” to hold China in place, our response to this evolution has been more than military. To ensure continuing influence on the region’s economic policies, we have — as I mentioned — joined the expansion process of the Chilean-Singaporean-initiated Trans-Pacific Partnership.

To raise our political profile, the president is now committed to regular participation in annual East Asia Summits. With Indo-Pacific economies the consumers of as much as 60 percent of Iran’s oil and gas exports, the American effort to dictate terms to Iran on nuclear matters through sanctions and military threats has necessarily focused heavily on Asia,. This has tested the ability of American leadership to bring our Asian trading partners in line with our policy.

These initiatives demonstrate U.S. attention to the region. Paradoxically, however, they also illustrate the handicaps that hobble efforts to shore up American influence in Asia. Those taking part in the TPP expansion process have greatly welcomed the prospect of American participation in the vast free trade zone they are attempting to create. But many object to the U.S. insistence on imposing various American special interest agendas on other members. They consider this to exemplify American overreach and overestimation of U.S. leverage in changing times. (The U.S. demands a radical rewrite of the global norms for intellectual-property rights, as well as the adoption of American-style financial deregulation, labor standards, environmental regulations, waivers of sovereign immunity in the litigation of investment disputes, and other idiosyncratic elements of the currently troubled U.S. economic system.)

Others note that the American proposals seem calculated to engineer the exclusion of China from TPP. They understand the gamesmanship but question the logic of this, given the importance of China to regional and global prosperity and the fact that China is fast becoming the world’s largest economy. And all are aware of the history of the United States’ extracting concessions from other countries in return for undertakings that the U.S. Congress then balks at implementing. Frankly, most observers rank the prospects for the far more accommodating Chinese-backed East Asian Free Trade Area as considerably better than those for TPP.

Asian leaders universally welcome the renewed American attention to them but many do not appreciate elements of the U.S. global agenda that this introduces into their discussions. This is particularly true of U.S. policies in the greater Middle East, which not a few view as anti-Islamic or unilateralist. In Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei — to one extent or another — Islam is an important component of national identity. And no nation likes to have policies based on interests it doesn’t share imposed on it.

U.S. treatment of the dollar as a sovereign instrument by which to compel others to conform to unilaterally formulated American policies has elicited a significant passive-aggressive reaction. In addition to its role as the U.S. currency, the dollar is the principal unit of account for global trade settlement. By blocking its use by banks in transactions with Iran, including money transfers for oil and gas purchases, the United States has been able to override the energy strategies and economic interests of our Asian allies and trading partners without making any sacrifices ourselves. We have considerably narrowed Asians’ access to energy supplies in the process. Meanwhile, of course, the possibility that Iran might react to Israeli or American attack on it by closing off energy exports from the Persian Gulf has boosted oil prices. That has had a depressing effect on the global economy, including Asia.

One unfortunate side effect of the U.S. campaign to subdue Ahmadinejad and the ayatollahs has been to stimulate China, India, and other Asian nations to begin to create workarounds to avoid the use of the dollar in settling international trade accounts. This quiet revolt against “dollar despotism” promises to accelerate the global erosion of U.S. financial power. More importantly, in terms of relations with the Indo-Pacific region, the bullying style of leadership we have exhibited compares poorly with the more deferential approach taken by China. Asian power and influence on the global stage are growing. The ability of the United States to enlist Asian support for policies in which Asian interests are not directly engaged has not been enhanced by recent experience.

Quite apart from than these politico-economic interactions, the military “pivot” — now officially redesignated the “rebalancing” — has been presented as the centerpiece of the U.S. refocus on Asia. At more or less the same time it was announced, the United States proclaimed a new operational concept — called “air-sea battle” — that envisages deep strikes inside Chinese territory in response to conflicts on China’s periphery. There is no evidence that the authors of this concept considered how a nuclear-armed China might respond to such an attack. The scenario “air-sea battle” is directed at deterring is a resumption of the Chinese civil war in the Taiwan Strait. This is universally assessed as increasingly implausible. So the United States seems to be escalating its capacity to conduct offensive operations against a declining threat from a China that is increasingly able to defend itself. We appear to be acting to counter China’s rise, not to blunt or alter China’s policies.

Not surprisingly, China’s leaders see this as evidence that America has veered toward overt enmity. They appear to have reacted calmly by boosting long-term funding for military R&D rather than current defense spending. Conversely, American “rebalancing” has not reduced the defense spending of those in the region concerned about Chinese military power. Instead, it has emboldened some to escalate their claims to islets, reefs, and rocks in the South China Sea, now referred to in Manila as the “West Philippine Sea,” and the East China Sea, where barren islands now bear newly minted Japanese names.

Those in the region whom the U.S. “rebalancing” was meant to reassure — as well as China’s experts on the United States — have, in fact, been somewhat skeptical about both the “pivot” and “air-sea battle.” They suspect that both may turn out to be fiscally infeasible. The United States has already announced cuts in projected defense spending. “Sequestration” or its equivalent will force further, larger cuts, but even those won’t be enough to cure U.S. insolvency. Still more cuts in military outlays will be necessary to make ends meet.

Then, too, “rebalancing” presupposes that the United States can now pay less military attention to the Middle East. This seems a queer thesis to advance when war with Iran is a serious possibility, and Israel faces the prospect of a collapse of the U.S.-brokered Camp David framework that has guaranteed its security for more than three decades.

In some respects, “rebalancing” looks like yet another worrisome instance of an American propensity to confuse the sum of particular bureaucratic, armed service, and special interests with the U.S. national and global interest.

Finally, it is not at all clear that recent U.S. initiatives are consistent or compatible with the strategies of those they are supposed to support. No one in the Asia-Pacific region shares the U.S. defense commitment to Taiwan or considers the threat to Taiwan from the Chinese mainland to be growing. But that’s the scenario driving U.S. policy. No one in the region wants the United States to threaten China or to stimulate it to see a need to expand its defense perimeter to include other Asian nations from which U.S. forces might attack it. Yet it is entirely possible that the net effect of U.S. policy will now be to do both.

No one in Asia seeks to deny China an appropriate role in regional security architecture. But, in Chinese eyes, the aim of U.S. policy seems to be to perpetuate U.S. dominance, while confining China to the sidelines of a newly reinforced American sphere of influence. No one in the Indo-Pacific region wishes to see it divided between rival hegemonies, still less between foreign and Asian hegemonies. Yet that outcome is implicit in the current trajectory of U.S.-China relations.

These questions are much larger than those raised by the specific issues of the South or East China Seas or even Taiwan. They are also too important to be left unaddressed by the participants in the security and other dilemmas that frame them. Their outcomes will determine much more than the future American role in Asia. The Indo-Pacific region is now the fulcrum of global geopolitics. How these questions are answered will decide what sort of world we live in and how it is managed.

So Americans and Asians need a serious dialogue about how to craft a more harmonious and cooperative order in the Indo-Pacific region. The United States, echoed by others, has long demanded greater transparency from China with regard to its policies and actions, especially in the military sphere. China and other Asians now have cause to demand a greater measure of transparency from the United States.

Sometimes opacity is a mask for clear but concealed intentions. More often, however, it is the face of confusion, inconsistency, and incoherence in national objectives. It is time for Americans, Chinese, and other Asians to clarify our intentions, aspirations, and strategies — not just to each other, but to ourselves.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)

Washington, DC

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