All of the report’s predictions and policy recommendations stem from a principle stated on its first page: “Getting Asia right in this regard does not mean the imposition of U.S. values on the region, but rather encouraging an environment in which the region’s leaders define their own national success in terms that are consonant with U.S. political and economic objectives.”
As the center of gravity shifts to Asia, as Asia emerges as a region with three major powers (China, Japan, and India) existing side-by-side for the first time in modern history, the above principle serves as a concession to this immutable reality of twenty-first century Asia. For better or worse, we are entering an age of “Asia for Asians,” during which Asian powers — including, to the chagrin of certain leaders, Australia and New Zealand — will largely shape the future of the region. As the report’s authors acknowledge, even as the US retains considerable power and influence in the region, it will increasingly be unable to impose outcomes, necessarily entailing that the US step into a less visible, supporting role.
On the whole, then, this report is typical of the “new pragmatism” that seems to be taking hold in Washington in the waning years of the Bush administration. (This is one prominent example.) The Bush administration’s post-9/11 revolutionary zeal apparently having burned out, the revolutionaries isolated or out of office, the US foreign policy establishment is in problem-solving mode, this being one example (and the recent six-party agreement being another, as this IHT article suggests).
The biggest “problem” in the region facing Washington is, of course, the rise of China, although problem isn’t the best word to use. What China will look like in 2020 is unknown, and, at this point in time, unknowable. The report phrases it thusly:
Even factoring in the possibility of disruption, China will continue to be an engine of regional growth and global dynamism. China’s growing comprehensive national power is already well reflected in its assertive diplomacy aimed at shaping the strategic environment around its borders. One key question for the United States, Japan, and all of Asia is: how will China use its newfound capabilities and resources as it matures as an economic and military power? (p. 3)
Accordingly, as they discuss the strategic triangle of the US, Japan, and China, much of their attention focuses on the goal of encouraging China to channel its power in the region to constructive ends. The authors believe that this goal is achievable, because Beijing, preoccupied with the instability it has unleashed internally by opting for liberalization, is ill-prepared to pursue a revolutionary foreign policy in its near abroad. As the report notes, at some length (worth quoting, because I find it to be a rather succinct expression of my own thoughts on China’s rise):
China will grow, but its growth will not necessarily be a linear “rise” without complications. China has massive internal challenges that include an aging society, a weak social safety net, large and growing disparities in development, and systemic corruption—all of which have resulted in social unease. China’s leaders also are faced with growing labor unrest, a weak banking and financial system, lingering ethnic disputes, environmental problems almost unimaginable to Westerners, and vulnerability to epidemic disease. Together, these challenges have caused Chinese leaders to focus internally, thereby putting a premium on external stability. China seeks a stable, peaceful international environment in which to develop its comprehensive national power. China needs to avoid any disruption of its access to national resources (particularly oil and gas) and foreign investment, and it can ill afford major diversions of resources to causes unrelated to the objectives of economic growth and public welfare (p. 3).
The idea of some in the Pentagon and the commentariat that China is spoiling for a fight is wholly fallacious, and harmful to America’s long-term interests in the Asia-Pacific region. According to the authors of the report, the US and China share a fundamental interest, namely in “stability”: “Our interest is in stability, to which the United States, Japan, China, and all countries in East Asia can play a supportive role. In particular, stability in East Asia will rest on a triangle of U.S.- Japan-China relations, which should be fostered in addition to our strong alliance with Japan” (p. 26).
The report belies the paramount importance of stability to some extent, as the authors emphasize the need to encourage the spread of liberty, which can often undermine stability; this means that the second Armitage-Nye Report embraces somewhat contradictory goals, seeking the spread of values that will undermine a status quo that encourages non-interference by states in the internal affairs of their neighbors at the same time as trying to maintain stability in East Asian international relations. Nevertheless, stability in East Asia has been the most prominent US policy aim in the region since the end of the cold war, when the cold war’s predictability gave way to the “uncertainty” (a popular word in strategy documents from the 1990s) of East Asian “minipolarity.” If anything, it is even more important to the US now than ever before, as the region’s map changes to accommodate the rise of two massive powers.
As such, the authors also focus on India, and its potential as a possible anchor for democratic values in the region. But they are right to point out that India will not be a mere cat’s paw for the US, Japan, or any other power. As they wrote:
Washington and Tokyo have both qualitatively improved their respective strategic relationships with India. However, both should move forward based on the assumption that India will not act as either Japan’s or the United States’ counterweight against Beijing, mindful that India has its own synergies with China. New Delhi is cautious with respect to Beijing and is not interested in raising tensions with China. That being said, New Delhi’s Look East Policy is particularly appealing to Asia, and its growing economic, political, and cultural ties to East Asia will make it a larger part of the region’s strategic equation (p. 6).
India remains as much a question mark as China. Will India be seduced by great power and embrace a kind of realpolitik, or will it trumpet its position as the world’s most populous democracy as an example to rival China (the Bangalore Consensus versus the Beijing Consensus)? How India answers that question will play a major role in determining what Asia looks like in 2020 and beyond.
While the report also touches on the roles to be played by Southeast Asia, Russia, and regional integration in shaping the region, I am going to withhold comment and instead conclude this already long post by talking about the report’s notes on the Korean Peninsula. The authors note that it is essential for both the US and Japan to patch up relations with the Republic of Korea, because, despite Seoul’s increasingly continental orientation, the three countries still have shared values that can serve as the basis for enhanced cooperation. However, as acknowledged in the report, the obstacles standing in the way of an re-invigorated US-Japan-South Korea triangle are many, including generational change within South Korea, shared interests in Seoul and Beijing, and the weight of history. These obstacles suggest that while functional cooperation on matters of shared concern (i.e., North Korea) are possible, South Korea will not be an especially enthusiastic partner of the US, Japan, and the region’s other democracies in pushing hard for the spread of liberal values — at least that’s not what I expect.
I will return tomorrow with comments on the remaining bulk of the report, the sections focused on the US-Japan alliance.