A panel of Asia experts recently conveyed to American audiences the alarm that Asian observers feel about U.S. withdrawal from the region. Gathering in New York on Monday for a panel hosted by NTT and Kinokuniya — a Japanese publishing company and book store, respectively — the experts discussed a wide range of divisive issues in Asia’s security landscape – from the Korean peninsula to the East and South China Seas. Despite covering Asian power politics from different geographical lenses, all the speakers agreed on the importance of U.S. commitment to maintaining a stable balance of power in Asia, especially in light of China’s reemergence as a major player.
Chisako Masuo, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Social and Cultural Studies at Kyushu University, warned that “the Asian power balance is more vulnerable than Americans believe.” Because of concerns about U.S. withdrawal, Asian countries are preparing for the worse case scenario: An Asian regional order without U.S. leadership would not be a rules-based order, but a China-based order. Other Asian countries wouldn’t be happy with that development, but they would have no choice but to go along if the United States will not help provide balance, Masuo explained. In this sense, the U.S.-Japan alliance is an “important pillar” to maintain an open, liberal, rules-based order in Asia.
This is not containment of China, Masuo was quick to point out. If the game board is transparent and fair, China can play a mutually beneficial game with other Asian countries. One example Masuo highlights is how the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) spurred the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to do better. But, she adds, such friendly competition requires a “quiet U.S. military presence” in the background. And despite a much-touted “rebalance to Asia,” experts on the panel remain unconvinced of U.S. commitment to the region.
“In dealing with China … not only Japan, but Vietnam and the Philippines, in a way, were all disappointed about Obama’s actions towards [China] reclaiming islands [in the South China Sea]. He sent naval vessels only three times so far, and it’s just too weak,” Masuo lamented. “And if Trump was going to succeed him, maybe [Trump wouldn’t] do anything, but then, this Asian power balance is gone.”
This sentiment is echoed by Kan Kimura, a professor at Kobe University’s Graduate School of International Cooperation Studies, who explains, “American people have to understand how [strongly Asian peoples fear the] withdrawal of U.S. troops.”
For reassuring nervous Asian partners, U.S. commitment isn’t enough — U.S. messaging is also important. This is easier said than done, of course. Putting aside the isolationist sentiment that the bombastic presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump has resurrected during this campaign season, even official Obama administration messaging can be received, or interpreted, differently based on any given audience states’ own preoccupations. In geopolitics, a country’s placement in a particular geographic circumstance will shape their assessment of potential threats and other countries’ intentions.
Kimura expanded on this concept to explain why Japan and South Korea have such different perceptions of the tenor of U.S.-China relations. As a maritime power, the United States has expected more from Japan, demanding that Japan play a larger role in recent disputes in the East and South China Seas. Because of this, Japan has seen the more hard-line elements of U.S. China policy, leading to expectations that the United States will be around to stand up to China for decades.
Meanwhile, as a land power, South Korea has not had to deal with the same sort of U.S. expectations and has mostly sat out the disputes in the East and South China Seas. Not having seen the hard-line elements that Japan interacts with, South Korea expects the United States to take a softer policy tack, and believes Washington will give them a “hall pass” when it comes to leaning on China. The challenge for the United States, Kimura concluded, is to send a clearer message to Asian countries. It’s a typical Goldilocks dilemma: while Japan overestimates how hard-line U.S. China policy will be, South Korea underestimates it.
There is some strength to the argument that ambiguity serves U.S. interests, however. As Kimura noted, from the U.S. perspective, a clear commitment could raise concerns about moral hazard; countries such as the Philippines might be willing to take unnecessary risks if they believe Washington will have their back.
Amid all this concern about the strength of U.S. commitment, there is a bright spot, as Tuong Vu, a political science professor at University of Oregon, points out: “the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a good example of the U.S.’s biggest efforts to involve Vietnam, to help Vietnam deal with the Chinese threat.”
While in popular discourse the military dimension of the American rebalance might have gotten the most attention, it is really this economic dimension that underpins why the United States – for its own interest – should stay committed to Asia. Responding to questions about why the U.S. ought to care about Asia and its thorny maritime issues, Masuo rebutted: “But think about it, Asia is the center of economic development. And if the U.S. chooses not to establish stronger relations with Asia, how is it going to maintain prosperity for its own people?”
Asian observers are much more comfortable when the United States understands that it should be engaged with Asia for its own narrow economic interests. The only interest a country can reliably be expected to defend is its own. “In the long-term, [including Vietnam in the TPP] will pay off for the U.S.,” Vu predicts.
The Obama administration knows of these concerns – and has been trying to assiduously address them. And his preferred successor, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, is also known for her lucid understanding of the important role that American leadership plays in the Asia-Pacific region.
But with Trump’s candidacy, all bets are off, and Asian leaders are scrambling to plan for a future where the United States is no longer interested in being the preeminent balancer in Asia.