A Risky Tilt in Foreign Policy

Without much public debate, the Bush Administration is making a dramatic shift in U.S. foreign policy, moving America's security focus away from Europe and Russia to Asia and China. A new missile defense system is only part of a larger policy change to address China's increased military might. Discussions are under way in Washington to retarget strategic missiles, redeploy Trident submarines, remilitarize Japan, and ally with India. No one is yet using the word "containment," but a look at the map shows that the U.S. is clearly organizing a Pan-Asian effort that amounts to just that. Washington policymakers should realize that any attempt to replicate America's cold war policy success against the Soviet Union with China is fraught with danger.

China today is not the Soviet Union. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union was a failed totalitarian dictatorship where the military absorbed all available resources and everyone worked for the state. The economy was stagnant. People were demoralized. The threat of Star Wars convinced the military it couldn't compete with the U.S. and helped crack the Soviet system.

China, by contrast, has a more open, increasingly capitalist, and thriving economy. The Chinese military budget is modest. There are 55,000 Chinese students in U.S. colleges. People in cities plug into the Internet. The legitimacy of Beijing's leaders rests not on military might but on delivering a higher standard of living. Because they have so far delivered, there is strong support for them, although there is criticism against corruption and religious intolerance. Yes, there are still plenty of human rights abuses, but the goal is to get China to follow South Korea and Taiwan to democracy.

The U.S. must counter any Chinese military threats to take over democratic Taiwan and control the South China Sea. That could require an expanded naval and air force presence in the region. But a new alliance comprising the U.S., Japan, Korea, and India that seeks to contain China could set off an arms race in Asia, thereby destabilizing it.

For one thing, it would require Japan to change its constitution, written by U.S. occupation forces, which prohibits it from having a standing army and renounces war as an instrument of policy. This would alarm not only Beijing but also Seoul, Manila, Jakarta, Singapore, and every other capital overrun by Japanese troops during World War II. China and Korea especially believe that Japan has never shown the proper remorse for its actions during the war. They complain bitterly about Japanese textbooks that depict Japan as victim, not aggressor, and politicians who deny the Rape of Nanking or the enslavement of Korean women. Japan may also be in secular decline. It cannot revitalize its economy. Its aging population isn't being replaced, thanks to low birth rates and little immigration. It hardly seems wise to replace Japan's fading economic role with that of Asian policeman.

There is one key question facing the U.S. in Asia today: How do you push China toward market democracy while curbing its irredentist impulses? To judge by the past 20 years, globalization trumps military containment as the most powerful answer. At the very least, this major shift in U.S. foreign policy deserves a full public airing.

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