The Magazine

Playing the America Card

As China's power grows, the rest of Asia warms up to Washington.

Oct 1, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 03 • By DANIEL TWINING
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Asians are like spectators in a movie theater. They are all looking at the screen, which is America, rather than at each other.

--Senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official, Tokyo, April 2007

Countries of greatest importance to India's future: (1) United States, (2) United Kingdom, (3) Japan, (4) France, (5) Russia, (6) China.

--Leaked Indian Ministry of External Affairs document, October 2006

We live in the American orbit. China understands this.

--Former Indonesian cabinet minister, Jakarta, April 2007

The whole world will pass the first half of the 21st century under the supervision and control of the United States.

--Commentator in the Chinese-owned Hong Kong newspaper Ta Kung Pao, July 2002

China's rise in Asia and the world is one of the big stories of our time. Goldman Sachs predicts that China's economy will be bigger than America's in two decades. Political scientists identify a historic power shift from West to East. Economists speak of a new "Beijing consensus" on economic development that is replacing the "Washington consensus" of democratic capitalism. From Shanghai to Singapore, one hears whispers of a "new Chinese century" recalling the Sino-centric hierarchy of traditional Asia.

Yet China's geopolitical ascent is creating what Mao Zedong would have termed a "contradiction": China's rising power makes the United States increasingly important to nearly every Asian nation, including China itself. In parts of Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and Russia, leaders rail against American "hegemony," while public approval of the United States is mixed at best. By contrast, Asian leaders broadly seek closer relations with Washington, scold their U.S. counterparts for neglecting the region, are deeply insecure about any hint of an American pullback, and increasingly identify democratic political values as the basis for closer cooperation with America and each other. Popular majorities in countries as diverse as Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, and Vietnam hold the United States in high regard. Even China cultivates America as its most important external partner, while North Korea's totalitarian ruler covets a special relationship with Washington and has developed nuclear weapons in a perverse effort to secure it.

Such influence gives the United States a singular opportunity to construct a new American century in Asia. We should seize it. The Asia-Pacific region encompasses half of humanity, includes five nuclear powers, and within a few decades will contain the world's four largest economies and biggest navies. The present historical moment offers America a fleeting chance to shape emerging Asia in ways that preserve our privileged position in the world's most dynamic region.

Despite the widely trumpeted power shift, most Asian leaders still express a clear preference for U.S. leadership and are far more comfortable living in a world in which American power, rather than Chinese, is preponderant. If we don't work with our friends to build an enduring foundation for order in Asia as five centuries of Western dominance in international relations give way to a new era, others not guided by our political values will--and we may not like the results. Smart U.S. policy now can help ensure that the new age dawning will not be "someone else's century," as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warns, but our own.

Partnership with the United States is important for Asian nations' prosperity, security, and autonomy in the shadow of Chinese power. Asian states do not want to subordinate themselves in relations of dependence on America. Rather, relations with the United States are vital to Asian leaders' ambitions to make their countries rich, strong, and secure. Their goal is to preserve and enhance their autonomy and influence in a dynamic region characterized by multiple centers of power. Intimate relations with a benign, distant partner that values and empowers their leadership are central to this strategy.