Asia: The New U.S. Strategy

Bush wants to redraw the region's security map. How will Asia respond?

In Tokyo, there is lofty talk of Japan enhancing its role as linchpin for America's security presence in Asia. In New Delhi, there is murmuring in political circles over the Defense Ministry's warm reception of President George W. Bush's grandiose plan for a missile defense system. In Taipei, the government of President Chen Shui-bian is cheered by one of the strongest commitments yet by Washington to defend the island against China. And down in Singapore, the government is showing off its huge new naval pier, which will service foreign warships such as the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk.

None dare call it containment. But to leaders in Beijing--and defense analysts around the Pacific Rim--it sure seems America is trying to coordinate a regionwide effort to check China's growing military might. That's the diplomatic buzz in the wake of mid-May visits by Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage to Tokyo, Seoul, and New Delhi. At the same time, Paul D. Wolfowitz, the hawkish new Deputy Defense Secretary, made a swing through Europe that included a visit to Russia, the other major power on China's border.

The Chinese, understandably, are getting nervous--and are even talking about a renewed arms race. Compared with the way Bush envoys were greeted elsewhere, a nine-person delegation led by Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly got a frosty reception at the Chinese Foreign Ministry on May 15. Kelly's explanation of the U.S. missile defense plan over tea and canned coconut drinks to a Chinese team seated around an oblong table went nowhere. The Washington scheme "destroys the global strategic balance and upsets international stability," a Beijing spokesman said afterward. "China will not sit idly by and watch its national interests suffer harm."

No one argues that the Bush Administration's diplomatic blitz is the opening act of a new cold war. In its campaign to contain the Soviet Union after World War II, the U.S. worked to isolate Moscow economically and culturally and to thwart its adventurism with a network of military bases. In Asia, U.S. policy is to remain fully engaged with China in trade and most other matters. But clearly, what is afoot is the biggest shift in U.S. global strategy since the Reagan era. Far from being guided by right-wing isolationists, as some had imagined, Bush is being advised by old cold warriors who believe the U.S. must act forcefully to promote its global interests. In Asia, China wants to eventually dislodge the U.S. as the dominant power, and the American goal is to prevent it.

NOT SO COZY. For the U.S., Asia holds both promise and danger. Promise, because American influence can grow enormously through the continued growth of trade and free-market reforms in places as far afield as India and Japan. And danger, because China is growing stronger, commercially and militarily. "A lot more attention," Armitage told BusinessWeek, "will be paid to Asia than was the case in the previous Administration."

In essence, Washington hopes to redraw the map of Asia. At the center: America's allies, instead of China. Rather than try to cozy up as Clinton did, Washington will treat Beijing as a megapower to be held in check before it becomes the dominant force in the region. Japan, which received less U.S. attention in the 1990s as its manufacturing and financial power deteriorated, is to be pushed as a bulwark in America's Asian line of defense, an ally that must strengthen its army and signal its willingness to fight in any conflict that erupts. On the Korean peninsula, the U.S. will again treat the communist North as a rogue state and work more skeptically with Seoul on entente with the regime of Kim Jong Il. And India--that's the surprise player. New Delhi, long hostile to the U.S., is to be enlisted to work with the U.S. to offer a strategic counterweight to China in the south. In return, perhaps, India will get more trade, investment, and technology from the U.S.

It's a sharp contrast to U.S. Asian policy of the past 15 years. In that long stretch, the strategic focus was still on Europe and the collapsing Soviet Union. Noncommunist Asia was regarded principally as a trading and manufacturing zone, its safety largely protected by U.S. conventional and nuclear military forces. China was seen as still struggling to escape the dead hand of communist economics, too inward-looking to be a real threat to its neighbors. So diplomatic efforts focused on coaxing Beijing out of its shell, and the policy of "strategic ambiguity," regarding whether the U.S. would intervene to defend Taiwan, was maintained. Few Americans suggested Japan get more aggressive in its military posture. And India? It was barely noticed.

But Washington is starting to see China differently. A review of the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait issued last year by the Pentagon concluded that Beijing's military could gain the upper hand over Taiwan by 2005. Other U.S. military studies suggest China is making progress in developing more sophisticated nuclear warheads and missiles--and in turning its huge but antiquated army into a modern, high-tech military force capable of regaining Taiwan and spreading its power to every corner of the South China Sea within a few decades. "It's a classic power game," says Paul Dibb, an influential Australian defense analyst, of the Bush strategy. "China is emerging as the natural regional leader, and it knows it. And there is only one country capable of stopping it. That's what this is all about."

With Asia lacking anything like NATO, or even regional arms control pacts, the Bush team argues that the U.S. must maintain the peace--and thereby Asia's economic prosperity--by building up its alliances. "What we're trying to be is just a force for peace and stability in the region," says Armitage. At the same time, he says, "we want to have more reliance on our allies." A new study by Rand, the Pentagon think tank, is thought to be close to the White House thinking. Its co-author is Zalmay Khalilzad, who headed the Bush transition at the Pentagon and now is a senior director at the National Security Council. The study envisions a coalition of U.S. Asian allies, including Australia and the Philippines, acting jointly to quell any regional conflict. It also suggests the U.S. promote a balance of power between Russia, China, and India so that none emerges as dominant--or gangs up with others against the U.S. It's a strategy, says the report, that "will require great political and strategic agility."

The big questions are whether these allies, all with rising stakes in China's surging economy, will go along--and whether Washington is only raising the risk of conflict by trying to create a new Asian order. For the outcome of this power game is anything but assured. Few nations want to rile the region's rising giant by blatantly siding with the U.S. Case in point: Just as Bush's diplomatic squad is mobilizing, top Chinese leaders also have been making high-level visits to capitals like Seoul, New Delhi, and Moscow, to improve ties. Asian policy analysts expect that neighbors eager to do business in China will hew to a cautious and independent course.

PREEMPTIVE STRIKES. That's not to say Asian leaders disagree completely with the U.S. The People's Liberation Army is indeed getting a makeover. Enriched by its booming exports, Beijing plans to replace much of its rusting stockpile of 1950s- and 1960s-era hardware with Russian-made missiles, jet fighters, and warships. And PLA military journals talk of a strategy that relies on information technology and preemptive strikes aimed at crippling a superior foe. Japanese planners worry that shipping lanes in the Taiwan Strait--its lifeline for oil and food--are at risk. The Philippines, Singapore, and Indonesia fret that it's only a matter of time before China presses its claims more aggressively over the entire South China Sea. And don't forget Taiwan. "Without [China's] ongoing threatsand its missile deployment in its coastal regions," Taiwan President Chen said in a recent interview, "Taiwan would not be compelled to buy weapons and defend itself."

The Bush strategic realignment also dovetails with new thinking in Japan and India. One priority of the new, security-minded government of Pemier Junichiro Koizumi is to modify Japan's postwar constitution so that it can play a more active role in regional defense. He proposes that Japan help defend U.S. forces if they come under attack, and is expected to discuss the idea further in a visit to Washington in June. China's growing muscle"makes people worry that economic aid from Japan frees China to spend more of its own money on military hardware," says Seiji Maehara, a hawkish young member of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan who favors a fuller partnership with the U.S. Hence, Tokyo's interest in a ship-based defense system that could knock out incoming missiles from China.

India wants some protection too. It has a long history of border conflict with China and believes archenemy Pakistan is turning into a Chinese client state. Although tight ties with the U.S. remain a controversial topic in India, the idea of becoming a full-fledged security partner has growing appeal. The government of Premier Atal Vajpayee also hopes better ties will translate into badly needed U.S. investment. What's more, the nation's burgeoning information technology industry has emerged as a key source of software and engineering talent for Silicon Valley. Those skills, some Indians believe, will be useful in maintaining a U.S. missile defense system. The warm reception for Armitage during his May 10-11 visit "has caused everyone to blink," says Kanti Bajpai, an international relations expert at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University. Says Richard Perle, a former U.S. assistant defense secretary in the Reagan Administration: "I would expect to see much closer relations develop very rapidly with India." The Bush Administration is expected to drop remaining U.S. sanctions that were slapped on after New Delhi's 1998 nuclear weapon tests.

But in India the U.S. must deal with the hard truths of commerce. India's annual trade with China has ballooned tenfold, to $2 billion, in the past seven years. Trade will swell further as India and China dismantle barriers to comply with World Trade Organization rules. Manufacturers of everything from motorcycles to watches in the two countries are now forming joint ventures.

Such dual interests will keep tugging at nations across Asia. Although longtime U.S. allies, many Southeast Asian nations won't publicly side with Washington because they see no urgent need to stir the waters. Singapore, for example, is happy to host U.S. warships, but don't get any ideas that it's joining an anti-China bloc. "Singapore will not have to choose between the U.S. and China so long as there is no radical change to the geopolitical situation," says Derek da Cunha of Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

South Korea is also ambivalent. During Armitage's May 9-10 visit to Seoul, his hosts assured him the U.S. is their No. 1 ally, and listened politely to his missile shield pitch. But there was no endorsement. Seoul wants the U.S. to keep its 37,000 troops in the South, but also wants cordial relations with China. Trade between the neighbors has leaped fivefold, to $31.2 billion last year, since they established diplomatic ties in 1992. There is even talk of small, joint military exercises.

FLYING EGGS. South Korea has its own game to play as well. It sees Beijing playing a crucial role in its bid to normalize relations with the North. By contrast, Bush may have set years of delicate diplomacy back when, during a visit to Washington by President Kim Dae Jung, he refused to commit to continued talks aimed at getting the North to halt its nuclear program. The U.S. later said it would resume peace talks, but many Koreans doubt its sincerity: After all, Pyongyang is a key justification for Bush's defense shield. Says Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Kim Euy Taek: "The current U.S. Administration's approach [toward China] creates a more difficult atmosphere for us to to advance South-North relations." During his visit, protesters pelted Armitage's car with eggs.

You would at least think the Taiwanese embrace the new U.S. toughness wholeheartedly. But even in Taipei, many see the U.S. diplomatic offensive as a mixed blessing. They don't want to raise risks of a devastating conflict with the mainland. And there are all those business deals to pursue with China. Less than a month after the U.S. unveiled its new arms sales, former Taiwan Premier Vincent Siew visited Beijing with a group of businesspeople to promote the idea of a "common market" with China. The island's electronics manufacturers are pumping billions into the mainland for low-cost manufacturing and engineering facilities. "Taiwan is in a much tougher position than any other country in Asia," contends Andrew Yang, secretary-general of Taipei's Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies. "We want to encourage ties with the U.S., but our own survival is dependent on good relations with mainland China."

The new policy has gotten short shrift from Russia, too. In a May 1 speech, President Bush spoke vaguely about one day cooperating with Russia to build a "joint defense." The U.S. argues its shield would be no threat to Russia's 6,000 warheads. Some in the Bush camp argue that if the U.S. lets Moscow share in some of the technological development related to missile defense, President Vladimir V. Putin might endorse the project. With such a tie-up, China would be even more isolated as the only important military power without a role in the missile defense shield. Yet after Wolfowitz spent two hours with senior Russian officials on May 11, a Foreign Ministry spokesman emerged to say the missile scheme left "more questions than answers." For starters, the Russians doubt the U.S. would share valuable technology. Also, Russia believes its interests are better served by keeping peace with China. Moscow has saved enormously in the past decade by reducing its troops on China's 4,000-km frontier from 1 million to 100,000. In July, Putin and Chinese President Jiang Zemin are to meet in Moscow to sign a friendship treaty.

One big reason for keeping good relations with Beijing is hard cash. China is Russia's top arms customer. It pays about $2 billion annually for jet fighters, advanced destroyers, and other hardware. And Beijing's purchases are growing about 25% a year. Indeed, China is keeping alive entire Russian factories, such as the immense Komsomolsk-on-Amur military works in the Far East. "We need markets," says Vyacheslav A. Nikonov, president of the Polity Foundation, an independent Moscow think tank. Spoken like a good capitalist.

MAJOR JOLT. As these currents of doubt surface, Beijing may feel emboldened to counter the U.S. diplomatic offensive. The Chinese are certainly angry. Consider: The U.S. spends more on defense than the next 12 countries combined, is talking about weapons in space, and is selling tons of weaponry to Taiwan. But when Beijing hikes its own defense budget or contracts to buy modern weapons, the U.S. calls it provocative.

In this context, the Bush team's Asia blitz looks especially threatening. Signs of a stronger military alliance that would give Japan a role in policing the region are a major jolt. If the U.S. were to strike out of its base in Okinawa, it could cut off vital trade routes. "Shanghai won't be able to get access to its oil supply," frets the editor of a conservative Beijing policy journal. "More and more, Japan now appears as an enemy to China." He fears the Singapore naval pier could have "a real impact on China's security," because U.S. warships there could cut South China Sea shipping lanes. Southeast Asia, he notes, "is so close to China's wealthy coast."

The Bush team hopes to convince Beijing it has nothing to fear from its moves, including missile defense. But China isn't buying. Beijing fears the U.S. intends to neutralize its 20-some intercontinental ballistic missiles, which are capable of hitting the U.S. West Coast. In response, Beijing says its chief option would be to sharply increase production of ICBMs to overwhelm the U.S. shield. Thus, nonproliferation will go out the window. Warns Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi: "A new military arms race will commence." Adds Yan Xuetong, a foreign policy analyst at Beijing's Tsinghua University: "If the U.S. is the only military superpower on earth and wants to proliferate, what [else] can China do?"

The Bush team has sketched the outlines of a new Asian policy that is as bold as it is provocative. Men like Armitage and Wolfowitz view the world through the prism of balance-of-power realism. And to their way of thinking, Asia has been too long ignored by Washington on the security front. To many Asian leaders who credit U.S. protection for the economic boom that buoyed the region in the 1970s and 1980s, the idea of strengthening the U.S. umbrella is appealing. But when they assess the ramifications to their globalized economies--and to their relations with their newly powerful neighbor--they could well decide that it's best to keep America at arm's length.

Corrections and Clarifications "Asia: The new U.S. strategy," (International Business, May 28) should have read: "...Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, one of Japan's most popular politicians..."

By Brian Bremner, with Chester Dawson, in Tokyo, and with Stan Crock in Washington, Manjeet Kripalani in Bombay, Moon Ihlwan in Seoul, Dexter Roberts in Taipei and Beijing, Paul Starobin in Moscow, and Pete Engardio in New York

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.