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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The United States' predominant position in Asia naturally is an obstacle to China's aspiration to lead the region. But for now, Beijing covets a special relationship with the country that has the greatest ability to play the role of spoiler for China's "peaceful rise." The permissive strategic environment that has allowed China to prioritize economic development is a function of America's stabilizing military presence in Asia. As one Chinese policymaker puts it, "If we can't have a peaceful and prosperous backyard, then there can't be any rise of China."

The open international economy that has made possible China's export-based prosperity is a product of international economic rules underpinned by Western leadership. Although it did not make the rules of the global economy, China benefits more from them--and from their enforcement by Western nations and clubs like the World Trade Organization (WTO)--than almost anyone else. Nearly 70 percent of China's GDP comes from trade, attesting to its dependence on the global economy and the U.S.-policed sea lanes that carry Asia's trade and energy supplies. When China's leaders speak of the first decades of this century as a "20-year period of opportunity," they implicitly highlight the benign international conditions conducive to the peace, security, and flows of trade and finance that are making China a world power. The United States is the most important provider of these public goods.

The authoritarian stability and dynamic prosperity that characterize China's domestic order are made possible in part by the character of China's external environment. China's export- and foreign investment-led economic transformation is the central source of legitimacy for the Communist party. When China's leaders claim a mandate to rule based on their economic stewardship, they have the wider world to thank. Moreover, China's leaders can rule with a strong hand, in the overconfident belief that Western leaders are more interested in commercial opportunities for their companies than political freedoms for the Chinese people.

China relies on the United States to contain Japan's formidable latent military power. This has been an enduring concern of Chinese leaders: At their first meeting in 1972, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai asked President Nixon, "Can the United States control the 'wild horse' of Japan?" Nixon pointed out that China and America shared a compelling interest in containing Japanese military power. More recently, the official Xinhua news agency attacked Japan's "wild ambitions of becoming a political and military power," highlighting the threat to China's own ambitions posed by Japan's ability to challenge Beijing's leadership in Asia.

Perhaps most strangely of all, North Korea's armed antics over more than a decade look like part of a larger design to maneuver the United States into sponsoring North Korea's brittle regime--through massive economic and energy assistance, food aid, a security pact, and diplomatic normalization--in order to bolster its legitimacy in the face of challenges from South Korea's far more successful socioeconomic model, and to secure U.S. protection against neighbors that have colonized the peninsula in the past. This is in keeping with Korean leaders' traditional concern about predation by neighboring great powers China, Russia, and Japan as well as political challenges from contending domestic centers of power on the peninsula. Although Beijing certainly wields influence in Pyongyang, it appears that North Korea's Dear Leader deems the United States a more desirable patron in his quest for regime security.

The desire of nearly every important Asian country for a special relationship with Washington should not make Americans hubristic, for the sense among many of our Asian friends that our diplomacy has neglected the region is real. Widespread Asian craving for American leadership indicates that perhaps we are not providing enough. What should we be doing to help build a new American century in Asia?

(1) Accelerate the rise of democratic great powers in Asia increasingly willing to help police the region. Among the Bush administration's finest accomplishments have been the transformation of the U.S.-Japan alliance and the construction of a wide-ranging strategic partnership with India. A resurgent Japan ever more closely tied to America now seeks to spread the values of "freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law" in Asia and the world, as outgoing Prime Minister Abe put it. With U.S. sponsorship, India is emerging as a global power with a Curzonian worldview as the natural leader of a vast region stretching from Aden to Singapore--and a determination not to kowtow to Beijing (or anyone else). America could invest much more heavily in the modernization of Asia's other big democracy, Indonesia: The National Intelligence Council identifies this moderate Muslim nation of 235 million people sitting astride critical sea lanes as an emerging great power whose economy will surpass those of many European countries by the 2020s. Such strong Asian states along China's periphery could deter Chinese adventurism and help ensure its peaceful rise.

(2) Encourage strategic cooperation among Asian and Pacific democracies. The vision of a Pacific Pact of free Asian nations has animated American leaders since Eisenhower, but Cold War divisions and the legacy of Japanese imperialism made it impossible to implement. Today, Asian nations are leading the effort to form democratic security concerts, a trend Washington should enthusiastically nurture. Japan and Australia recently signed a bilateral security pact--Japan's first outside the U.S. alliance since 1951--and Australia and Indonesia have inked a bilateral security treaty. Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand are pursuing military interoperability with NATO. Japan has led in the formation of a quadrilateral security partnership with India, Australia, and America. Ironically, Washington has been ambivalent about what Chinese strategists fear is an emerging "Asian NATO" of great democracies. In India, the opposite logic applied: New Delhi was lukewarm about the quad until Beijing began lobbying against it, leading India to sign on enthusiastically. Americans should be thrilled that our democratic friends in Asia want to tie up with us and each other to promote regional peace and prosperity, which benefits China too.

(3) Talk economics. There is a perception in Asia that America's laser-like focus on defeating terrorism causes it to talk past allies primarily concerned with fueling Asia's economic dynamism. China has adopted Southeast Asia's economics-first discourse, and its influence has increased accordingly. We need to speak the same language as our prosperous friends, who know that U.S. trade and investment agreements are qualitatively superior to--and more lucrative than--anything China, India, or Japan can offer at the moment. America could focus on the goal of an Asia-Pacific free trade agreement encompassing over $20 trillion of combined GDP and 55 percent of world trade, although it faces daunting obstacles like China's lack of legal transparency and Japan's agricultural protectionism. Deepened economic cooperation could also provide ballast to volatile U.S.-China relations: China needs corporate America's help to modernize its banks, develop mature capital markets, construct health care and pension systems for a rapidly aging society, and create a transparent investment climate.

(4) Reform international institutions for the Asian-Pacific century. America should take the lead in reforming old international institutions and designing new ones with the goal of making emerging Asian world powers responsible international stakeholders rather than second-class citizens. Japan and India deserve seats on the U.N. Security Council, whose current membership was conceived in the 1940s. India has shown itself to be a responsible multilateral partner in its multiple votes to sanction Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency, its non-opposition to U.S. intervention in Iraq, and its support for scrapping the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The Group of Eight were wise enough to invite emerging economies to their latest summit as "outreach partners," but treated them as outsiders lucky to be invited to the big boys' club, issuing the press release announcing their joint declaration before they actually met. This particularly upset India's prime minister, who perhaps wondered why Russia is among the G-8, but his democracy--which constitutes one-sixth of mankind, boasts economic growth of nearly 10 percent annually, will soon have an economy larger than every European country's, and is on globalization's front lines--is not.

(5) Promote Asian regionalism. Most Asian leaders support a leading U.S. role in a regional order characterized by what Singapore's ambassador to Washington calls "asymmetric multipolarity"--multiple centers of power in which the United States is strongest. This desire helps explain why Asian leaders are attempting to construct regional organizations--and why the United States, even if not a member of all of them, benefits from their development. Regional clubs help other Asian nations bundle their power to engage China from a position of strength, diluting its ability to dominate its neighbors and socializing it as a status quo power. Asian states worked to include India, Australia, and New Zealand in the East Asia Summit in order to prevent that organization from becoming Sinocentric, pulling in countries that could share American interests while retaining an Asian or Pacific identity. U.S. officials do not like being excluded from such regional gatherings. However, the question is not whether Asians will develop these institutions--they will--but, in the words of Georgetown's Michael Green, a former senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council in the Bush administration, "what the new institutions are to be based on: preserving Asian exceptionalism, as Beijing now argues, or pursuing a common set of values rooted in democracy and the rule of law," as Japan and key Southeast Asian states contend. America has a dog in this fight.

(6) Stay engaged. Smaller Asian countries are less likely to jump on the Chinese bandwagon as long as they have other alliance options. As China rises, America cannot complacently assume its Cold War alliances will manage themselves but must intensify cooperation with old and new partners. Southeast Asian states want to maintain their economic and political autonomy in the face of far bigger neighbors. Partnership with a benign, distant power allows them to do just that. As one Singaporean think-tanker told me:

What will Singapore do if, in 10 years' time, Beijing calls us to announce that its naval fleet is steaming towards Singapore to call uninvited at our ports? First, we'll look east, to see if the U.S. Seventh Fleet is nearby; if it is, we'll urge it to get here first. If it's not, we'll look west to see if the Indian navy is close by, and if it is we'll urge it to beat the Chinese here. If neither friendly navy is available, we'll have no choice but to open our ports and enter China's sphere of influence. What else can Singapore do? We're 4.5 million people.

The staying power of the United States in Asia gives smaller countries geopolitical options they would not otherwise have.

(7) Foster democracy. The material success of authoritarian China has led to premature anxiety that economic modernization there will not produce a middle class that demands democratic rights, as occurred in the West. We have heard similar sentiments before, when Asian strongmen, "Asian values," and bureaucratic capitalism were perceived as providing development models superior to free-market democracy. Democratization of the Asian tigers, the bursting of Japan's economic bubble, and democratic India's successful economic opening have demonstrated how wrong such assessments were. Freedom has roots in Asia: Sun Yat-sen declared the first Chinese republic in 1912, and since 1947 the "idea of India" has been democracy. When Asians took to the streets to demand democratic rights in South Korea (1980), the Philippines (1986), Taiwan (1986), Burma (1988), China (1989), Thailand (1992), Indonesia (1998), Hong Kong (2003), and Pakistan (2007), they were not standing up for Western cultural values but for the universal aspirations of mankind. As a senior Japanese diplomat puts it, China will ultimately have no choice but to embrace democracy because every other political system in human history has been tried--and has failed.

Democracy is America's greatest source of soft power, in Asia and the world. Modernity today is defined by democratic capitalism and a culture of opportunity. Most people in most places want to replicate some form of it, if not its Western cultural byproducts, in their own countries--including the citizens of Indonesia, Pakistan, India, and Turkey, four countries that together contain the majority of the world's Muslim population. Because each of these countries has repeatedly held free elections, each constitutes a test of the popular appeal of liberal values. In each of these countries, moderates have always prevailed over Islamic extremists, who have garnered tiny proportions of the vote. In Indonesia, for instance, the Islamist party polls at only 7 percent, while in Pakistan, an assortment of Islamist parties, some sponsored by the military regime, has never garnered more than a combined 11 percent of the vote. With an eye on the successful democracies of India, Indonesia, and Turkey, Washington should be much more confident about nudging Pakistan in a democratic direction.

In Southeast Asia, once the bastion of "Asian values," a lot has changed. At their last summit, Southeast Asian statesmen considered a charter declaring that regional peace and stability rest on "the active strengthening of democratic values, good governance, rejection of unconstitutional and undemocratic changes of government, the rule of law, including international humanitarian law, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms." Countries that believe this are natural allies of the United States.

In China, an active public debate over democracy was well underway in the 1980s. In 1989, popular protests erupted in every major city in China and, in the view of many experts, would have brought down the regime had the movement not been snuffed out by the Tiananmen massacre and subsequently diverted by the state-led mobilization of xenophobic nationalism. But the success of democracy in Taiwan, overwhelming popular support in Hong Kong for greater democratic freedoms, the relative popularity of the United States among the Chinese public even today, and the creeping debate within China's ruling party about how to institutionalize the party's dominance through the trappings of managed democracy all attest to the power of liberalism's appeal. China is indeed growing rich and its citizens better off. But as the Dalai Lama puts it, President Hu Jintao's "constant emphasis on a 'harmonious society' suggests that something is missing."

Americans should not fear the rise of Asia: As a Pacific nation with a dynamic, globalized economy and vibrant society, we will benefit immensely from the economic transformation of China and India, even as the combined power and norms of the Euro-Atlantic allies continue to shape international society. We can face this future with confidence--because it will fuel our own prosperity; because most Asian states support an "open regionalism" that includes America, not a return to the Sinocentric hierarchy of Asia's past; and because the values of democratic modernity to which Asian people aspire found their earliest and most enduring expression in the West.

Leaders in Japan, India, and the countries of Southeast Asia are increasingly speaking out about the importance of a values-based foreign policy. In doing so, they remind Americans of our own history, when our ascent to world power a century ago was marked by similar calls to make the world safe for democracy. To the extent that Asian governments and peoples continue to embrace universal values, we can be confident that our common ideals will be an enduring source of security and prosperity.

Japanese leaders now call for the construction of an "arc of freedom and prosperity" across Eurasia that will one day become a circle, incorporating a democratic China. Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh declares of liberal democracy, "All countries of the world will evolve in this direction as we move forward into the 21st century"; he calls all other forms of government an "aberration." Indonesian foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda says that peace, development, and democracy are "inseparable." Former heads of state from nearly every country in Asia recently demanded that Burma's dictators free the imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's elected leader. China's authoritarianism looks like the outlier in Asia, not the model its neighbors mean to follow.

Daniel Twining is the Fulbright/Oxford scholar at Oxford University and a transatlantic fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.