Features | Politics | East Asia

How U.S. Can Secure the New East

Americans need to accept the reality of a rising China, says Zbigniew Brzezinski. But the U.S. must also build on its Asian alliances if it wants balance and leverage.

By Zbigniew Brzezinski for

In a potentially conflicted setting, marked by increased political restlessness, rising nationalism, and growing competition for natural resources, the stability of Asia in the 21st century will depend in part on the status of two overlapping regional triangles centered on China – and how the United States responds to each. The first pertains to China, India, and Pakistan. The second is tied to China, Japan, and Korea, with the Southeast Asian states playing a supporting role. In the case of the former, Pakistan could be the major point of contention and the precipitating source of instability. In the case of the latter, Korea (both South and North) and/or possibly also Taiwan could become the focus of insecurity.

In both cases, the United States is still the key player, with the capacity to alter balances and affect outcomes. It therefore needs to be stated at the outset that the United States should avoid direct military involvement in conflicts between rival Asian powers. No outcome of either a Pakistani-Indian war, or of one also involving China, is likely to produce consequences more damaging to U.S. interests than a direct U.S. military engagement on the Asian mainland. Indeed, the latter could even precipitate a wider chain reaction of ethnic and religious instability in Asia.

The foregoing obviously does not apply to existing U.S. treaty obligations to Japan and South Korea, where U.S. forces are actually deployed. Moreover, the United States should certainly use its international influence to discourage the outbreak of warfare, to help contain it if it does, and to avoid a one-sided outcome as its conclusion. But such efforts should entail the participation of other powers potentially also affected by any major regional instability in Asia.

The first triangle involves competition for Asian primacy. China and India are already major players on the international scene. India is the world’s second most populous country and its economy has been taking off; its formal democratic structure and its future viability, meanwhile, could be a possible alternative to China’s authoritarian model. China, for its part, is already the world’s number two economic power, and before too long that is likely to be the same with regard to its military capacity as it rapidly emerges as an ascending global power. But the Chinese-Indian relationship is inherently competitive and antagonistic, with Pakistan being the regional point of contention. Both countries are the strategic captives of their subjective feelings, and of their geopolitical contexts. The Indians envy the Chinese economic and infrastructural transformation, while the Chinese are contemptuous of India’s relative backwardness (on the social level most dramatically illustrated by the asymmetrical levels of literacy of their respective populations) and of its lack of discipline. The Indians fear Chinese-Pakistani collusion; the Chinese feel vulnerable to India’s potential capacity to interfere with Chinese access through the Indian Ocean to the markets of the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.

The United States’ role in this rivalry should be cautious and detached. A prudent U.S. policy, especially in regard to an alliance with India, should not, however, be interpreted as indifference to India’s potential role as an alternative to China’s authoritarian political model. India offers promise for the future, especially if it succeeds in combining sustained development with more pervasive democracy. Hence cordiality in relations with India is justified, though it should not imply support on such contentious issues as Kashmir nor imply that a cooperative relationship with India is aimed at China.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Given that some policy circles in the United States have started to advocate a formal U.S.-India alliance, presumably against China and in effect also against Pakistan, it also needs to be stated explicitly that any such undertaking would be contrary to U.S. national security interests. It would increase the likelihood of U.S. involvement in potentially prolonged and bitter Asian conflicts. It would also be a gratis favor to Russia without any Russian favor in return, increasing Moscow’s temptations to take advantage of a distracted America and assert Russian imperial interests more firmly in Central Asia and in Central Europe. And, an America-India alliance would likely intensify the appeal of anti-American terrorism among Muslims, who would infer that this partnership was implicitly directed against Pakistan. Essentially, insofar as the first Asian triangle is concerned, the better part of wisdom is abstention from any alliance that could obligate the United States to military involvement in that part of Asia.

The issue is not that clear-cut with regard to the second regional triangle involving China, Japan, South Korea, and to a lesser degree Southeast Asia. More generally, at stake is China’s role as the dominant power on the Asian mainland and to the nature of the U.S. position in the Pacific. Japan is the United States’ key political-military ally in the Far East, even though its military capabilities are currently self-restrained. It is also the world’s number three economic power. South Korea, meanwhile, is a burgeoning economic power and longtime American ally that relies on the United States to deter any possible conflict with its estranged northern relative. Southeast Asia has less formal ties to the United States and has a strong regional partnership (ASEAN), but it fears the growth of Chinese power. Most importantly, the U.S. and China already have an economic relationship that makes both vulnerable to any reciprocal hostility, while the growth of China’s economic and political power poses a potential future challenge to America’s current global preeminence.

China’s influential and rising role in world affairs is a reality to which Americans will have to adjust, rather than demonizing it or engaging in thinly concealed wishful thinking about its failure. That is not to deny that China could be adversely affected by an international decline in demand for Chinese manufactured goods or by a worldwide financial crisis. Still, the more serious danger to stability could come from a transformation in China’s social-political character as a result of a gradual and initially imperceptible decline in the quality of Chinese leadership or of a more perceptible rise in the intensity of Chinese nationalism.

Until now, the performance of the Chinese leadership since the Cultural Revolution has generally been prudent. The current generation of leaders, no longer revolutionaries or innovators themselves, have matured in an established political setting in which the major issues of national policy have been set on a long-term course. But in a highly bureaucratized political setting, conformity, caution, and currying favor with superiors often count more than personal courage and individual initiative. Thus over the longer run, it is questionable whether any political leadership can long remain vital if it is so structured in its personnel policy that it becomes, almost unknowingly, inimical to talent and hostile to innovation, leaving it unable to respond to the growing aspirations of a politically awakened citizenry.

The rise of nationalistic passions, on the other hand, could prove even more difficult for China to handle. It is already evident, even from officially controlled publications, that intense Chinese nationalism is on the rise. Though the regime in power still advocates caution in the definition of China’s standing and historical goals, by 2009 the more serious Chinese media became permeated by triumphalist assertions of China’s growing eminence, economic might, and its continued ascent to global preeminence. A weakened and gradually more mediocre regime could become tempted by the notion that political unity, as well as its own power, can best be preserved by a policy that embraces the more impatient and more extreme nationalistic definition of China’s future. If a leadership fearful of losing its grip on power and declining in vision were to support a nationalist surge, the result could be a disruption of the so far carefully calculated balance between the promotion of China’s domestic aspirations and prudent pursuit of China’s foreign policy interests.

An intensely nationalist and militaristic China would generate its own self-isolation. It would dissipate the global admiration for China’s modernization and could stimulate residual anti-Chinese public sentiments within the United States.  It would also be likely to give rise to political pressures for an overly anti-China coalition with whatever Asian nations had become increasingly fearful of Beijing’s ambitions. It could transform China’s immediate geopolitical neighborhood, currently inclined toward a partnership with the economically successful giant next door, into eager supplicants for external reassurance (preferably from the United States) against what they would construe as an ominously nationalistic and aggressively aroused China.

In that context, how Beijing conducts itself in its immediate neighborhood will impact directly the overall American-Chinese relationship. China’s geopolitical and economic goals, including a reduction in the dangers inherent in China’s potential geographical encirclement and the establishment for itself of a favored position in an emerging East Asian community, can be sought flexibly and patiently, or China can pursue each goal aggressively, in order to undermine America’s position in the East. In essence, the intensity of Chinese nationalism is likely to determine whether China’s goals can be assimilated into a pattern of accommodation, largely with the United States, or whether they become objectives to be sought assertively in competition with the United States.

Which of these two becomes more likely will depend on two fundamental considerations: how the United States will respond to an ascending China, and how China itself will evolve. The acumen and maturity of both nations are likely to be severely tested in the process, and the stakes for each will be enormous. For America, the task is to disentangle which aspects of China’s external ambitions are unacceptable and pose a direct threat to vital U.S. interests, and which aspects reflect new historical geopolitical and economic realities that can be accommodated, however reluctantly, without damage to key U.S. interests. The ultimate goal, but not at any price, should be a China that is a constructive and major partner in world affairs.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

It follows that in seeking to increase the probability that China becomes a major global partner, the United States should tacitly accept the reality of China’s geopolitical preeminence on the mainland of Asia, as well as China’s ongoing emergence as the predominant Asian economic power. But the prospects of a comprehensive American-Chinese global partnership will actually be enhanced if the United States at the same time retains a significant geopolitical presence of its own in the Far East, based on its continued ties with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, and Indonesia – and does so whether or not China approves. Such a presence would encourage, in general, China’s neighbors to take advantage of America’s involvement in Asia’s financial and economic structures – as well as of America’s geopolitical presence – to pursue peacefully, but with greater self-confidence, their own interests in the shadow of a powerful China.

Japan, for its part, is a crucial ally for the United States in its effort to develop a stable American-Chinese partnership. Its ties with America underline the fact that the U.S. is a Pacific Ocean power. Progressive and deepening reconciliation between China and Japan is, in this context, also a major American interest. The U.S. presence in Japan, and especially the security links between the two countries, should facilitate such reconciliation. That would be especially so if it is sought in the context of a serious effort by America and China to deepen and expand the scope of their own bilateral cooperation. At the same time, an internationally more active and militarily more capable Japan would also be a more positive contributor to global stability.

South Korea, as long as it remains potentially threatened and with the peninsula divided, has no choice but to depend on America’s security commitments – with those in turn dependent for their effectiveness on the continued U.S. presence in Japan. Despite extensive trade relations, the historic enmity between Korea and Japan has so far prevented any close military cooperation even though it is in the evident security interest of both. The more secure South Korea is, the less likely there is to be some unexpected assault from the North. Eventually, the issue of peaceful reunification may become timely, and at that moment China’s role may be crucial in facilitating perhaps a reunification by stages. Should that happen, the South Koreans may decide to reassess the degree to which some reduction in their security ties with the United States and especially with Japan might become acceptable as a trade-off for Chinese-assisted national reunification.

Closer U.S. political and commercial ties with Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the maintenance of the historical U.S. connection with the Philippines would also enhance the prospects of Asian support for direct U.S. participation in the expanding architecture of regional interstate cooperation. It could also generate greater Chinese understanding that America’s Pacific Ocean strategy is not meant to contain China, but rather to engage it in a larger web of cooperative relationships.

Ultimately, the United States’ geopolitical role in the new East will have to be based on mediation, conciliation and balancing and not on military engagement in mainland Asia.  An America cooperatively engaged in multilateral structures, cautiously supportive of India’s development, solidly tied to Japan and South Korea, and patiently expanding both bilateral as well as global cooperation with China is the best source of the balancing leverage needed for sustaining stability in the globally rising new East.


Zbigniew Brzezinski is currently a Counselor and Trustee at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC. He served as National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981. This commentary is adapted from a chapter in his new book, ‘Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power.