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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Japan's overriding goal is to become a "normal country" that can defend itself, export its values to shape its region, and pursue the kind of global leadership befitting the world's second-largest economy. Its alliance with the United States provides the best possible framework for Japan to achieve these goals. It is no surprise that the two Japanese leaders who have done the most to strengthen the alliance--prime ministers Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe--are also the ones who have been most determined to make Japan a normal great power that can deploy its armed forces abroad and embrace international security responsibilities. Without the alliance, Japan would face a stark choice between testing nuclear weapons to provide security in a dangerous region and falling in line behind Beijing. Its U.S. alliance offers Japan better options, which is why Tokyo has moved closer to Washington, not edged away from it as experts predicted, since the end of the Cold War.

Indian leaders believe America holds the keys to their foremost objectives: security in the face of nuclear-armed rivals like China, economic modernization, and international recognition as a great power. The civilian-nuclear agreement, extensive technology transfer, wide-ranging American assistance programs, and U.S. trade and investment--last fall, the United States sent to India its largest official trade delegation to any country ever--reflect India's embrace of American technology to quicken the pace of development. With American sponsorship, what one newspaper calls "the Americanization of the Indian military" is underway. Washington is negotiating India's entrée into the international nuclear club. India has made a strategic decision to pivot toward America after half a century of hostility because it knows that U.S. technology, investment, military prowess, and diplomatic clout will smooth its path to world power.

Asia's other key states have moved closer to Washington even as countries in Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America have edged away. Australia's latest defense white paper could have been written by the Pentagon: It emphasizes closer relations with America and Japan based on shared values, the continuing benefits to Asia of America's predominance, and the threat posed by China's growing military might. The U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement is partly an effort by Seoul to reorient itself toward Washington after years of drift toward Beijing. Although China remains a patron of Islamabad, Pakistan's foreign minister recently made the disquieting declaration that President Musharraf would remain in power as long as he had the support of "the Army, Allah, and America."

Southeast Asian states have pursued closer cooperation with the United States to help defeat internal challenges like terrorism, preserve their autonomy as China looms over the region, and fuel the Asian economic miracle. America is the key antiterrorism partner for Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and the Philippines. These countries have enabled the United States to better project military power in the region by expanding basing and port visitation rights as a hedge against China. Vietnamese and Singaporean leaders have bluntly told Washington that U.S. neglect of Southeast Asia has left an open playing field for Beijing to expand its influence. Declaring that America has "many friends and many strategic interests" in Southeast Asia, Singapore's prime minister recently said, "It's important for us to continue to nourish this, and to make sure attention is focused in America on cultivating this relationship and developing it." Vietnam's leaders made a strategic decision in 2003 to qualitatively enhance relations with America for fear of growing Chinese influence, telling American officials that "the [U.S.-China-Vietnam] triangle is out of balance" and that closer U.S.-Vietnam ties were necessary to maintain Asia's geopolitical equilibrium.

While China's economic growth is fueling the region, Southeast Asian leaders recognize the continued importance of U.S. trade and investment: A majority of Chinese exports are produced by Western, Japanese, and Taiwanese firms based in mainland China. China's manufacturing prowess makes it a direct competitor for Southeast Asian states at similar levels of development, while America offers greater economic complementarities. Southeast Asian leaders have aggressively pursued free trade agreements with the United States in order to reduce their economic dependence on Beijing.