Rethinking U.S. East Asia Policy

Faculty Fellow, RIETI

U.S. foreign policy in East Asia for the past half century has been based on a concept of hub and spokes, with the U.S. as the hub projecting its power into the region by means of bilateral alliances and agreements with countries such as Japan, Korea, the Philippines and others. America's bilateral alliance relationships remain critically important but something more is needed as well. The time has come to reconsider and modify the hub and spokes approach to East Asian strategy.

The hub and spokes strategy rested on two key assumptions. The first was that the U.S. needed alliances in East Asia in order to contain the Soviet Union and communist China. The second was that a multilateral approach would not work in East Asia since the countries there, unlike the situation in Western Europe, had little in common to tie them together; the only realistic security architecture for the region would have to involve extending "spokes" country by country.

The situation is different today not only because the Cold War has ended but because East Asia is now becoming a region in a way it was not when the hub and spokes concept was formulated. There is ongoing a process of deepening of economic, political, and cultural relations among the countries of East Asia and a growing enthusiasm for building regional organizations there. While virtually every country in the region places a high priority on its relations with the United States, the U.S. is not itself an East Asian country. The U.S. needs a strategy not just for dealing with the individual countries in East Asia but for interacting with East Asia on a regional level.

A major factor driving East Asian regionalism today is the rapid economic growth of China. The rapidly increasing importance of China for the other economies of the region is changing attitudes about China and regional relations in Japan and elsewhere. Just a few years ago, businesspeople in Japan and the rest of Asia viewed China with a combination of skepticism and foreboding. Japanese businessmen were reluctant to make long term investments in China because of doubts that China's economic miracle was sustainable. At the same time they worried about Chinese competition resulting in a hollowing out of Japanese manufacturing industry.

Today China is replacing the U.S. as Japan's and Korea's biggest export market. Business people and government leaders are revising their view that economic relations with China amount to a zero sum game where each success for China spells a defeat for other countries. Private sector behavior and government policy in Japan and Korea, and in Southeast Asia as well, are now being driven by the belief that relations with China can be turned into a "win-win" game. There is no doubt an element of wishful thinking at work here. Turning relations with China into a win-win game over the long run will be difficult to achieve. But the imperative to try to do so is driving policy in Japan, as it is in other East Asian nations, and producing new thinking about regional institution building.

Given these realities, U.S. strategy for the East Asia region needs to be rooted in two new assumptions. The first is that East Asian regionalism, like Western European regionalism, is not necessarily inimical to U.S. national interests. The U.S. needs to avoid a kind of knee-jerk reaction to proposals for regional institutions of which it is not a part. East Asian nations have a vital interest in having the U.S. maintain a political, economic, and security presence in the region. For Japan, alliance with the U.S. is essential for maintaining a balance with an ever more powerful China. For China, apprehension that the U.S.-Japan alliance is aimed at containing Chinese power is offset by the recognition that such an alliance is preferable to Japan trying to secure for itself the capabilities that are presently provided by the United States under the U.S.- Japan security treaty. A strengthening of ties among East Asian countries and the emergence of regional organizations of which the U.S. is not a member do not change these realities.

The second assumption on which U.S. strategy should be based is that, as important as it is to maintain bilateral alliances in the region, the hub and spokes approach is no longer adequate to secure U.S. interests in the East Asian region. The U.S. should actively support new multilateral approaches to developing security discussions with East Asian countries. The six-party talks with North Korea may provide a useful model. The Bush administration adopted the six-party approach, not because it thought it offered a strong chance of success, but as way to avoid negotiating directly with North Korea. However, this approach has proved far more promising than probably anyone expected. Consideration should be given to using the six-party talks format as a kind of blueprint for forming a Northeast Asia regional security forum.

To make the world a safer place, policy makers need to give sustained attention not only to the terrorist threat but to other issues as well. How to deal with a rising China and with East Asian regionalism deserve to be put high on this priority list. I have my doubts that the Bush Administration will do that but at the beginning of a new year one should be optimistic. And it is on a note of cautious optimism and best New Year's wishes to my readers that I would like to end my first column of the new year.

>> Original text in Japanese

* Source: "Jidai o yomu" column, Tokyo Shimbun, January 11, 2004.

January 11, 2004 Tokyo Shimbun

February 12, 2004

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