Things have gotten awfully interesting in the East Asia-Pacific region this month – and not in a good way. Although these developments are less dramatic than the violence rocking Iraq, Ukraine, and Gaza (no, I won’t add “Ferguson”!), they could threaten American security and prosperity at least as much if they stay on their current troubling track.
On my list:
>China keeps challenging the region’s maritime status quo, eliciting a warning from the Philippines over the weekend that its growing tendency to send “research vessels” into waters internationally recognized (except by Beijing) as part of Manila’s “exclusive economic zone” was needlessly raising tensions.
>As shown in their latest gabfest, however, the Philippines’ fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are reluctant to protest China’s moves openly for fear of fueling Chinese expansionism further – not to mention jeopardizing trade and investment ties.
>China’s state-run media revealed that Beijing has developed a new intercontinental ballistic missile that the Pentagon believes could be able to deliver multiple warheads on targets anywhere in the continental United States. China has long possessed “MIRVed” nuclear missiles capable of striking the American homeland, but the new weapon’s range reportedly has extended Chinese capabilities by 2,000 kilometers.
>Highly respected Australian analysts are now wondering whether the United States and other countries are fundamentally misinterpreting China’s motives in its Asian saber-rattling. Hugh White and Amy King of the Australian National University have just written that, contrary to the conventional wisdom that Beijing is counterproductively risking a revival of Japanese militarism with its recent belligerence, China may have confidently concluded that (in White’s words) “After twenty years of economic stagnation, political drift, demographic decline and natural disasters, Japan is simply too demoralised to remake itself into a serious independent military power again.”
Another Australian strategist, John Craig of the Centre for Policy and Development Systems, has speculated that, despite the high levels of Sino-Japanese tensions that have dominated headlines over the last year, Beijing is actually subtly paving the way for creating an anti-American alliance with nationalists in Tokyo that would oppose the free-market economic and democratic political orders that Washington has sought to establish in the region. The prospect of anti-American collaboration by East Asian giants whose economic and political traditions differ dramatically from America’s has also long been raised by veteran Asia specialist Eamonn Fingleton.
It’s virtually impossible for any outsider to know exactly what’s being planned or explored in Chinese and Japanese leadership circles – or even close. But the recent events that have been reliably reported cast major doubts on America’s long-time grand strategy in East Asia.
Since the end of World War II, Washington has maintained major military forces in the region and looked the other way as its major economies built or rebuilt by racking up huge trade surpluses with the United States that devastated many of America’s productive sectors. Before the fall of communism, the rationale for both policies was keeping China and/or the Soviet Union from controlling Asia’s resources, markets, and especially its military-industrial potential. After the Cold War, the U.S. presence was described as vital for preserving peace and stability in a booming region full of matchless business opportunities for American companies and workers alike.
The purely economic case for the U.S. approach vanished decades ago. Sure, the Asia-Pacific region keeps growing robustly. But because its countries as a group are by far America’s most difficult trade competitor, much of this growth continues to be generated at America’s expense. Since the current recovery began in mid-2009, U.S. merchandise trade deficits with these economies have grown by nearly 58 percent – compared with a 41 percent rise in the U.S. global goods trade deficit. That is, U.S.-Asia commerce is actually killing American growth and jobs on net — and at a rate much faster than that U.S. global trade and investment as a whole.
Now the developments above represent warnings are making the strategic underpinnings of America’s strategy – unchallenged military superiority (including nuclear escalation dominance) and reliable allies – look shakier than ever.
President Obama’s response so far? A strategic “pivot” back to the Asia Pacific motivated by an apparently faith-based insistence that economic engagement with the region is a winner for Americans, and by an at least equally dubious assumption that America’s Middle East wars were winding down for good. In other words, if you’re wondering how American leaders can possibly mess up worse on the world stage, before long you may simply have to look across the Pacific.