Southeast Asia and the United States: A stable foundation in an uncertain environment

Editor's note:

On October 19, Richard Bush gave a presentation at “Southeast Asia and the United States: A stable foundation in an uncertain environment,” a conference in Singapore co-hosted by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) and the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at Brookings.

Today I will offer one American’s view of the uncertain international environment in which we now live. During my rather long and checkered career I have already experienced two major transformations of the world order.

  • The first was in the late 1970s when the United States, Japan, and Europe brought China into the international system.
  • The second was in the early 1990s with the fall of the Soviet Union.
  • And now we are seeing a third, and this is a more complicated power shift.

I am prepared to stipulate on the principal uncertainty that people have today, which concerns the future role of the United States in world affairs. One factor that fosters uncertainty is the fairly rapid revival of China as a great power in this region. I will assert that we should distinguish between what is happening at the global level and what is happening within East Asia. Globally, China does not challenge American hegemony. What is happening regionally is more fraught with difficulty.
There are several trends that challenge American hegemony globally:

  • First, our past imperial overreach in Afghanistan and Iraq, which was very costly and soured the American public on new external adventures.
  • Second, the inability of the United States to get its house in order and to forge a new consensus on the proper role of America in world affairs. This failure is the result of our dysfunctional political system.
  • Third, the failure of the United States and others to achieve some measure of stability in the global macro-economy.
  • Fourth, the growing incapacity of some states aligned with the United States to govern themselves, as well as other countries like Singapore.

These trends led President Obama to adjust the global external policies he inherited from President Bush. It is fair to say that he executed a tactical retreat.

  • He radically reduced the reliance on expeditionary warfare conducted by ground forces, and has since resisted the attempts provoked by some to reinsert America in old conflicts that we thought were under control and to get us deeply involved in new ones.
  • He has been more willing to resolve difficult disputes through old-fashioned diplomacy when adversaries are willing to negotiate—witness Cuba and Iran.
  • He has insisted that the United States will be more likely to act militarily if it is joined by partners whose interests in this or that conflict is manifestly more salient than ours.
  • He has become fed up with governments who depend on the United States, including members of our armed forces, for their survival when those governments themselves are unwilling and unable to improve their own capacity and assume more of the burden from America. The governments of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Ukraine come to mind.

It appears that although some inside the Washington beltway criticize Mr. Obama for not being more active, the American people appear to be in no mood, to quote John Quincy Adams, “to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”
The situation in East Asia is different from other parts of the world, but should not be surprising.

China has established its economic centrality in this region, which was to be expected once it made the wise choice to follow its neighbors’ path of export-led growth. In this regard, it has enriched the countries of this region and enhanced the welfare of their peoples.

China seeks to receive the respect and deference that any major power would expect from smaller states in the region. This is also to be expected. It is what major powers in other regions do, and it is what Imperial China did in earlier centuries. On the other hand, China in recent years has been willing to create public goods in areas where it believes established international institutions are not fulfilling their mandate: the One Belt, One Road initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) come to mind.

China’s revival helped prompt the Obama administration’s re-balance policy. The president’s motive was to shield the Asia-Pacific from across-the-board cuts in the DOD budget. But the re-balance was not a totally new approach. Rather it was an adaptation of a very old American approach to East Asia—which included forward military deployment, and economic and diplomatic leadership of an inclusive sort—to new circumstances.

The rebalance welcomes as much cooperation with China as possible. On North Korea, our objectives overlap. If Pyongyang makes a serious diplomatic initiative possible, fine. If not, we will work in separate ways to restrain North Korean adventurism. We will see soon what level of cooperation is likely regarding the coming power shift in Taiwan.

But Washington statements about the re-balance don’t provide the answers to two questions.

The first is whether Congress and the executive branch will find a way among competing budget priorities to sustain forward deployment at a respectable level. On that, your guess is as good as mine.

Second, the re-balance does not provide guidance on how to respond to a major initiative in PRC security policy over the last 15 years. That is, China has sought to expand its eastern and southern strategic perimeter away from its coast, and has built the military capabilities to do so. Again, this should be no surprise. Any country with China’s geography would want to defend itself at the coast if it could help it.

But this makes East Asia and U.S. policy towards the region very complicated.

  • First of all, the United States and some of its friends and allies already operate in the maritime areas and airspace where China would like to dominate. If we overlay territorial disputes over islands, rocks, and atolls, and the possibility of seabed energy and mineral resources, the frictions get magnified.
  • Second, Beijing has a tendency to read the worst into the actions of the United States and its friends, and conclude that Washington’s intentions are profoundly hostile.
  • Third, sometimes the United States and its friends give Beijing reason to reach those conclusions.
  • Fourth, China has been particularly skillful in enlarging its strategic perimeter and promoting its territorial claims in incremental, low-risk ways, backed by sophisticated, if self-serving, justifications. Moreover, Beijing is adept at applying economic, political, and military leverage to get its neighbors to change their policies.

We often use the metaphor “salami slicing” to describe what is going on in the South and East China Seas. But that is a very European phrase. I prefer to contemplate a silk worm eating mulberry leaves. Each bite of the mulberry leaf is insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but if the eating continues, pretty soon there are no mulberry leaves left and one big silkworm.

So it goes with the East and South China Seas. Diplomacy doesn’t appear to be in the cards, since China doesn’t want to reduce its freedom of action. Risk-reduction measures can reduce the risks of an accidental air or maritime clash, but that requires all concerned to agree. The current focus of attention is on China’s capacity-building on the islands, rocks, atolls, and low-tide elevations it already controls, and what it plans to do once those capabilities are in place.

If China’s skillful incrementalism is to be contained, it probably falls to the United States to do it. But knowing where to draw the line and how to draw it is no easy task. On this, there are different points of view within the U.S. government, within the American political system, and among our friends and allies. And for me, what is most important is the impact of the U.S.-China interaction in the maritime domain on the psychology and confidence of our friends. This is as much a political struggle as it is a military or para-military contest.