Getting Realism: U.S. Asia (and China) Policy Reconceived

By Gilboy, George; Heginbotham, Eric | The National Interest, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Getting Realism: U.S. Asia (and China) Policy Reconceived

Gilboy, George, Heginbotham, Eric, The National Interest

SEEN historically, American grand strategy has tended to be both Eurocentric and oriented toward meeting military threats. Both characteristics are easily understood. It was only for fear of war coming to North America from the Old World, or actually during wartime in the 20th century, that the United States developed strategies for specific regions of the world. Not only was Europe the main source of such concern, but cultural contiguity and a good bit of history, going back to the origins of the American polity, gave Europe pride of place in American thinking. Even today we have an easier confidence in our ability to understand the major factors at play in Europe than we do with regard to Asia. As a result, America's Asia policy seems conceptually less mature and, in practical terms, more fragmented, with individual countries or particular functional issues like trade or weapons proliferation tending to drive policy as a whole.

The Clinton Administration's Asia policy exemplified the fragmented approach. In its early years, the administration tried to recast relations with nearly every major country in the region, aggressively pursuing a broad array of issues from human rights to strategic trade--frequently without establishing priorities. It subsequently narrowed its Asia policy focus mostly to China, but the U.S.-China relationship was itself blown by the prevailing winds of discrete issues as they arose. The Bush Administration, pre-September 11, developed a more focused approach--but it was wrongly focused. Given the rising influence of the Defense Department and other national security organizations on foreign policy, and the prevalence of structural realist ideas among civilian practitioners, the United States is perhaps prone to define its international interests in narrow military terms. The Bush Administration has reinforced these trends: prior to September 11, 2001, the United States pursued a neo-Bismarckian Asia strategy aimed at isolating China. Not surprisingly, the administration's initiative to revive the U.S.-Japanese partnership and to improve relations with India both emphasized military initiatives. The expression of support for Taiwan, too, came in the coin of arms sales and declarations to "do what it takes" to protect the island from Chinese use of force. Since September 11, U.S. Asia policy has become an adjunct to America's war on terrorism, but the essential elements of the pre-September 11 approach remain. (1)

An Asia policy that focuses exclusively on political-military issues--particularly in terms centered overwhelmingly on China--is flawed. America needs an Asia policy that is conceptually the reverse of what is developing today: rather than focus on military issues alone, it needs to be connected as well to political and economic realities. Rather than focus on a potential great power in the making, China, it needs to pay more attention to the wider Asian context--one that is generating underappreciated opportunities to influence political outcomes, as well as creating non-traditional security challenges. As China contemplates political reform in response to the vast social and economic changes underway there, the health and increasing stability of market economies and democratic regimes elsewhere in Asia will have a profound impact on its direction. Thus, the quality of U.S. relations with Japan, Korea, India, the Philippines, Indonesia and other Asian states will strongly affect China's diplomatic and milita ry options.

A wise U.S. Asia policy would therefore concentrate on bolstering the most prominent and generally positive feature of the region's current political landscape: the transition of the majority of Asian states toward political pluralism and market economics. There have been unprecedented gains for economic and political liberalism since the end of the Cold War, but rapid domestic change combined with global economic integration can be profoundly disruptive. …

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