A New Asia Requires New Thinking : Washington Must Prepare for a Reshaped Strategic Landscape

<i> Richard Baum is a professor of political science at UCLA</i>

Economic forces have dramatically reshaped the strategic landscape of East Asia.

China and the Soviet Union, once ruled by colorless communist bureaucrats, today are led by market-oriented pragmatists who have opened their doors to the outside world and to each other. Taiwan and South Korea, erstwhile bulwarks in the Asian anti-communist firmament, have embarked on a path of market-driven commercial reconciliation with their Marxist neighbors. Japan, risen from the ashes of World War II, has become an industrial and financial superpower with aspirations of global leadership.

Full public appreciation of these developments, and of their strategic implications for U.S. policy in East Asia, was impeded by a series of unanticipated mini-crises that overtook President Bush during his recent Asian sojourn. The floundering nomination of John Tower to be secretary of defense, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s “contract” on novelist Salman Rushdie and a diplomatic gaffe over the handling of Fang Lizhi, a dissident Chinese dinner guest in Beijing all drew attention away from a key objective of the President’s visit--to assess America’s evolving strategic interests in East Asia.

One of the most important changes encountered by the President was the emerging diplomatic thaw between China and the Soviet Union. Driven by mounting domestic and international pressures for economic reform and “openness,” the two communist giants have taken the first clear steps toward ending their 30-year confrontation. Further initiatives are expected when Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev visits China in May.


Gorbachev’s visit will affect the shape of the Sino-Soviet-American “strategic triangle” in East Asia for years to come. Although there is virtually no possibility of a revival of the militant anti-American Sino-Soviet alliance of the 1950s, the prospect of a renormalized Beijing-Moscow relationship will compel Washington to display greater sensitivity to Chinese national interests and aspirations. China will most likely continue tilting toward the West in its commercial and technological orientations, but U.S. policy-makers can no longer expect to capture easy diplomatic gains from the existence of intense Sino-Soviet hostility (the so-called China card), nor can they take for granted continued Chinese diplomatic deference and pliability--witness the Fang Lizhi affair, which may have been intended as a warning shot across Washington’s bow.

Deprived of its China card, Washington will become increasingly vulnerable to diplomatic assertiveness on the part of Beijing. Chinese spine-stiffening is considered most likely in such areas as bilateral trade relations (American import quotas significantly limit China’s hard currency export earnings) and arms transfers (Washington’s dismay over Chinese missile sales to the troubled Middle East is more than matched by Beijing’s indignation over continued U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan).

The East Asian strategic triangle has not only changed its shape, it has added a whole new side--becoming, in effect, a quadrangle. The rise of a Japanese economic superstate is no longer a matter for conjecture; Japan already is the world’s leading banker, foreign-aid donor and second leading industrial exporter. Nor is there any doubt that Japan’s leaders are intent on playing a more substantial international role as a consulting partner, rather than a mere client, of the United States.

U.S.-Japan relations thus comprise a volatile side of this new East Asian quadrangle. Mounting American resentment over “unfair” Japanese trade practices and Tokyo’s reluctance to assume a greater share of its own defense burden has created considerable tension within the transpacific alliance. Yet it is far from clear that Japan-bashing--an increasingly popular sport around Washington in recent years--has served any useful purpose. Money is power. Japan already has a great deal of the former and will undoubtedly use it to secure a rising share of the latter.


Whether gracefully or grudgingly, the United States will eventually have to accommodate Japan’s desire for full partnership status. It would be in Washington’s long-term interest to neither provoke a trade war with Tokyo nor strong-arm the Japanese into diverting major resources into military defense. A rearmed, militarily confident Japan would not be a source of comfort to anyone in the area, friend or foe.

Turning to another side of the new Asian power quadrangle, Tokyo continues to enjoy a special relationship with Beijing. Japan is China’s largest trading partner (the United States ranks third), supplying it with capital equipment and industrial goods while providing a major export market for Chinese coal, oil and industrial and agricultural raw materials. Periodic outbreaks of anti-Japanese sentiment in China, centering on the twin issues of Japan’s wartime atrocities and allegations of Japanese economic insensitivity, have served to strain bilateral relations in recent years. But for the time being, the Tokyo-Beijing connection appears to be relatively stable.

Of all the constituent sides of the East Asian quadrangle, it is the Russo-Japanese side that remains most deeply mired in Cold War suspicion and distrust. Since World War II, Soviet troops have occupied Japan’s strategic northern territories of south Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands, which guard the Soviet naval access to the Pacific Basin. Thus far, all Japanese attempts to negotiate a return of the disputed territories have met with Soviet intransigence.

Soviet policy-makers are not unaware of the long-term costs of unallayed Japanese resentment. For this reason, many observers expect Moscow to launch a diplomatic initiative toward Japan in the coming months, possibly involving a Gorbachev visit to Tokyo and the return of some disputed territories in exchange for Japanese assistance in the development of Siberian resources. Such an initiative would signify an important victory for glasnost over traditional Soviet military insecurity, and would thus be beneficial to U.S. security interests in the region.


The forces of regional economic growth and development are exerting an enormous pull on power relations in East Asia, straining existing strategic alignments and giving rise to new configurations of conflict and cooperation. To deal effectively with these changes and remain “ahead of the curve” in East Asia, it will not suffice merely to reiterate--as President Bush did in the course of his Asian tour--America’s intention to remain a steadfast, involved Pacific power. Such pledges must be followed by constructive policies that meet the needs of a rapidly changing landscape.