Create a new U.S. approach to NE Asia
Presidential debate after presidential debate, photo op after photo op, TV interview after TV interview yet there still has been little substantive discussion or few policy prescriptions for Northeast Asia from most leading candidates. Meanwhile, China has emerged as a key Asian regional and international power that has created a new calculus of power in Northeast Asia with which America has not come to terms.
U.S.-Asian policy during the Cold War sought to contain China to prevent its revolutionary Marxist influence from spreading to neighboring countries. In Northeast Asia, the United States built strong bilateral relationships with the South Korea and Japan. The United States guaranteed South Korean and Japanese security by concluding mutual defense treaties with both countries. To bring further political stability and economic growth to its key Northeast Asian allies, the United States threw open its markets to South Korea and Japan. Physically secure and with growing economies, the United States helped to create burgeoning democracies in both countries.
Nevertheless, the emphasis has always been on bilateral relations, and there was no attempt to build any form of multilateral regional security or economic apparatus.
In 1978, China opened to the world, and in 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved, bringing with it the end of the Cold War.
Since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, China pursued international relations solely on the basis of bilateral relationships. However, after rendering economic assistance during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 to 1998, it broke out of its bilateral mode to pursue a foreign policy based on multilateralism. Most speeches by President Hu Jintao or other leading party members trumpet the approach.
Chinese advocacy of multilateralism is not simply rhetorical. One only has to look at the great degree of attention China gives to Asia's premier multilateral organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, in which, unlike the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, the United States is not a member. It is also evident in China's maneuvering along with Russia to create the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to stymie U.S. influence in Central Asia, and China's desire to create a regional security apparatus in Northeast Asia, which could in the long run be used to diminish the U.S. security position in Northeast Asia.
South Korea and Japan wish to maintain their security relationships anchored in the mutual defense treaties with the United States, and the U.S. market is still crucial to them. However, the Koreans and Japanese don't always agree with the United States, and the Chinese market is more important to them than is the U.S. market. Thus, at times it will be more advantageous, from the standpoint of Korean and Japanese national interests, to cooperate with China and at other times with the United States. Even though South Korean President-elect Lee Myung-bak has a world view that promises to be more in line with Washington's than incumbent President Roh's, South Korea cannot be expected to always follow the U.S. lead. The same is true for Japan where Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's primary external concern will be building relations with Asia, especially China and South Korea.
Jitsuro Terashima, president of the Mitsui Strategic Research Institute, says, "Asia will account for 50 percent of global GDP by 2050." As Northeast Asian economies grow and as the dollar continues to depreciate, intra-Asian trading will become more and more important to Northeast Asian countries and the U.S. market will diminish. Northeast Asian nations will become less likely to follow the lead of the United States and to positively respond to U.S. concerns.
Northeast Asian multilateral economic growth focusing on China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, the Russian Far East and Mongolia continues to receive increasing attention. Both South Korea and Japan have a number of organizations devoted to promoting such growth and more serious and more frequent meetings are being held to create a Northeast Asia Development Bank in the near future. In the wake of the Six Party Talks, we are bound to see more serious attempts to create a viable Northeast Asian regional security. There is growing interest in creating an organization that might borrow some of the architecture and modus operandi of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The OSCE provides members with a multilateral regional organization to address economic and security issues.
Adjusting to a multilaterally focused Northeast Asia where it would not be the preeminent power will be difficult for the United States; however, the trend continues to gain momentum. In recent issues of Foreign Affairs, presidential candidates John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are on record favoring a multilateral, regional approach. To turn the situation to its advantage, the United States should vigorously promote its own notions of effective multilateral economic and security organizations, now.
During the next administration, Washington needs to remember that there are vital parts of the world other than just the Middle East and countries that demand just as much -- if not more -- attention than Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. How creatively and flexibly the United States handles its foreign policy in Northeast Asia promises to have a significant impact on America's future prosperity and global leadership.
Bill Sharp teaches classes about the politics of East Asia at Hawaii Pacific University. He writes a monthly commentary for the Star-Bulletin.