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Rethinking the US role in Asia

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This post is part of the Globalisation and war debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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1 June 2010 08:36


This post is part of the Globalisation and war debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

In response to The Interpreter discussion on whether economic interdependence can lower the chances of war between states, Northeast Asia provides an interesting illustration of the extent to which mainstream security thinking has remained resistant to this perspective.

Indeed, the many realist arguments about how a continuing US military presence is, and will remain, essential to maintaining peace in the region share the common assumption that, without the US around, China, Japan, and one or both of the Koreas would soon be at each others' throats.

But try the following thought experiment...

The influence of China's increasing economic and military power on its relations with Japan, and regional security more broadly, is mostly seen as increasing competition within a shifting balance of power that will lead to military conflict at some point (the past repeats itself, realists observe).

But China's rise can also be understood as providing opportunities for engagement and cooperation between the two regional powers, which could lead to the formation of a Northeast Asian security community. Viewed exclusively through the prism of balance-of-power thinking, the most likely outcome of China's rise is conflict between China and Japan, and therefore also the US, at some point as strategic competition intensifies under the logic of the security dilemma.

But if China and Japan's fast-developing economic relationship and domestic circumstances and priorities are also considered – in particular, a clearly stated aversion to war with other states common to both societies and governments – the foundations of what Karl Deutsch described as a 'pluralist security community', including the Korean peninsula, may already exist. 

What makes the distinction between these alternative futures interesting is the way in which either set of assumptions fundamentally informs opinion on why the future role of the US in Northeast Asia is important.

Conventional wisdom, informed by a balance-of-power approach to China's rise, argues that the future course of China-Japan relations and regional security in the Asia-Pacific cannot be judged without also attempting to gauge US intentions in Asia. Viewed from the perspective of a shifting balance of power in the region, and the propensity for competition and conflict such shifts bring, the importance of US power in balancing that shift is undeniable.

But if the prospects for increased competition were to be diluted by a mutual aversion to the costs and destabilising effects of inter-state conflict, what would this mean for our understanding of the significance of the US role in Asia, and what could it tell us about the kinds of assumptions that realist depictions of Northeast Asia's security environment are based on? 

Because judgments concerning the importance of future US military engagement and support in Asia are the product of an assumed balance-of-power security environment that excludes other possible scenarios, the evidence informing this view needs to be tested rather than merely accepted as being intuitively correct.

Moreover, the possibility that balance of power competition will be diluted or prevented by the establishment of a security community in Northeast Asia – founded simply on a common aversion to war and the costs it entails –also needs to be more closely examined and assessed to obtain a more rigorous understanding of why the level of future US engagement in Asia is critical to the region's stability.

My guess is that security perceptions and developments within Northeast Asia are likely to reflect a mix of these two perspectives, and that, therefore, the significance of future US engagement in the region, especially why it is significant, may be far less clear than mainstream security thinking contends.

Photo by Flickr user #PACOM, used under a Creative Commons license.

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