A Risky Tilt in U.S. 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. The exact shape of this strategic change remains secret, but 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. It could unleash destabilizing forces that hurt Asian economic growth, with serious consequences for the U.S.

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, everyone worked for the state, people couldn't travel freely, and party hacks doled out poorly paid jobs and crumbling housing. The economy was closed and stagnant. Soldiers were coming home from Afghanistan in body bags. The population was demoralized. The threat of Star Wars highlighted the Soviet Union's inability to match the U.S., either economically or militarily. It delegitimized and helped to crack the Soviet system.


China is very different, with its more open, private, and thriving economy. The Chinese military budget is relatively modest. Individuals are increasingly free to work, live, and travel. There are 55,000 Chinese students in U.S. colleges. People in cities plug into the Internet, those in the south tune in Hong Kong TV stations and watch American movies. The legitimacy of Beijing's leaders rests not on military might, ideology, or global expansion but on delivering a higher standard of living to the Chinese. Because they have so far delivered, support for China's current leaders remains strong, though criticism of official corruption and religious intolerance is widespread. Foreign investment and market forces are helping to transform China from a rigid dictatorship into a more open society. Yes, there are still plenty of human rights abuses, but the goal is to get China to follow South Korea and Taiwan to democracy.

A new cold war in Asia could unleash forces that reverse that. It's clear that the U.S. must counter any Chinese military threats to take over democratic Taiwan and extend control over the entire South China Sea down to Indonesia. That could require an expanded naval and air force presence in the region. But a new alliance--comprising the U.S., Japan, Korea, and perhaps India--that seeks to isolate and contain China is both unwarranted and unsettling. It could set off a huge arms race in Asia, thereby destabilizing it.

For one thing, it would require Japan to change its constitution, written by U.S. occupation forces under General Douglas MacArthur, which prohibits it from having a standing army and renounces war as an instrument of policy--which is precisely what new Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, with quiet support from the Bush Administration, is proposing. Such a move would almost certainly be met with alarm not only in Beijing but also in Seoul, Manila, Jakarta, Singapore, Taipei, 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. They find Koizumi's promise to pray at the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors convicted war criminals, insulting. Remilitarizing Japan would reinforce the Chinese military, scare Korea, and lead to a further military buildup throughout Asia.


It would also tie the U.S. to a nation that may be in secular decline against one that is clearly on the rise. After a decade of stagnation, Japan cannot seem to revitalize its economy. Its aging population isn't being replaced thanks to low birth rates and the country's restrictive immigration policies. By 2030, the Japanese population could shrink by a third from its current 120 million. Japan's star is already fading in Asia, its economic influence on the wane. Trying to replace Japan's economic role with that of Asian policeman, given the history of the region, could be a recipe for disaster.

There is one key question facing the U.S. in Asia today: How do you influence China? How do you push it down the road of market democracy while curbing its irredentist impulses? If the Chinese take military action, the U.S. must respond with ships, planes, and bases in the region. Singapore is opening a new naval pier to service U.S. aircraft carriers. Reopening Subic Bay in the Philippines is another option.

But to judge by the past 20 years, globalization trumps military containment as the most powerful answer. It is opening China over time in much the same way Star Wars cracked open the Soviet Union. Despite rising tensions, the U.S., China, and Taiwan have deep, shared economic interests that help restrain extreme behavior. Containment could set back this process. It could make it much harder for American corporations to do business in China. The Bush Administration should tread carefully as it crafts its new foreign policy. At the very least, this major shift in U.S. foreign policy deserves a full public airing.

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