The American Response to A Changing Asia

Robert A. Scalapino, Professor Emeritus, Institute of East Asian Studies,
University of California, Berkeley

American foreign policy in recent decades evokes three images, drawn from our domestic society. One is that of the fire fighter, rushing forward to put out political and military blazes. A second is that of the missionary, seeking to save souls for democracy. A third is that of an accountant, adding up the balance sheets, and warning those who economic policies are regarded as unfair to the U.S.

These roles, while played simultaneously, have not always been compatible, nor have they been invariably successful. Yet on balance, American policy has contributed to the peace and prosperity of the Asian-Pacific region.

By any measure, the United States has been the most powerful nation in the latter half of the 20th Century, globally and regionally. In retrospect, the power of the Soviet Union was greatly overrated, although its military strength was sufficient to warrant alertness. Western Europe had to undergo a lengthy period of recuperation. Asia was both old and young: a region with lengthy traditions that continued to penetrate both the political and economic systems deeply, but composed of new nations, emerging from colonialism or a political order rendered obsolete by events.

As might be expected, in the aftermath of World War II, virtually every Asian nation was fragile, with multiple pressures to move toward an authoritarian order so as to provide both stability and rapid state-directed economic growth. Sometimes, the military provided such an order, but it also came in the form of single-party authoritarian systems. Of the latter, Communism was the most dynamic. The Communist capacity for mass mobilization combined with the skillful use of both military power and visionary promises constituted a major challenge to those who wished to create or preserve a more open system.

In this setting, U.S. policy in Asia concentrated upon three goals. The first was to assist in the economic recovery of key regions, with aid in various forms bearing some resemblance to the Marshall Plan for Europe. Here, the greatest success was achieved with respect to Japan, but other Asian societies benefitted in varying degree, among them, South Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan. Later, the vast American market provided opportunities for many Asian societies.

A second goal was to establish a security structure that would halt the further expansion of Communism, an expansion diversely associated with rising Soviet or Chinese power. Here, the results were mixed. A crucial issue dividing both experts and the American people was whether the U.S. commitment should be limited to the island chain off the vast Asian continent, or should also encompass those needing assistance on the mainland to fend off Communist expansion such as South Korea and South Vietnam. In moving toward withdrawal from the ROK in the late l940s, the U.S. misled the Communists, with the costly Korean War following. Later, our commitments to South Vietnam--accompanied by serious mistakes such as connivance in the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem--produced the type of protracted, limited conflict that garnered declining public support. In the most basic sense, that war was lost at home.

Yet at great cost, the United States established a strategic balance in Asia-Pacific, centering upon bilateral ties with Japan and the ROK, as well as those with the Philippines and in more tenuous form, Thailand. The balance was greatly aided by the split between the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union, leading to a critically important liaison between the U.S and the PRC. It was also supported by the accelerating economic development of East Asia's market economies, with Japan serving as forerunner and guide.

That was the past. What of the present and future? Today, as is well known, virtually all Asian societies are experiencing serious economic problems, product of various causes, among them, excessive exuberance; inadequate regulatory measures combined with unhealthy ties between government and the corporate sector; and the new, complex challenges of globalization. Most Asian states will commence their recovery shortly, hopefully with an improved economic structure. One supreme lesson has emerged out of the current crisis: no economic strategy, however successful, is good for all time. Japan is a foremost example. In addition, it must be recognized that the changes required go beyond economics and reach deeply into the cultural sphere. For this reason, some cannot be accomplished quickly or easily despite the urgency.

On the political front, the broad trend has been toward more open systems. The remaining Leninist societies of Asia are moving erratically and at varying speeds toward authoritarian-pluralism, a system under which politics is still authoritarian, but with greater flexibility; a civil society apart from the state is emerging; and the economic order is mixed, with the private sector playing an increasingly important role. North Korea temporarily excepted, this is the trend, as China and Vietnam illustrate.

In turn, various societies have shifted from authoritarian-pluralism to democracy, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand among them. The civilianization of politics has also been a general trend, with military control terminated or greatly reduced. Yet Asian civilian democracies remain fragile. Can they successfully unite stability and political freedom? Can they avoid deadlock, and retain public confidence when a free media feature a continuous stream of exposes? This remains a transitional era, with no political system assured of permanence.

Another political phenomena of this period is the coexistence of three forces--internationalism, nationalism, and communalism. Internationalism in its various forms, and especially in the economic sphere, is well known. Yet nationalism is also resurgent in many societies, in part used by the elites as a substitute for declining ideology to secure the loyalty of the citizenry; in part, as a response to the perceived threats of internationalism upon sovereignty and upon the citizen's sense of identity.

In a tempestuous era, however, individuals often search for a more intimate, meaningful community, and frequently find it not in the state, but in renewed ethnic or religious adherence, or concentration upon their local community. How these three forces, each destined to be an important, are balanced will be a vital determinant of 2lst Century politics.

Turning to the strategic sphere, three conditions warrant special attention. First, over the protests of the so-called realists and neo-realists, the concept of security is in the process of being broadened to go beyond military defense and to encompass the wide range of issues that are affecting the well-being, even survival of both individuals and societies--from concerns relating to resources, environment and population to those of terrorism and crime. Given the rapidly rising relevance of these issues to Asia, they are receiving increased, if insufficient attention.

Second, Asia-Pacific contains huge variations, whether the measurement be cultural, systemic or developmental. Further, current trends indicate that these variations may be further extended, with categories ranging from "failed states" to "new powers," or in different terms, "pre-modern," "modern," and "post-modern" societies. Thus, "security" priorities vary in terms of internal and external, military and non-military. And the relative power of various nation-states, using that term in its broadest sense, is certain to undergo major changes in the decades immediately ahead.

In the midst of diversity and rapid change, it has been enormously difficult to create strong regional or sub-regional organizations, especially those that might deal with military issues. In truth, there are no truly effective international mechanisms for enforcing conflict prevention or resolution, or bringing about genuine arms control. Economic sanctions have generally proven to be ineffective, especially when applied by a single party.

Third, notwithstanding great variations, most states, cognizant of the enormous advances in information and communications technology as well as other innovations with applicability to weaponry, are committed to the extent possible to military modernization. Never in the history of the Asian-Pacific region have the changes underway in this respect been so rapid and wide-spread. If the commitment exists, even poor, less developed countries can participate in aspects of the modernization program effectively, as the DPRK illustrates.

One should avoid undue alarm. The risk of a major conflict between or among the large nations is at an all-time low, given the costs of such an act, and the priorities on domestic challenges now in place. Current instability and violence are largely within, not between states, products of deeply rooted historic factors or failing systems. Yet some of those factors apply across national boundaries, as in the case of India-Pakistan or India-China, and the legacy of World War II continues to trouble the Asian region, as the divided states (the two Koreas and China-Taiwan) illustrate. In sum, hope is warranted, but not complacency.

What does the future hold? First, the 2lst Century will witness the continued rise of Asia. The basic ingredients for development are present throughout much of the region: governments committed to rapid growth and through experiment, discovering an appropriate strategy; a citizenry increasingly educated; and the enhanced capacity to acquire advanced technology and capital through the globalization process. For some nations, resources will constitute an increasing problem, but the greater application of science-technology and the use of multiple sources in the case of energy should make the problem manageable, at least through mid-century.

Given the overall potentials and the varying speed of development, the relative power of Asia-Pacific states will change, as noted earlier. China will become a major power, but one with major problems. Its further development together with its size will insure its preeminence among Asian states. This will include an increasing military reach throughout the region. Yet its military power will not equal that of the United States in the decades immediately ahead. Moreover, the modernization of l.3 billion people--ultimately to be at least l.6 billion--is a supremely difficult task. The problems currently faced--a fragile financial-banking structure, poor performance by many state-owned enterprises, significant under- and unemployment, agricultural backwardness, and major regional variations--will not be resolved quickly or easily. Thus, the probabilities are that a combination of domestic challenges and growing economic interdependence will underwrite a cautious foreign policy, one based on negotiations and acceptance of the status-quo when agreement cannot be reached rather than conflict.

However, there are some factors that argue for a less optimistic view. Nationalism will continue to be a vibrant force here as elsewhere, and with it, a temptation to play the old Middle Kingdom role, with China at the center and others assigned courtier positions. The rhetoric will be one supportive of national sovereignty, dispute resolution through peaceful negotiations, creation of a multipolar world, and opposition to (American) hegemonism. Yet small countries on the border, and some large countries as well, will be constantly vigilant to see whether deeds correspond to words.

Of the other major Asian or Eurasian states, Russia and India will also make major strides in economic development and national strength in the decades ahead. It may take Russia the better part of a decade to find the appropriate means--political and economic--for advancement, and there is a risk that authoritarianism, albeit, not of the old Communist variety, may reassert itself. But sooner or later, Russia will resume its development. It has the requisite educated and technically skilled work force, resources, and geopolitical position. Moreover, it is likely to reestablish a relationship with most states once a part of the Soviet Union approximating federation.

Somewhat prematurely, Russia is already seeking to reassert its role as a global power. In this connection, it has paid special attention to the Middle East and Asia, with a "strategic partnership" created with China, old ties with India refurbished, and a special relationship sought with select Middle East states. The relationship with the United States is less accommodating than it was a few years ago, with serious differences relating to

missile defense and nuclear reduction. Up to date, however, U.S. policy has been basically supportive of the Yeltsin regime, fearing the alternatives. In reality, there are three schools of thought in contemporary Russia with respect to basic affiliation: the Westernizers (currently weakened), the Asianists (facing limitations), and the Globalists (ascendant but premature).

In the decades ahead, however, Russia's primary concerns are likely to be with some of the troubled small states on its borders, recently formed or in the process of being formed. China, that huge nation bordering the sparsely populated Russian Far East, will also require special handling. Growing economic interaction will be coupled with China's mounting economic penetration of the Russian Far East and Central Asia. South Asia also presents a strong potential for problem, given the different alignments of Russia and China there. Further, there is no ideological glue to cement a "strategic partnership." Thus, only a truly effective multilateral structure for Asia-Pacific can reduce the risks of rising Sino-Russian friction at some future point.

India is a nation whose time is coming. Loosely jointed because of the combination of a heterogeneous society and a democratic political system, India is now enroute to a market-oriented, outward looking economic strategy. Further, the balance between the Center and the various states is conducive to maximizing the capacities of diverse regions. Indian nationalism is also taking more militant forms, albeit, with internal diversity continuing to pose obstacles. Yet when all trends are assessed, the probabilities are that India will assume a much higher regional and global posture by the early part of the 2lst Century. And it may well be in South Asia where the highest risks of major conflict will exist.

Japan presents a complex picture with respect to the decades ahead. This nation is now on the frontiers of modernity, capable of innovating as well as borrowing in the scientific-technological realm. In its extraordinary developmental rise of recent decades, moreover, it was able to maintain a greater degree of social stability than most other advanced societies, benefitting from its homogeneity, special geographic position, and not least, its strong Confucian heritage. Yet the time for major economic change has come, and as noted, that change involves a cultural change, with the old interwoven governmental-industrial structure, and life-long paternalism marking plant-worker relations no longer viable. The adjustment to a more open, interdependent economic order is not easy.

Yet Japan's circumstances make its further economic integration with the external world, and especially Asia-Pacific, essential. By the year 20l5, approximately one-fourth of the Japanese population will be 65 years of age or older. Even if the trend toward a service economy quickens, from whence will come Japan's labor force? Will reliance be upon overseas-based operations, increased migrant workers, or both? Almost certainly, circumstances will strongly support a Japanese foreign policy geared to leadership and/or cooperation in resolving the region's economic, political and social problems through both multilateral and bilateral efforts. Yet some tension will exist. Can Japan achieve equality with others as "a major power" when limitations are placed on its military strength and use? Must Japan always rely on the power of others, or the creation of a truly meaningful international peace-keeping structure? And what if its major strategic ally, the United States, falters? The fear of its Northeast Asian neighbors of the restoration of Japanese militarism is exaggerated. However, Japanese nationalism is resurgent in some quarters, and under certain circumstances, the drive to give Japan complete equality with others in the strategic realm could gather momentum.

Let us next examine briefly the current and future prospects for Southeast Asia. The recent trend toward making ASEAN an organization encompassing the entire region is encouraging. At the moment, ASEAN has been weakened by the financial crisis, and the greater diversity of its members. In the longer run, however, the capacity of the Southeast Asian nations to communicate regularly with each other, and to present a collective front in bargaining with the major states, especially China, will be an asset.

Development and stability will continue to vary, state to state. Each nation in the region has its problems--ethnic or religious diversities, resource scarcities, regional cleavages within the state, and inadequate political leadership and system. Yet the broad trends are similar throughout the region: moves toward a market oriented economy with cronyism confronted; trends toward civilian control of government; political liberalization in varying degree; and an acknowledgement of the need for economic interdependence. Southeast Asia will continue to be diverse, and some states may once again fail, or face heightened instability, but the broad direction of the region in the 2lst Century will be developmental.

South Asia presents a more troublesome picture. Here, such disputes as Kashmir divide large states, and the alignments of the present--Russia returning to a commitment to India, and China continuing its ties to Pakistan, further complicate the scene. As noted, the prospects for an advancing India are reasonably strong, whereas for various reasons, Pakistan is likely to present a long-continuing problem, as is Afghanistan. Further, can the small Himalayan states continue to act as a buffer of sorts between India and China? In sum, this area needs greater attention.

Finally, what will be the nature of the U.S. and its international role in the decades ahead? Until well into the 2lst Century, the United States will remain the most powerful nation in the world, whether power be measured in economic or military terms. Relatively speaking, to be sure, American power will be less dominant as other nations and regions--among them, Europe--move forward. The fundamental issue with respect to the United States, however, will increasingly be not one of capacity but of understanding, sensitivity and will.

As other nations rise still further in economic strength, it is natural that the American demand for "equality" in terms of open markets and access, will grow ever stronger. Moreover, cost- and risk-bearing with respect to peace-making and peace-keeping will be a major issue. In the recent past, the U.S. has borne too heavy a burden in these respects to expect this to continue into the indefinite future. And one result of the American role has been a sense of moral superiority. Thus, the U.S. has been accused of arrogance by many Asians in recent years, seeking to impose its economic and political system on others. Vice-President Gore's l998 performance in Malaysia, labelled "megaphone diplomacy," was an example deplored even by Mahathir critics and certain American allies.

Yet in the long run, the fundamental issue may be that of an American commitment, as has been indicated. The United States now faces all of the crucial domestic issues stemming from "modernization." President Clinton's January, l999 State of the Union address dwelt upon many of the key concerns of the average American: social security, health care, education, welfare, and crime. As a master politician, the President knew how to reach the ordinary citizen. To be sure, he also proposed that the military budget be increased, but the portion of the speech devoted to foreign policy was relatively short, and relatively unimaginative.

Looking ahead, the United States is certain to seek to keep abreast of the revolutionary developments in military technology, moving forward on missile defense, satellite surveillance, and all means of rapid deployment, including the most advanced aircraft. One critical question is whether vast sums expended for such uncertain programs as that of National Missile Defense are warranted at this point, especially given the repercussions abroad. But it now seems certain that exploration will go forward. At the same time, the U.S. will continue to seek Russian support for the reduction of nuclear weapons despite current problems, and on a broader front, the enforcement of the treaties to curb nuclear weaponry. On occasion, it will participate in the effort to punish "rogue states," but the reluctance to undertake that task alone will grow as its political costs are more fully realized.

The American dilemma is clear. Economic sanctions may punish the people, but not the leaders. If force is used, however, the American people are likely to tolerate only a strategy of quickly in and quickly out, with the application of the most modern weaponry, relying primarily on air and sea power, and risking the most minimal American casualties. For an overwhelming number of Americans, the age of employing large scale U.S. ground forces is over--Vietnam represents the demarkation line. Any conflict with a major state--unlikely, as has been noted--would thus involve transcontinental war, with cities and civilians primary targets, and the possibility of indecisive results with exhausted nations crawling toward a settlement.

Given the above circumstances, how should the United States adjust to its own development in the decades ahead, and that of the Asia-Pacific region? First, it is imperative that the domestic issues uppermost in the concerns of our people be handled effectively. This is not a task merely of the national government. State and local governments--and every American--must play an active role in taking measures that acknowledge the present and anticipate the future on this front. The United States is the most revolutionary society in the world today in terms of the impact of scientific-technological advances on the average person: life-style, values, and relations with others, including family. Security starts at home.

However, it is incumbent upon our leaders, and especially the President, to repeatedly emphasize the critically important relationship between the status of the world and the well-being of the American people. This has not been done adequately in the past, thereby contributing to the relative indifference of many Americans to the world around them.

Second, it is vital that we take a greater interest in the non-military issues that impact upon security. It is important to realize that the distinction between military and non-military issues is greatly blurred. Why are the territorial issues pertaining to the islands from the Sea of Okhotsk to the South China Sea so difficult to resolve? A reluctance to concede sovereignty for nationalist reasons is a factor, but at least equally important is the issue of resources--oil, fisheries, and other potentials.

Populational pressures, rising rapidly in certain areas, will create greater migration streams, and as has been noted, aging will also be a cause of difficult problems, including in the United States. Pollution cuts across national borders, with Northeast Asia a foremost example. It is thus important to bring scientists into international decision-making on these issues in a much more extensive manner, and the U.S. could take the lead in moving in this direction. A series of permanent commissions should be devoted to future needs with respect to resources, methods to curb pollution, appropriate rules with respect to migration, and measures to deal with shifting populational ratios. These commissions should multilateral, semi-official in nature, with both governmental and private specialists represented, and they should meet on a regular basis, making recommendations to governments. In this respect, the activities of the North East Asia and North Pacific Environmental Forum, first created in l993 are promising.

Despite current obstacles, it is essential that we continue to push for Russian ratification of START II, and advance to START III. The aging of the Russian nuclear arsenal is a threat not only to the Russians but to others as well. Moreover, unless the U.S. and Russia reduce their massive stockpiles, they have limited moral grounds for urging others to reduce or abstain from nuclear weaponry. We should also strive to assist Russia in resolving its domestic problems and hewing to the democratic course--but less obtrusively than in earlier times. Much greater cultural interaction, including exchanges of students and youth conferences would be useful.

The policy of "engagement" with China is entirely appropriate, given the enormous importance of an affirmative Sino-American relationship to the future of the entire Asia-Pacific region. Moreover, it is vital to see China in more complex terms than do some of its American critics. This is a society in transition--politically as well as economically, and through a policy of incentives and deterrents, we can play some role in helping Beijing match its deeds with its words in the realm of foreign policy.

Our ties with Japan and the Republic of Korea should remain firm, as will be outlined below. Meanwhile, we should seek to work together with them and others in fashioning a policy toward North Korea that aims at an evolutionary path while being vigilant against DPRK militance.

The U.S. should maintain a strategic presence in Southeast Asia, but our primary functions should be economic and cultural, with an effort to support ASEAN and its further development, as well as the ARF. We should also increase our contacts with India in South Asia, and seek to build a more favorable relationship than in the past, with greatly enhanced non-official relations.

In broader terms, bilateralism and multilateralism must coexist for the foreseeable future, with the focus on strengthening the latter. It is interesting to note the differences between China and the United States in this respect. China has advanced a concept of bilateral "strategic partnerships" which it defines as non-alliance, dedicated toward mutual cooperation on all matters, while placing the sovereignty of the nation-state in a paramount position. At the same time, it has moved toward the acceptance of multilateralism based upon the so-called Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, declaring that a multipolar world must come into existence to replace unipolarism. The United States has supported multilateralism more extensively, but retained its bilateral strategic ties to key Asian states.

The U.S. task for the future is to support both a concert of powers and a balance of power in Asia-Pacific. A concert of powers can be defined as building coalitions of states having a common interest in a specific problem or problems, and prepared to work together toward their resolution. It is premature at this time to expect the creation of an over-arching security organization capable of handling all related issues effectively. The ASEAN sponsored ARF is useful, but it is essentially a "talking" organization. At some point, an official Northeast Asian Security Organization should be formed, but at present, given the huge disparities in power and policy in the region, this must be handled by semi-official structures. However, as the Korea issue illustrates, involved states can cooperate in seeking a resolution or containment of a given issue, even though cooperation may not always be total. In the period ahead, this approach can and should be expanded to encompass many issues within the Asia-Pacific region.

At the same time, given the nationalist pressures, the trends toward military modernization, and numerous thorny problems that remain unresolved, territorial and otherwise, it is essential that a balance of power be maintained. To this end, the United States should retain for the present its bilateral security ties with Japan and the Republic of Korea, and its security agreements with select Southeast Asian nations, as the recent Defense Department policy review stipulated.

Over time, it may be possible and desirable to reduce or remove ground forces from Japan and the ROK, leaving only technical personnel, with regular joint exercises and bases kept in readiness. The future lies in rapid deployment, and the credibility of the commitment is not necessarily weakened by a further emphasis on that strategy. Yet premature moves in this respect would lead to profound instability throughout the region.

In their relations with the United States, Japan and South Korea will continue to move toward an insistence upon partnership, and simultaneously, an effort to establish balanced, favorable relations with all major states. This should receive American support. When Korea is unified, the security issue will be reexamined, depending upon the circumstances. It would premature to fix on a given policy now, but not premature to reflect on the alternatives.

To pursue simultaneously a concert of powers and a balance of power is not unrealistic, as some critics assert. Indeed, these two strategies are already in existence. As the 2lst Century opens, the prospects for peace among nations in the Asia-Pacific region are much stronger than at the onset of the 20th Century. Whether one assigns that fact to the horrendous costs of such wars, the new priorities now in place, or the accelerating interdependence of nations, we have a chance to combine peace and further development. Violence will occur, but the likelihood is that it will be domestic, and in some cases, perpetrated by individual or small group terrorists. Failing states will be a problem, and without proper mechanisms, the regionalization of a domestic conflict is always a risk. Hence, we must build those mechanisms now. On balance, however, the scene warrants cautious optimism, and we should move forward creatively, in line with the new demands of the 2lst Century.

About the author:  Professor Scalapino is currently Robson Research Professor of Government Emeritus. From 1949 to 1990 he taught in the Political Science Department at the University of California at Berkeley. He was department chairman from 1962 to 1965 and Robson Research Professor of Government from 1977 until 1990. In 1978 he founded the Institute of East Asian Studies and remained its Director until his retirement in 1990. He received his B.A. degree from Santa Barbara College and his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Harvard University. Professor Scalapino has been the recipient of a number of research grants under such auspices as the Guggenheim Foundation, Social Science Research Council, National Endowment for the Humanities, the Henry Luce Foundation, the Earhart Foundation, and numerous others. He has been awarded the Medal of Highest Honor from the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies, Kyung Hee University; the Order of Diplomatic Service Merit, Heung-In Medal from the Government of Korea; and the Order of the Sacred Treasure by the government of Japan. In 1990, he received the Berkeley Citation for Distinguished Service to the University of California. In 1997, he was conferred the title of Honorary Professor of both the Center on Northeast Asian Studies in Mongolia and Peking University in Beijing. Most recently, he was the recipient of the 1998 Japan Foundation Award. He has published some 494 articles and 38 books or monographs on Asian politics and U.S. Asian policy. These include Parties and Politics in Contemporary Japan (1962), The Japanese Communist Movement, 1920-1966 (1967); Communism in Korea (two volumes, with Chong-Sik Lee, 1972, for which they received the American Political Science Associations' 1974 Woodrow Wilson Award); Asia and the Road Ahead (1975); The Foreign Policy of Modern Japan (editor and contributor, 1977); The United States and Korea-Looking Ahead (1979); The Early Japanese Labor Movement (1984); Modern China and Its Revolutionary Process (with George T. Yu, 1985); Major Power Relations in Northeast Asia (1987); The Politics of Development. Perspectives on Twentieth-Century Asia (1989); The Last Leninist: The Uncertain Future of Asia's Communist States (1992). He was editor of Asian Survey, a scholarly publication, from 1962 to January 1996.