Features | Security | East Asia

Is the US Destabilizing Asia?

At a time of uncertainty, the Asia-Pacific should stick with the security guarantees that have brought it relative peace and prosperity. It’s too soon to count the US out.

By Douglas H. Paal for

Is the United States a stabilizing or destabilizing factor in the Asia-Pacific? On hearing this question, most Americans would, of course, say the US is the former. But I suspect most Chinese (and quite a few others) would disagree.

Recent US behaviour at home and abroad tends to reinforce questions over whether the United States is really a factor for stability. One recent example: the Obama administration, after saying the US put its efforts against terrorism into the wrong war (Iraq) instead of the right war (Afghanistan), announced a ‘surge’ of troops in Afghanistan, only simultaneously to announce its intention to withdraw. Afghanistan’s neighbours heard the second part, and ignored the first. The United States’ reliance on Pakistan increased, but its relations with Islamabad rapidly deteriorated.

The Obama administration has announced the United States’ ‘return to Asia,’ and many old friends in the region welcomed renewed attention from Washington. But many Chinese suspect the United States’ return really means engaging in a form of containment of China. Some even say that since the Taiwan Strait has become calmer with the ascension of President Ma Ying-jeou, the United States is turning to the South China Sea as a new pressure point to keep China in check.

At home, the US legislative process appears broken. The latest debate over the US debt ceiling seemed to accomplish nothing, while diverting legislators’ attention from doing the important things that need to be done. This has contributed to post-Great Recession calculations that the United States is declining as China is rising. To top it all, the United States is now entering a new election season, meaning what has seemed chaotic up to now will soon appear orderly in comparison to what’s coming.

The United States’ great contributions to post-World War II international order are believed by many to be coming to their end, as Washington increasingly finds itself unable to finance anything except replacement body parts for the elderly and interest payments to our creditors.

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But I think that conventional wisdom can be turned on its head – the United States’ greatest accomplishments may be behind it, but there’s still plenty more to come.

The United States, like China’s new aircraft carrier, turns slowly, and isn’t small enough for sudden course corrections. Lacking a parliamentary system, by the choice of our forefathers, we don’t have sweeping changes brought about by a single election. Change comes incrementally with each two-year election cycle.

In 2008, the public rejected the incumbent president’s party and voted for ‘change you can believe in.’ The public then perceived that the promised change didn’t occur, and voted in the largest number of opposition Congressmen ever to change seats in 2010. We are now getting ready for the presidential election in 2012.

Judgments made about the United States’ future made today will have little value if they don’t also try to calculate the outcomes in the coming two elections. Judgments made today about the United States’ future are inherently premature, not because we don’t know what the future will hold—and we don’t—but because we know the next two election cycles will likely bring more change, not more continuity.

Since the United States’ beginnings, change following crises hasn’t come quickly. It took Franklin Roosevelt 12 years and a world war to get America going again after it fell from its position as the world’s leading creditor and exporter in the Great Depression. It took Ronald Reagan four years after Jimmy Carter’s four years to rebuild American momentum lost in the 1970s inflation and retreat from Vietnam.

The United States is a welcoming country, and after the failure of the early 20th century international institutions to preserve growth and peace, the United States led the construction of open and welcoming institutions after World War II, such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the Bretton Woods instruments, and others.

This US record is perhaps the most stabilizing and anti-destabilizing in human history. It accepts change as an integral component of stability. It shuns the stability of the tomb in favour of the stability of growth and development. And it showed the world after history’s most violent war that defeated and victor alike can live in peace and prosper together.

But critics of the American security presence in the Asia-Pacific region view it as, among other things, an inappropriately preserved relic of the Cold War, a period that ended more than 20 years ago. Alliances and partnerships with Asia’s most rapidly developing economies, which once seemed like indispensable means to secure their successful development, now get viewed as focusing American energies on societies that aren’t keeping up with the times and as not in step with—or even opposed to—China’s emerging dynamism, China’s re-rise to pre-eminence in Asia.

Others could well point to the United States’ shortcomings during the Indo-China conflict, prolonged reluctance to reconcile to the end of the Chinese civil war, and lack of success at helping Korea ultimately reunify as examples of the United States not contributing to long-term Asian stability.

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But let me challenge two assumptions buried in these critiques of the contemporary US political and security role in the region.

The first is that the region has achieved an internal stability that no longer requires the United States to play so prominent a role. The second is that even if instability erupts, there’s enough internal cohesion and cooperation in the region to manage new sources of instability without outside interference. Under this logic, significant US participation is unwelcome and unnecessary.

Taking the first assumption, it’s worth looking at the prospects for China’s continued transition over the next decade or two. Impressed by the vast progress achieved by the Chinese people over the past 30 years, many observers, businesspeople, economists, and other analysts naturally tend to make straight-line projections of continued economic growth and social stability into the decades ahead.

As an American intimately involved with Asia for the past four decades, I tend to be much more cautious in my judgment about China’s future. We saw such projections in the 1980s about Japan’s future. Some who write today about a ‘G-2’ of the United States and China wrote back in the 1980s about how Tokyo and Washington were ready to guide the region’s – and the globe’s – progress in the years ahead.

All the Asian ‘tiger’ economies of the latter part of the 20th century, meanwhile, had their growth spurts, followed by wrenching adjustments to lower rates of growth and to development models that could no longer emphasize access to low cost capital for investment-led growth and industrialization. China is but the latest and biggest of these success stories.

But I’m convinced that once the current investment phase reaches its point of rapidly diminishing returns, which will probably occur within the next five years or so, Beijing’s leaders also will confront the necessity of managing wrenching change. China’s 12th five-year programme is already trying to wrestle with this transition, but evidently is encountering impedance within the system, resistance to change that can only be expected to occur.

The tiger economies, each in its own way, also had to develop the political institutions and culture to manage the economic transitions they experienced. The net result was a political pluralisation that developed at different paces and in different ways in different nations, but that over time increasingly accommodated rising expectations from the public. In this regard, China, which must deal with the largest scale challenges of any country, is still a long way from entering this necessary stage of political development and reform.

Complicating all the pains and costs of change is the reality that China’s population harbours a strong sense of nationalist grievance and, relatedly, that China has some unresolved disputes with its neighbours. After a spectacular display of diplomatic and strategic skill with its neighbours from the late 1990s until about 2007, the harder edge of China’s diplomacy began to prevail over the softer, and the region has since reacted.

There should be little wonder in China, or elsewhere, that the American return to Asia from its distractions in the Middle East is being so welcomed, from Korea to Indonesia and Malaysia, and to India and Australia and in between.

That this has happened at a moment when China feels proud after having achieved famous successes—in the Olympics, economic growth and stability after the global financial crisis, the Shanghai Expo—can only add to the emotions of the moment.

As China’s anticipated difficult economic transition unfolds, what today seem to be opportunities for countries in their business with China, I believe, may turn into issues or even disadvantages. The challenges to China’s economic and political system, and their potential echoes in China’s foreign policy, will all reinforce a tendency growing since the end of the Cold War for countries to ‘hedge’ their international relationships. In this changed atmosphere, for China’s neighbours – and I would assess even for China itself – the American counterweight and presence will be far more stabilizing than destabilizing.

On the second assumption – that Asia has reached a point of cohesion where the US presence and activity is less needed than previously – I can only say I wish it were so. Sometimes, critics of the United States say Americans are so wedded to their ‘hub and spokes’ network of alliances that they are standing in the way of progress toward regional security architecture to handle the region’s problems.

But the record doesn’t support such claims. When the Australians conceived of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the United States offered unconditional support. But when Mahathir bin Mohamad proposed an ‘East Asian Caucus,’ Washington and its friends readily recognized that as a divisive effort to force the United States unnaturally out of Asian-Pacific affairs.

The United States also joined in the Six Party Talks framework on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula at China’s behest. The mixed results of the process so far have taught us a lot of lessons, but they haven’t led the United States to walk away from the process. Indeed, with Chinese brainstorming at work, the United States today is giving the talks format yet another chance to prove itself.

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A preoccupied Bush administration had difficulty saying yes or no to the concept of the East Asia Summit (EAS), but the new Obama administration offered to give it a try as well, while signing the Treaty of Amity and Commerce as a precondition it could accept. But these multilateral forums are still at an incipient stage and have yet to prove their strength and durability. Until we have security and economic mechanisms in the region that produce significant results reliably over time, it would be the height of folly to abandon the structures and habits that have brought Asia to this point of relative success today. Moreover, given that the largest party to the Asia-Pacific dialogue appears to face important transitional challenges, this emphasis on continuity in security would seem all the more prudent.

So back to this idea that the United States seems down (and some may say out) due to the aftermath of the financial crisis and domestic gridlock. I’d caution here that Asians shouldn’t make premature judgments about the United States – and nor do I think they will.

The United States remains a hugely wealthy and technologically advanced country. Its lead in most fields is widening rather than narrowing, although it needs to find a way to readjust the distribution of its vast wealth, not through decisions by the state against individuals, but by creating incentives for individuals to deploy their wealth in coherent and productive ways. That process is under way in the most thunderous and seemingly inefficient way possible. But I remain confident that it will deliver an America whose presence and involvement will be viewed more as a contribution to stability than a factor for instability.

Douglas H. Paal is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This is an edited version of an article that appeared here.