How nice it would be if the United States had, like forever, or even close, to figure out how to resolve the North Korea crisis safely and peacefully. That’s far from the case, of course, which is why I found this recent Bloomberg interview with a noted Australian strategist so bittersweet to read.
One the one hand, although he didn’t address the scary situation on the Korean peninsula created by the Pyongyang regime’s progress in building nuclear weapons that can strike the American homeland, this strategist did join me in asking the key question that American leaders have so irresponsibly ignored at least since the Cold War came to an end. On the other hand, it’s awfully late in the game, and official Washington is still in evasion mode.
The big question broached by Hugh White, a former top adviser to the Australian government and leading writer on Asian security affairs: Whether it should be a top American priority to preserve its decades-long position as East Asia’s leading power against a steadily intensifying challenge from China.
For all its alleged and even sometime stated determination to disrupt the central assumptions underlying U.S. foreign policy since not only the Cold War but even the end of World War II, the Trump administration has answered this question with an emphatic “Yes.” According to its National Security Strategy document, released last December, the Asia-Pacific region (which it now calls the “Indo-Pacific,” in order to emphasize India’s importance in achieving U.S. aims:
“The region, which stretches from the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States, represents the most populous and economically dynamic part of the world. The U.S. interest in a free and open Indo-Paciﬁc extends back to the earliest days of our republic.” And for good measure, it discusses American policy in this area before it turns to Europe.
The document also explicitly states that the main challenge to this freedom and openness so long prized by the United States comes from Beijing. China is accused of “using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda” and of mounting “a rapid military modernization campaign designed to limit U.S. access to the region and provide China a freer hand there.”
And the President himself has insisted that America’s alliance with South Korea – and the need to protect it from its northern neighbor despite the growing nuclear threat to the United States – “is more important than ever to peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and across the Indo-Pacific region.”
As I’ve repeatedly written, I completely disagree – especially given not only the quantum leap in the North Korean nuclear threat, but China’s impressively growing nuclear capabilities as well (which of course mean that the U.S.’ determination to keep the South China Sea free of Chinese control has become much more dangerous, too). So it is more than high time for American leaders to fall out of love with diplomatic boilerplate and start asking themselves what possible benefits – whether in the national security or economic fields – can possibly compete with the risk of nuclear warheads landing on American soil.
Because White is a big name in the field, it’s encouraging to see him making a point like this – which directly clashes with the conventional wisdom that the United States would face disaster if China gained the ability to set the framework for doing business in the Indo-Pacific, or whatever you want to call it. If China prevailed, White told a journalist this past week:
“Of course America will remain a major economic player globally, and in Asia, for as far ahead as we can see….Its position will be like that of the Europeans, who trade and invest massively in Asia without any real strategic presence there.
“Of course, that will mean that America will have to engage economically within the terms set by a regional strategic order led by others — presumably by China. That won’t be ideal for America, but it would be better than the alternative, if the alternative is to confront China in a bitter all-out contest for regional leadership in which China enjoys many asymmetric advantages. A contest like that would most likely be much more damaging to America economically than accepting the rules in Asia as set by China.”:
For the record, I can’t imagine that even a U.S. military withdrawal from East Asia would result in China “writing the economic rules” for the simple reason that the United States would remain such a supremely important market for the region’s economies – which remain heavily dependent on racking up export sales and trade surpluses for their growth. Indeed, given the massive deficits America keeps amassing with these same countries, and the towering trade barriers maintained by allies like Japan and South Korea, it’s hard to understand the argument that the U.S. military presence has created any net benefits for the American economy at all during any period.
But White’s point about possible economic losses paling before potential security disasters is of paramount importance – precisely because the threats now posed by American adversaries are nuclear in nature. And this development makes the case for an American military pullback even more compelling. That’s why we should all hope like heck that someone with some influence on the Trump administration reads these statements by White. The stakes of getting U.S. Asia policy right are rapidly approaching the life and death zone for millions of Americans..