INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: by Professor Sharif ShujaNews Weekly
How the "China factor" affects US relations with Asia
, April 22, 2000
Professor Sharif Shuja is adjunct Professor of International Relations at Bond University, looks at how the China factor is affecting US relations with South Korea and Japan ten years after the end of the Cold War.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the United States of America has irrefutably claimed the mantle of the world's most powerful nation. Therefore, it can be argued, to Asia, including Northeast Asia, the USA is an extremely important power at all sorts of levels. No other country has the capacity to assimilate and deal with so many divergent cultures, thereby making it a natural mediator in international disputes. No other has as much experience as a global leader in Europe, Asia and Latin America. In addition, the USA has something the others do not have at all - it is the world's only military superpower, maintaining a massive nuclear arsenal and is capable of sending troops almost anywhere to defend its interests and those of its allies in the post-Cold War era. US and two Koreas
Korea remains a major politico-strategic issue in Washington's Far East policy for three reasons.
Since 1950, the perceived US objectives in the Korean Peninsula have been to maintain the status quo with the two Koreas in rough balance, by fostering the Republic of Korea (ROKUS relations). Their diplomacy has been aimed at defusing conflict between the North and the South. The core long-term interests of the United States in Korea appear to have focused on preserving peace and stability with a minimum of cost and risk to the USA. If Korea can be reunified peacefully under the leadership of a moderate government, it might free the United States from its sometimes onerous duties in Korea.
One of the historic US interests in the region has been to prevent the rise of a hostile power or group of powers able to dominate Asia. In the first half of this century, this meant playing balance of power politics to prevent domination of the region by Japan, Russia, or the imperial powers. In the second half of the century, it meant essentially containing Soviet or Chinese communism. This historic US interest seemed to have existed independent of the USSR and has always given US policy toward Korea an important regional dimension.
Related to this is Korea's inherent strategic importance as the fulcrum of major power interest in north-east Asia and the relative lack of change over the years in the objective conditions on the Korean Peninsula. These conditions derive from the physical division of the peninsula into two distrustful and antagonistic systems; the long-standing perceived commitment of one of those systems - North Korea - to bring the entire peninsula under its control; the ongoing development by the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) of a range of means and capabilities to achieve these goals, including Pyongyang's effort to develop an atomic bomb; and the perceived inability of the South Korea to defend itself against large scale North Korean attack without US assistance.
Also included are the historically difficult relations between the two Koreas and the major regional powers. In this context, maintaining stability on the Korean peninsula has been closely linked to maintaining stability throughout the region.
Further, the US has a broader interest in fostering the spread of market-oriented economies and democratic political systems. This interest is rooted in the American belief, generally confirmed by history, that an open, democratic world is a safer, more prosperous and secure world, for the USA and the world at large. Active and sustained US involvement in Korea furthers this interest, as the South Koreans progress toward a more democratic polity and open economy testifies. The US objective of supporting Korean unification essentially on Seoul's terms might also further the spread of democratisation and market-oriented economies. Together these factors have underpinned support in the United States for a sustained role in Korean security.
The United States devotes over $10 billion a year to South Korea's defence effort. Although the South Korean military is becoming increasingly capable of defending the South against its northern rival, the US security guarantee remains essential for two reasons.
First, in the short-to-medium term, Seoul feels that the threat of a northern attack on the south remains high due to internal political imperatives which might arise in the North. Seoul also fears that Pyongyang, in the face of declining military strength, might risk a strike before the balance of military strength turns too far against the North.
Second, South Korean policy-makers from time to time have recognised that in the long-term their nation remains surrounded by powerful, potentially hostile states Japan, China, and the USSR/Russia. A security link to a powerful, friendly, but distant state with vital interests in the region, such as the USA, enhances South Korea's strategic position significantly.
The preservation of close ties with the US, however, has not always been easy. Tensions clearly exist in US-South Korean relations today - the inevitable consequence of the need to restructure the relationship on a more equal basis. US pressure on trade issues often creates deep resentment among the Korean populace, which perceives the United States as a rich bully in these matters. Such pressure fuels the rise of anti-Americanism. As a result, public US pressures are often counterproductive, making it more difficult for the South Korea government to compromise on economic issues. Trade issues will be a major issue in US-ROK relations for some time.
US relations with North Korea are also likely to introduce considerable tension into the US-South Korean relationship. Seoul has been wary of efforts by the United States and Japan to establish links with the North. For these reasons, South Korea wants to be fully consulted by the USA and Japan on their policies toward the North. Ideally, the ROK would like to have the three states pursue a coordinated policy toward the North, to avoid mutual misunderstandings and unforeseen complications for South Korean security and reunification goals.
To date, US policy has been supportive of South Korea in its dealings with the North. At the same time, the US administration has called upon North Korea to make important changes in policy. These changes include the achievement of real progress in North-South talks on confidence-building measures; inspection of its nuclear plants and research facilities by international atomic energy agencies; abandonment of its support of international terrorism; and the adoption of a plan to return the remains of Americans killed in the Korean War.
One troubling problem in South Korean-US relations is the visible increase of anti-Americanism in South Korea in recent years. Koreans' recent emergence on the world scene has made them very proud while at the same time, their historical legacy of dependence on the USA and long-term subjugation by foreign powers has created a feeling of insecurity amongst many Koreans.
Fundamentally, South Koreans are now demanding that their old patron treat them with respect and as an equal.
There is no fundamental conflict between the two nations. Indeed, the United States and South Korea continue to share critical strategic, economic, and political interests. Assuming Korean and US leaders manage the evolution of the new relationship constructively, anti-Americanism will fade over time, as Koreans become more confident of their new role and assume greater responsibility for their own defence.
On the other hand, if the relationship is allowed to deteriorate, it will be difficult to preserve close ties once the immediate threat from North Korea declines.
Seoul sees coordination in US-South Korean decision-making as vital. South Koreans will not respond well to US calls for increased burden-sharing, trade liberalisation, or other reforms unless such proposals entail a willingness to practise increased "decision-sharing" as well.
South Korea's President, Kim Dae Jung, has been actively attempting to carve out for his nation an independent international role commensurate with its rising economic and political prominence.US and China
There is little doubt that the important economic state emerging in East Asia is China. China is reported to have the third largest and fastest growing economy in the world. As economic strength has become the major index of power, it might be reasonable to conclude that China's assumption of a major global role is inevitable. China is also a nuclear power as well as having a conventional military capacity greater than any other country in East Asia. Also, after decades of effective international isolation, China is exhibiting an activist - some of its neighbours would say aggressive - foreign policy.
Thus, China's development as a superpower is beginning to concern its neighbours and the USA. However, pragmatic observers, including the business community in the West, see the opportunities presented by China. Economically the US' importance to China has increased with the former emerging not only as a major source of technology and investment for China, but also as a considerable market for Chinese exports. The strength of the commitment of the Clinton Administration to the economic link with China is such that it has repeatedly overridden a powerful movement within Congress which seeks to continue sanctions against China over the human rights issue.
For the most part, the evidence of the 1990s would seem to suggest that there is a growing realisation that the US has a variety of interests at stake in its relations with most foreign countries, and that a concern with human rights cannot always be paramount. As demonstrated, this was clearest in the case of China, where the delinking of most-favoured-nation status and human rights was based not only on the realisation that economic sanctions might be counterproductive, but also on the calculation that the US could not afford either to forego the Chinese market, or to risk a strategic confrontation with Beijing.
As a result of these considerations, public support in the US for promoting human rights abroad has declined considerably in recent years. The White House continues to criticise violations of human rights wherever they occur, but now relies on a more restricted, and less powerful, set of instruments for achieving them. US and Japan
The Clinton administration views Japan as an increasingly important global partner in peacekeeping, in promoting democracy, in protecting the environment, and in addressing major challenges in Northeast Asia. Japan, on the other hand, may be reluctant to lead, and its neighbours reluctant, for historical reasons, to accept its leadership.
Although Japan may increasingly identify with Asia, it still has to make a case for Asian leadership, and the first basis for claiming it is Japan's economic predominance in East Asia. China is the closest economic rival Japan faces in Asia, but China is heavily dependent on Japanese official development assistance. Thus, the economic relationship is asymmetrical.
The second basis for Japanese leadership rests on its efforts to resolve regional conflicts in Asia. This includes peace building in the Korean Peninsula and normalising diplomatic relations with North Korea.
Finally, there is Japan's role as a political mediator between East Asia and the West in which Japan's major contribution will be to promote better relations between them. But in practice Japan's policy emphasis on economic development in Asia contrasts with Western priorities such as economic liberalisation, human rights, democratisation, and environmental preservation.
The contrast appears to be subtle but important for some governments in East Asia who believe that Western liberalism, including democratisation and human rights, detracts from their economic growth and political stability. Japan could help insulate them against Western pressures.
Japanese active interest in such thinking is still tentative, but is perceived to be fed by the frustrations of the relationship with the USA. Despite US rhetoric under the Clinton administration about giving priority to the "partnership" with Japan, Japanese are very conscious that "Japan figures in US thinking above all as a problem." This could be criticised as extravagant. However, when Prime Minister Hosokawa actually said "No" to President Clinton's demands for a specific market share of the Japanese market being opened up to the US at the US-Japan talks in Washington in February 1994, and the talks thereby collapsed, the Japanese public was generally supportive. Although the economic sphere is Japan's strength, it appears that Japan has a limited capacity to act in international political and security matters.
Nevertheless, the USA's stated overall policy for the Asia-Pacific region is to help build a "New Pacific Community" - a vision that sees the USA actively engaged in multilateral economic, political, and security processes. To this end, the USA is supposed to promote confidence-enhancing measures and regional initiatives that reduce tensions. To achieve this objective, all vestiges of the Cold War in Asia must be erased, including the tension on the Korean Peninsula. Problems and prospects
Apprehension about US policies in Asia has been rising. The US, which had expected to set the global agenda after the collapse of the USSR and its victory in the Gulf War, has to adjust to the growing economic and political power of a number of countries, especially China, Japan and India. Possessed of a new self-confidence and assertiveness, some of these Asian countries reject the US as a model for their own societies and put forward "Asian values" of discipline, respect for authority, law and order, the family and hard work as the basis for their political stability and economic success.
In this context it is fair to say that US policies in Asia are characterised at present by inconsistency and unpredictability. This has led to a sense of uneasiness in most Asian countries about the US role in the region. As the world's only superpower, the US is still expected to pursue steady and predictable policies.
The present uncertainties about US policies in Asia seems to stem from the two basic causes. First, the end of the Cold War and the loss of the Soviet "focus of evil" deprived the US of a central issue to which it could relate its foreign policy in a co-ordinated way.
Second, there are two conflicting influences shaping US policy making, namely the idealistic wish to remodel the world in its own image and the pragmatic pursuit of its own economic self-interest.
President Clinton has expressed both aspects of these policy tensions, without suggesting how they might be reconciled. In addressing the former, he has said: "Our overriding purpose must be to expand and strengthen the world community of market-based democracies."
On the other hand, his more pragmatic preoccupation with the domestic economy and American self-interest is clear in his insistence that countries "purchase more exports from the United States, because US exports create jobs for Americans."
Nevertheless, there are forces drawing the US back into Asia. Among them are unresolved conflicts. The threat of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula is still one of the most destabilising factors. A North Korean nuclear arsenal would quickly result in calls from the region for a bolstered US presence.
By way of conclusion, a new balance of interests and influence will need to be fashioned between the US, Japan and China in the twenty-first century. If the US maintains a confrontational economic policy towards Japan, and acrimonious relations with China, then pressures for an East Asian economic group, which would exclude America, could be fuelled.