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US must make equal time for Asia

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COMMENTS

15 March 2010 14:50

Geoff Miller is the former Director-General of the Office of National Assessments.

Hugh White's thoughtful response to my questions about US policies in Asia raises many intriguing issues.

He sees the choice, or dichotomy, as between US primacy and a new regional order, saying that the US should start to treat Asia's major powers, including China, as equals. But that assumes the US doesn't do that now. Whether that is true or not depends in part on what issues are being looked at. For example, China is certainly treated as an equal, or more, by the US in financial matters. And the Obama Administration has taken pains to show, including by visits at the highest level, that it takes its relationships with the major Asian powers very seriously.

'Equality', of course, can have differing connotations. It is one thing for a state to treat another state properly as its sovereign equal. But of course all states are not equal. Militarily the US is a superpower. Japan, on the other hand, while the second or third largest economy in the world, is limited in its security role, and in that regard is certainly not the US's equal.

Hugh says 'an Asian Concert could only work if Japan sat at the table not as a US client but as an independent major power in its own right'. Japan does sit at various tables as an independent major power. The reasons for Japan's limited security role are essentially self-imposed, partly because much of its electorate has become so attached to its post-World War II constitution, partly because Japanese ministers and officials have become used to looking to the US for a steer on security matters, and partly, of course, because of Japan's nuclear allergy. 

So when the Japanese worry about the growing strength (including military strength) of China, they naturally look to the US for reassurance. That may make Japan appear less than 'equal' to the US, but it is internal factors that have prevented Japan from expanding its conventional military role and capacities.

That I think illustrates a more general point, which is that the role the US plays in regard to a particular country depends not only on the US but also on the other country. And in the case of China, the US is dealing with a huge and formidable country in the throes of dynamic change, uncertain both of the eventual shape of its internal development and of how it will fit in to the international community. 

That uncertainty manifests itself from time to time in confrontational behaviour towards the US, in Copenhagen for example. In that instance it seemed that it was not a case of the US failing to treat China as an equal, but of China treating the US and its president with scant respect.

How will these issues of equality and partnership be resolved? Hugh sees an Asian Concert as the answer, although rather surprisingly he doesn't 'think the EAS or other regional multilateral forums matter much', as 'they reflect, rather than shape, the regional order'. It might be that the US sees another alternative. For years, observers have seen a tension in US diplomacy between its recognition of the virtues of multilateralism and the advantages of bringing its great weight to bear in a one-on-one situation. Perhaps with China, seen as its only challenger in Asia and perhaps in the world, the US will emphasise the bilateral relationship — the 'G2'.

My own view is that, whatever strategy the US adopts, its main problem will be to devote enough resources — of time and attention as well as physical and financial — to the Asia-Pacific. 

Speaking of President Obama's coming trip to Indonesia and Australia, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs was reported as saying that the visits were important because 'the US has been absent from the Asia-Pacific region'. The current Administration is clearly trying to reverse that, but it will be very difficult given its military tasks in Iraq and Afghanistan, and its preoccupations with Pakistan, Iran and the Israel-Palestine issue.

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

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