Wednesday 13 Oct 2021 | 19:00 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 13 Oct 2021 | 19:00 | SYDNEY

The US needs to change its Asia policy


Hugh White

12 March 2010 11:27

Thanks to Geoff Miller for asking how exactly I think America should change its policies in Asia to adapt to China’s growing power. Best to start by explaining why I think it has to change. Here is the short version. 

I expect that as its power grows China will not continue to accept US primacy in Asia, and if the US tries to maintain primacy against a Chinese challenge, Asia’s order would be ruptured by sustained and bitter strategic competition between them.

Moreover, whether we like it or not, China’s aspiration to a larger regional role as its power grows is not illegitimate.

Therefore America and its friends face a choice: do we preserve US primacy at the price of disrupting regional order, or do we forgo primacy and try to build a new order? I vote for order ahead of primacy. That is why I think the US has to change its posture in Asia.

This answer to ‘why?’ leads directly to my response to Geoff’s ‘how?’. Again, short version. Our best hope to avoid US-China confrontation and build a stable future in Asia is a concert-style collective leadership of Asia’s major powers. That won’t work unless the US takes part, but it needs to do so as a partner with the other members, not as the leader.

So here is the first, broad answer to Geoff’s question: the US should start to treat Asia’s major powers, including China as equals.

What does that mean in practice? Well let me address each of the four specific issues Geoff raises, starting with the easy ones. I do not think the EAS or other regional multilateral forums matter much here: they reflect, rather than shape, the regional order, so whether the US is in or out makes little difference.

Korea is a more interesting case, but not central to the key questions of future regional order because US and Chinese interests in Korea broadly align. That might not always be so in future, but for the time being American policies on the Peninsula are not a factor in US-China relations. 

Taiwan is different. Yes, I do believe that the US policy on Taiwan should change to one of active and explicit support for eventual, peaceful and consensual reunification. All three adjectives are important. This would be a significant step, because it would make clear that US policy on Taiwan is based solely on the interests of the Taiwanese, and not on zero-sum strategic symbolism. I do not think the US could treat China as an equal and resist reunification satisfying these conditions.

Finally, there is the question of US alliances and forces in Asia. Yes Geoff, there I think a lot will have to change, starting with the US-Japan alliance. An Asian Concert could only work if Japan sat at the table not as a US client but as an independent major power in its own right. 

I explored the issues in a series of posts back in 2008 (starting here) so I won’t rehearse the argument again, but suffice to say that it is a measure of how different Asia’s next few decades might be from the last few that the US-Japan alliance which has been such an asset hitherto might become a liability. More broadly I think the US military posture in Asia is likely to shift a lot over coming decades, either up if US-China competition intensifies, or down if US primacy fades.

But in the brevity of a blog post, perhaps the best answer to Geoff’s question about how US policy should change is ‘fundamentally’. This might be surprising, seeing how well US primacy has served Asia until now, but Asia is changing and what worked before will not work in future. 

Photo by Flickr user Leo Chimaera's photostream, used under a Creative Commons license.