It is often argued that weaker Asian nations like those of ASEAN would be the most negatively impacted by a U.S.-China Cold War, as Washington and Beijing would force them to take sides. As evidence of this, proponents point to the U.S.-Soviet Cold War when the superpowers supposedly divided the world up into opposing spheres of influence.
But this is a misinterpretation of the Cold War, and its further misapplication to the contemporary Asia-Pacific. In fact, smaller Asian countries would be the primary benefactors of a more acute U.S.-China strategic rivalry.
With the exception of the countries that were occupied at the end of WWII, the superpowers did not force other nations to choose sides. If anything, the opposite was often true.
NATO is a case in point. Although it’s difficult to recall these days, at the end of WWII the U.S. still had a strong isolationist current among the American people and some elite circles. Consequently, building domestic support for the economic-driven Marshall Plan was difficult, even though the U.S. had always maintained robust trading relations with Western Europe. Ratifying the NATO treaty was even more contentious.
Faced with the threat of the Soviet leviathan, which had just conquered Eastern Europe, the Europeans had no such qualms. As Lawrence Kaplan, an expert on the transnational alliance, points out, the driving forces behind NATO as it came to exist were Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. In 1948, these five countries signed the Brussels Pact pledging self-defense before attempting to rope the U.S. into the treaty’s principle that each nation would automatically respond militarily if one of the others was attacked.
The U.S. fiercely resisted such an ironclad commitment to protect Western Europe, and as a result negotiations over what would become Article 5 became the most contentious part of the talks. On the one hand, the Europeans aggressively lobbied the U.S. for an unconditional collective defense clause, whereas the Americans pushed for something more limited.
Thus, far from being forced by America to choose sides in the bipolar order, the Europeans were trying to tie the U.S. to their side in the tightest manner possible. Eventually, a compromise agreement was reached in the form of Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which allowed each state some discretion as to how they would act if one treaty partner was attacked.
The same was true in Asia with South Korea and Taiwan. In both cases, the U.S. initially hoped to limit its commitment to these two nations, seeing them outside the original scope of containment policy. As Thomas Christensen has observed, Dean Acheson’s press club speech in January 1950 “included in the U.S. defense perimeter Japan, the Ryukyus, and the Philippines as an island defense chain off the Asian mainland. Conspicuously absent on his list were the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the Republic of China (Taiwan).”
Under threat from North Korea and China, however, Seoul and Taipei desperately sought to tie themselves closer to the U.S.. This trend became evident in the post-Vietnam years when the U.S. began to reassess its force posture in Asia as a result of the war and to accommodate its new alignment with China. In response, South Korea and Taiwan both began pursuing an independent nuclear weapon capability, and used these programs as leverage to extract a renewed commitment from the United States (South Africa would later try the same). Once again, the U.S. was not forcing these countries to choose sides in its dispute with the Soviets, but rather was being cajoled by the regional states to strengthen its commitment to them.
On the other hand, many states not facing dire security threats actually used the U.S.-Soviet competition to their benefit. This was especially true in places like Africa and the Middle East which had some separation from both the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Thus, it was in these regions that Moscow and Washington would often vie for influence among regional powers which sometimes switched sides and more often threatened to in order to win greater concessions from their patrons.
Additionally, as the immediate fear of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe faded, some European countries recaptured some of the strategic autonomy they had previously surrendered to the U.S. and the Transatlantic Alliance. This was especially true of France, which would pull out of NATO’s integrated military structure and prove to be a constant thorn in the side of the U.S. Even West Germany, which began the post-WWII era under occupation, would begin to reassert its independence by the start of the 1970s with its Ostpolitik policy.
Nor is this pattern of a weaker party using competition between two great powers to its advantage unique to the U.S.-Soviet Cold War. During the late 18th and 19th Century the U.S. often benefitted from competition between European great powers. For instance, America used British fear of the Holy Alliance to unilaterally declare the Monroe Doctrine. Later, North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung would masterfully exploit the Sino-Soviet split to advance his nation’s interests.
So what implications does this have for the Asia-Pacific today?
First, this suggests that the countries facing the most acute threats from China, such as the Philippines and Japan, are likely to seek stronger commitments from the U.S. and perhaps other third parties. As it did with NATO, the U.S. will seek to shape these commitments to its own interests. But the U.S. most assuredly won’t be forcing Mania and Tokyo to takes its side in its rivalry with China so much as the Philippines and Japan will be trying to force the U.S. to take their sides.
On the other hand, other ASEAN countries as well as South Korea, who don’t perceive themselves as immediately threatened by China, will seek to play both sides of the U.S.-China divide to their advantage. They will therefore most likely continue to insist that they not be forced to choose between China and the U.S., so that they can continue to draw closer to China economically, while maintaining a security alliance with the U.S. to hedge against incurring the costs of this policy. Fearing they’ll lose influence to one other by resisting such demands, the U.S. and China will most likely acquiesce.