Asia’s future seen in Sydney

At the OPEC APEC summit in Sydney, the leaders of APEC’s twenty-one member states have been holding bilateral talks in the run-up to the final summit this weekend. I don’t put much stock in APEC as an organization that will be able to deliver concrete results — it’s simply too big and too diverse — but as a forum for the region’s leaders to sit down in the same room and talk about Asia (for the most part) for the better part of a week, it’s irreplaceable.

President Bush, taking a break from Iraq, spoke at length about freedom and democracy in Asia, but at the same time, in reiterating the importance of the US security commitment to the region, made clear the limits of US power to deliver political change:

Today, our alliances with Australia, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines, and our defense relationships with Singapore, Taiwan, Indonesia, and others in the region form the bedrock of America’s engagement in the Asia Pacific. These security relationships have helped keep the peace in this vital part of the world. They’ve created conditions that have allowed freedom to expand and markets to grow, and commerce to flow, and young democracies to gain in confidence. America is committed to the security of the Asia Pacific region, and that commitment is unshakable.

This is a fairly accurate description of what the US presence in Asia over the past sixty years has achieved. The US could do nothing more than give its allies the space to change domestically, but as South Koreans, Filipinos, Taiwanese, Indonesians, and others can attest to, the US by no means guaranteed the democratization of their countries, and in fact stood in the way of democratization for most of the cold war. The US role was and is providing the public goods of peace and security that have made it easier for the region’s countries to liberalize. (This post at The Marmot’s Hole, which wonders about the relevance of American power in Asia, misses this point completely.)

The US will continue to play this background role, enabling a dense web of connections between all the region’s countries — even among those presumed to have confrontational relationships. And so talk of a community of Asian democracies is not only irresponsible, creating the impression of ideological battle lines in Asia, but it also ignores the reality of life in twenty-first century Asia.

The Pacific democracies cannot solve the region’s problems without China, and they better get used to that fact. President Bush recognizes this on some level, based on the expansiveness of the agenda for his talks with President Hu. Australia, too, is aware that there is no avoiding China, agreeing to convene annual security talks with China from next year. Undoutedly, if Kevin Rudd becomes Australia’s next premier, Australia will be even more careful to avoid the impression that it is part of a de facto alliance to contain China — as MTC notes, Rudd, fluent in Mandarin and well versed in Chinese affairs, would hardly be an enthusiastic participant in the democratic community.

Indeed, political change in Australia, the US, and Japan could make the “Asian spirit” more apparent. Mr. Ozawa and the DPJ are obviously not enthusiastic proponents of “values diplomacy,” and would presumably highlight political cooperation with China (Mr. Ozawa’s trip to China in December will be interesting to watch). In the US, it is difficult to imagine Mr. Bush’s successor being as heavy on the rhetoric of democracy, even if a Democratic president might feel pressured to lean on China economically.

The Pacific rim and the Asian littoral is, in fact, much more peaceful than many observers admit (or want to admit). There is always the potential for misunderstandings, of course, but prudent, far-sighted leadership, not least by the US, could do much to diminish the potential for conflict.

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