U.S. foreign policy in East Asia may be leading, mostly by inertia, to a global crisis which could dwarf the incessantly touted tensions surrounding the Iranian nuclear program. Yet the media and the political leadership are ignoring American security policy, or rather the lack of it, in East Asia.
The candidates in the Republican primary season and now the early general election season have paid scant attention to foreign policy and no attention at all to what is perhaps the most important issue of the day. The economy rises and falls in an almost cyclical fashion, but the relations of great powers determine pattern of politics for generations. While relations with China have appeared in the campaign occasionally, they have done so mostly in the context of trade relations and the rate of the Yuan, which are essentially divisible economic issues which are conducive to compromise.
In a wise and timely response to the threat of Communist expansion, the U.S. created a system of alliances and bases in the region in a relatively successful bid to contain Communist expansion. The US presence in the region has expanded to a ring of bases surrounding China, with a particularly notable military presence in Japan and South Korea. This order of battle, under USPACOM command, has 300,000 military personnel under its command. To the east, the equally robust CENTCOM handles the many security challenges of the Middle East, but also borders China in Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan.
This may seem like a peripheral matter at this time, as the country faces the biggest economic challenges in a generation but the contours of this policy could determine whether the upcoming global structure will be peaceful or conflict-ridden. Whether one believes China will replace the U.S. as the world’s greatest power or merely rival its influence regionally, there can be little doubt that Beijing will demand a predominant position in the Asian subsystem. A simplistic, but useful, device for classifying great powers is the division into revisionist and status quo powers. Basically, wars for control of the international system tend to be fought when a revisionist power wants what a status quo power has. But these classifications are not inherent to the states and based on some sort of stereotypical concept of state cultures. States are not good or evil, rather they are a product of political circumstances.
Even if we stick to economics, which are after all the defining issue of the time, this topic cannot be ignored. These bases are part of an international network of bases which the Pentagon estimates are worth $127 Billion. Any policy which would allow the US to cut its annual expenditure figures and perhaps recoup significant amounts of money in return for the sale of huge amounts of real estate is worth discussing when the deficit has become a strategic threat to the well-being of the United States and its status as a hegemonic power.
The United States found itself in a similar situation as a rising regional power. As a young nation the United States was intent on removing the European centers of power from the western hemisphere. The reactions of the great powers of the day is both interesting and instructive. The French realized that they no longer had the economic and military ability to compete for domination in the region. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 signalled the French withdrawal from the region and the beginning of a long and productive friendship between the two countries. The British and Spanish insistence on punching above their weight in a region which was peripheral to their central interests, led to wars and enmity lasting over a century. The Spanish Empire finally collapsed thanks to the Spanish American War. The British found themselves embroiled in an unnecessary war in 1812 and in a Sisyphean attempt to keep up with the size of the American navy as well as its other rivals known as the “two-power standard”. London realized that this policy was untenable and began rapprochement with the United States in 1895. Once the U.S. had asserted its dominance in the western hemisphere, it became a status quo power in that it was unwilling to go to war in order to change the balance of power. Instead it was involved in several attempts to stop the attempts of a revisionist power from overturning the existing order.
The situation in Asia may turn out to be quite similar. Much like the colonial powers in the western hemisphere, the United States continues to hang on to its bases in Asia which are the product of outdated strategies and concerns. In doing so, the US is a major part in an overall configuration blocking Chinese aspirations in the region. To the north, China faces its traditional Russian rival. To the south it borders the other major rising power of India, which will surpass China by 2040 as the world’s most populated country. Thus the natural sphere for Chinese domination would be the smaller states to the east and south of China and the mountainous region to the west of it. These are the exact regions currently defended by the US military. This places the United States at odds with China in the long term.
It may be that it is in the American interest to defend its allies in East Asia and risk turning China into a revisionist state and possibly embroiling the US in a future Asian war. But at the very least, this momentous decision should be part of a nationwide political discussion.