The United States and Asia: Future Prospects

Robert A Scalapino. Foreign Affairs. Volume 70, Issue 5. Winter 1991.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor ushered in a new era of U.S. involvement in Asia. In the past lay hearty merchant-voyagers, missionaries and assorted diplomats. Only in the Philippines, however, had Americans become deeply involved in an Asian society, and even there colonial governance was in the hands of a relative few. For the average American, Asia signified exotica—a distant region wholly foreign and to many, slightly ominous.

In the years since 1941, however, massive American military involvement was to be followed by diverse efforts at political tutelage, extensive cultural exchange and a level of economic and financial intercourse that was eventually to make the Pacific-Asian region more critical to the American economy than Europe.

Millions of Americans acquired a personal knowledge of certain parts of Asia. In addition a growing Asian population in the United States has begun to influence American society in a variety of ways as the century draws to a close. Thus, just as victory in war extended the United States further into the Pacific, so that victory bound America to Asia in ways that could not possibly have been foreseen on that fateful day of December 7, 1941.


To understand where the United States stands today and what future prospects exist for U.S. relations with Asia, one must first comprehend the enormous changes that are taking place throughout this vast region.

First, note the geopolitical transformation. At the close of World War II the Eurasian heartland was strong, its peripheries weak. Although deeply wounded by that war, the Soviet Union had the strength and will to build a buffer-state system to the West and, in alliance with the newly victorious communists in China, to project communist power to the edges of the Asian mainland. Western Europe and the peripheral regions of Asia, including Japan, on the other hand, were weak, either crippled by the war or emerging from lengthy colonialism. Only substantial American military and economic assistance provided the key peripheral societies with an opportunity for renewal.

Today the situation is precisely reversed. The Eurasian heartland is in the throes of crisis, with the Soviet Union in the process of dismemberment and China—specially interior China—facing a host of complex problems that affect its cohesion and power. For the present at least, China has only a limited capacity for external involvements. The other Leninist states remaining on the Asian continent are in similar or worse condition. But the Eurasian peripheries are generally strong, with western Europe demonstrating a new dynamism and the market economies of East Asia led by Japan providing models for the developing world. The implications of this great transformation of power and authority in Eurasia for American attitudes and policy have yet to be fully grasped.

Second, to an unprecedented extent, economics has taken command of international relations. This was not always true. At the close of the Second World War, politics was generally paramount, especially in Asia, with revolutionary leaders seeking to build or rebuild nations by mobilizing their people through ideological appeals. They gave lip service to development, but their priorities were political. Today, however, even Leninist states are forced to concentrate on economic reform in an effort to compete with others.

Leaders everywhere are coming to the realization that the economic health of their society is critical not only to internal stability but to external influence. Moreover the rapid growth of economic interdependence has linked domestic and foreign policy together more closely than at any time in history. A nation’s domestic policies, in both the economic and political realms, directly impact other countries, and hence are a matter of legitimate concern to a much greater extent than in the past. This is the basic rationale for the U.S.-Japanese Structural Impediments Initiative (SII), in which each side proposes internal changes to make economic relations more harmonious.

Issues of interdependence are becoming increasingly complex. Throughout Asia, for example, natural economic territories (NETS) are being formed, often cutting across political lines. Sometimes they are the result of governmental promotion; sometimes they evolve largely because of private sector initiatives; often a combination is involved. In any case, they are becoming significant in both political and economic terms. One NET encompasses the Guangdong province of southern China, Hong Kong and Taiwan; another that is emerging includes China’s Shantung province and South Korea. It is likely that within a few years a Sakhalin-Kuriles-northern Japan NET will emerge, and in the Sea of Japan closer ties are forming between the Siberian ports of Vladivostok and Nakhodka and regions such as Niigata in west Japan. In Southeast Asia discussions are under way toward establishing a NET to include Singapore, Johore (Malaysia) and Batam island (Indonesia). The relationship between NETS and the political entities called nation-states, along with the massive financial transactions that flow across borders daily and the more formal large-scale economic regions now being formed, forces one to evaluate the growing limitations upon national sovereignty and its implications for an international order as this decade advances.

Naturally the ascendancy of economics has colored domestic politics in Asian countries as elsewhere. If one defines ideology as a universally applicable theory—a set of cosmic ideas and values that provide a comprehensive guide to thought and action—it has declined in the face of the pragmatic impulses stemming from economic primacy. This has posed an acute problem for all political systems. Asia’s remaining socialist leaders are downplaying—or completely jettisoning—Marxism-Leninism in favor of resorting to nationalist appeals in an effort to bolster faith in a system in trouble. Considering the original Marxist appeal to the brotherhood of the global proletariat, it is a supreme irony that the remaining Leninists now concentrate on nationalist appeals while economics is driving the democratic societies—sometimes reluctantly—to internationalism.

But in politically open Asian societies, as in the Western democracies, enduring political values are also in jeopardy. Can liberalism encompass responsibilities as well as rights? Can it preserve both the community and individual interests in an age when materialism and hedonism seem to reign supreme? In any case, whatever its political form, a government today must depend upon performance, not faith, to sustain its legitimacy. Despite efforts at intensive indoctrination in certain socialist societies, increasingly the average citizen is asking the government, “What have you done for me?” often adding the word “lately.”

Political leaders, and not just old Marxists, have turned to the nationalist appeal as a substitute of sorts for a more comprehensive ideological faith. Imbedded in Asian nationalism are certain traditional feelings that can be revitalized, including antiforeign sentiments. When the contemporary conservative Chinese leaders warn citizens against foreign forces that would subvert Chinese socialism by infiltrating the society using the technique of “peaceful evolution,” they hope to strike a responsive chord among a people that have periodically struck out against those external forces that earlier penetrated China in one form or another. When North Korean leaders speak of socialism under juche (self-reliance), with “iron-clad unity around one leader, one party, one nation,” they are making a traditional appeal to people that have lived in a country once known as “the hermit kingdom.”

Nationalism, however, is also a natural reaction in democratic societies when external economic forces seem to represent the new threat. In an incredibly short space of time, societies coming from different traditions, at different stages of development and pursuing different economic strategies have been thrust together economically. Friction is inevitable, and with only rudimentary instruments of economic conflict-resolution, a political response based on themes such as a “foreign threat” or “foreign pressure” may find a receptive audience. Recent public opinion polls in South Korea, for example, show that the principal reason for the growth of anti-Americanism there comes not from the political left, but from those in agriculture and business who believe that the United States applies undue pressure to obtain a swifter movement away from Seoul’s neo-mercantilist policies.

Despite its resurgence, however, nationalism faces strongly competitive forces. On the one hand, there are growing pressures from below due to the rise of problems connected with the advanced stages of industrialization and the renewed vitality of ethnic and religious cleavages; on the other hand pressures from above are steadily mounting in the form of internationalist imperatives due to economic interdependence and security needs. The complex interaction among localism, nationalism and internationalism will be one of the great dramas of the coming decades.

Among the separatist forces, ethnicity and religion are formidable agents, especially in southern Asia. Populations in northeast Asia, Japan, the two Koreas, Mongolia and Taiwan are remarkably homogeneous. Even China has a minority population of only some eight percent, although the minorities occupy more than half of this massive nation’s land area, primarily in the sparsely populated border regions. Beijing is understandably nervous about the rising nationalist sentiments in the central Asian republics that were a part of the old Soviet Union and the substitution of Genghis Khan for Lenin as a national hero in Mongolia. Despite their best (and worst) efforts, the Chinese will never be able to homogenize the Tibetans, Mongols, Kazhaks and Uighurs that inhabit their land, and thus ethnicity will remain a permanent factor in Chinese politics, but given the disparity of numbers, not one that is regime-threatening.

Southeast Asia has long lived with ethnic diversity, and it remains a vital force in the politics of the region, providing linkage between domestic and foreign policies. The major division is that between Malay and Chinese, although Indian and aboriginal elements exist along with numerous ethnic subdivisions. While the Chinese represent a small proportion of the population (except in Singapore and Malaysia), they play a major role in finance, commerce and industry. Hence recurrent tensions have an economic as well as a social base. In South Asia, meanwhile, religion is an enduring source of conflict, primarily with regard to Hindu-Islamic divisions, but also within Hinduism itself.

Meanwhile political institutions throughout Asia are generally weak, and the premium upon leadership remains high. The old political structure in many societies has been destroyed or badly damaged, but broadly acceptable new institutions are not yet in place. Three basic political systems now coexist: Leninism, authoritarian-pluralism and parliamentary democracy. The authoritarian-pluralist system is one characterized by restrictive politics, with choice and freedom constrained, but with a civil society existing apart from the state in some degree, manifested in the capacity of religious, educational and familial institutions to operate with a degree of autonomy. The economy, moreover, is one where the market plays a crucial role although with extensive state involvement.

At this point the political spectrum in Asia appears to be widening. The surviving socialist states are fighting desperately to batten down the political hatches even as they experiment with more open economic policies. Political tightening is being pursued in the name of stability, a term that is endlessly invoked in China, North Korea and Vietnam. Events in eastern Europe and the old Soviet Union are being held up to the citizenry as negative lessons. The breakdown of order, it is asserted, will seriously retard economic development and hence the opportunity for a better life. Thus while they search desperately for the proper combination of economic policies to reform socialism, the key leaders of these societies attempt to keep Leninist politics more or less intact.

In the Asian Leninist states, remnants of the first generation revolutionaries still cling to power, in contrast to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union prior to the recent revolutions, where the revolutionary flame had been supplanted by routine bureaucracy and greyness. In this atmosphere leaders came to realize that they presided over essentially backward societies, and the necessity of reform began to gain recognition within the elite. Their response was to attempt reform not revolution, their appeal to “make socialism work better.” At a certain point, however, the elite lost control of the process. To be sure, it was vitally important that their populations had always lived within the orbit of Western culture and were increasingly influenced by the dynamic developments in western Europe. These factors suggest the need for caution in projecting political developments in Europe automatically to Asia.

If the immediate situation is characterized by a stretching of the political spectrum, there are good reasons to believe that in the not distant future, that spectrum will narrow. On the one side, the few remaining traditional monarchies will either be reformed or disappear. On the other side, Leninism in its traditional form is doomed, with the only issue being that of timing of demise and means of exit. An open economy and a closed polity cannot long coexist. As the socialist states turn outward, seeking capital, technology and markets from the dynamic economies around them, as NETS involving a portion of their state evolve, and as political power is assumed by younger generations—who are more technocratically inclined, better educated and have a greater knowledge of the world—the old political order cannot possibly be sustained.

Development bears with it three forces that have powerful political implications: diversity, inclusiveness and porousness. The developmental process, especially in its early stages, generally accentuates class and regional differences, thereby rendering highly centralized controls increasingly inefficient and politically unacceptable. As education spreads and livelihood improves, moreover, demands emerge for more genuine inclusiveness in the political process, especially from a growing middle class.

Finally, economic policies and the communications-information revolution combine to remove the instrument of isolation from the hands of the state, once an excellent technique for preserving mass faith. The society becomes more porous, thus susceptible to a variety of external influences; witness the emergence of a cosmopolitan culture among a growing number of youth in Shanghai, Beijing and Ho Chi Minh City. Note also the increased access to outside information from radio, television, tourists and visiting relatives. Even in remote North Korea, information about the external world, however partial and distorted, is filtering in to the populace. This can only increase with the new economic measures now under way. With information comes the ability to make comparisons, which leads to demands that cannot be met by exhortations to keep the faith.

Thus, on balance, development in Asia as elsewhere serves the cause of political pluralism. In assessing this fact, however, one must avoid two errors. No political process is completely linear; there will be zigs and zags, retrenchments and retreats as well as advances. Further, neither the world at large nor Asia in particular are destined to have a total convergence of political systems. Differences of tradition, scale, geographic position and stage of development preclude identity, now or in the foreseeable future. It is possible—indeed probable—that most if not all of the remaining Leninist states of Asia will evolve toward some form of authoritarian-pluralism rather than liberal democracy in the near term. In fact that was the trend in China in the mid-1980s, after economic reform had been under way for a few years.

Nonetheless if the political extremes are eliminated, a narrower spectrum will permit much more meaningful dialogue across ideological-political boundaries and, together with the ever more complex economic network connecting societies, reduce the risks of military conflict.

Security issues and the security structure are also rapidly changing in the Pacific-Asian region. Here as in Europe the Cold War no longer serves to delineate the lines and define the critical issues. For the indefinite future Russia will be weak—not necessarily in terms of its military arsenal (although that will continue to be reduced) but in terms of its capacity (or will) to use its military resources outside the boundaries of the old Soviet Union, and perhaps even within those boundaries. Moreover, under current conditions, the United States and Russia have a growing community of interests, both with respect to the global scene and with regard to the regional order in Asia. China is fully preoccupied with its domestic problems. Japan, an economic superpower, is only beginning to apply that power for political purposes and is content at present with a purely defensive military strategy.

In sum the risk of a major power conflict in Asia is at its lowest point in this century. Violence will be domestic or subregional, allowing others to determine whether or not they choose to intervene directly or indirectly. The implications of these developments for the United States are far-reaching.

Given present trends it is not surprising that a process of Asianization is expanding ever more rapidly—a growing network of ties among and between Asian states at every level. At the same time alliances of the earlier type are disappearing or undergoing significant alterations. The exclusiveness of past ties and the dominant pattern of patron-client relations is giving way to a trend toward partnerships, with greater flexibility and independence on the part of both parties in the relationship. And in current bilateral relations, whether they be those of alignment or otherwise, a combination of cooperation and competition prevails, with some element of tension. Hence continuous negotiations are necessary at the bilateral level; in addition, it is important to place such relations in a broader multilateral context.

For the foreseeable future it will be necessary for the major Pacific-Asian states to operate simultaneously at the bilateral, regional and global levels, in both the economic and political-security fields. The inevitable contradictions involved in this situation will have to be managed with as much skill as possible—a challenge especially for the United States, given its important global position at present and its past proclivity for unilateralism.


It is against this background that the future alternatives for U.S. policy in Asia should be explored. First, however, there is merit in examining America’s post-1945 Asian policies to see if there are lessons to be learned from the past.

One lesson stands out graphically: do not mislead your opponent. The two wars that the United States fought in Asia in the past forty years—Korea and Vietnam—were both products of communist miscalculation in some measure, and for this America bears considerable responsibility. The signals sent to the Korean communists and their Soviet and Chinese mentors were that South Korea was outside the perimeter of American security commitments. The communists had little reason to believe that the United States would intervene on South Korea’s behalf. Thus, tragedy ensued.

In Vietnam also, Hanoi could scarcely have imagined that a massive American commitment would ultimately be made, given the initial responses of the Eisenhower administration to signs that the North did not intend to abide by the terms of the 1954 Geneva agreement. To be sure, one can and in some instances should keep strategic options open, but to allow the aggressor to believe that it can move with impunity can have deadly consequences. It is not altogether clear that the United States had learned that lesson by the time of the gulf crisis. The Iraq conflict proved once again that if war comes, Americans support most strongly those wars in which U.S. troops are used with full force, win an overwhelming military victory, and leave as quickly as possible.

A second, more complex lesson is that, henceforth, the United States must subordinate unilateralism to bilateral and multilateral approaches, whether the issue is strategic or political. Nothing is more difficult for Americans. The Gulf War illustrated these new complexities. When the gulf crisis began, it was imperative for the United States to work through the United Nations, and most specifically with the permanent members of the Security Council. Indeed it was this necessity that precluded a march to Baghdad. Moreover, while the United States is largely disengaged militarily as a major occupying force, it is still politically involved in the region, having inherited the twin burdens of dealing with Saddam Hussein and of seeking to construct a broader Arab-Israeli peace.

Whatever the outcome, the effort to combine American leadership and international consensus is a result of realizing that a new era is at hand. No country including the United States has the capacity or desire to create a new global order single-handedly. The costs of going it alone—political as well as economic—are now too formidable despite the difficulties of reaching multilateral agreements. Often in the past the United States has sallied forth on behalf of the American way. It has become increasingly clear, however, that such values as human rights can be most successfully defended abroad when it is not just an American cause, but an international one.

In this connection, moreover, another lesson should be considered seriously. It is proper to champion democracy and seek to support it abroad, since with all of its defects democracy allows people the greatest opportunities, material and cultural. Yet it should also be recognized that within most if not all nondemocratic societies diverse political forces exist, some seeking to forestall change, others seeking to accelerate it. The concept that one promotes democracy—or greater political openness—by limiting contacts with such societies to a minimum is naive. The proper question to ask is how can a process of change be most effectively accelerated in a given authoritarian state? The answer may vary but rarely if ever will it be to impose isolation to the maximum possible extent.

Perhaps the most powerful political lesson is the close correlation between the American citizens’ level of economic and political satisfaction at home, and their willingness to support an active international role. When there are strong domestic concerns, it is nearly impossible to muster public enthusiasm for a foreign aid program, apart from short-range humanitarian measures. If crime and drugs are rampant in one’s own neighborhood, concern about security centers on the home front. There has been a growing gap in opinion polls between American decision-makers and average citizens on the willingness to make security and economic commitments to others. Even the former group is now shaken by diverse manifestations of social disorder, the decline in primary and secondary educational standards, the rising fiscal deficit, the low savings rate, the poor investment record in civilian research and development and the resulting loss of competitiveness. The lesson is clear: either these problems will be tackled with a seriousness not yet in sight, or the commitment to internationalism will rapidly decline at all levels of American society.

To put this matter differently, when one asks from whence comes the threat, the proper answer is that in major part the threat is within our own society. It is here that the battle for internal cohesion, international competitiveness and, hence, genuine strength and influence will be won or lost.

Yet there is another threat: the inability of leaders and citizens to devise and activate a range of institutions above the nation-state level that can effectively handle the multitude of economic, political and strategic issues that confront the world today.

How the United States and other key countries balance the conflicting demands of their localities, their nation, their region and their world will determine how well they cope with the greatest revolutionary age in the history of mankind. Living with complexity is difficult and there are no simple answers. It is precisely because of this fact that leadership remains supremely important even in advanced industrial states where political institutions are relatively strong. The central task of leaders today, irrespective of the particular qualities that diverse societies demand, is to simplify intricate problems for their citizens without undue distortion, fathoming correctly and in time the implications of the oncoming tides of global change for their nation. Despite the difficulties in keeping up with events, leaders cannot afford to be merely reactive; the premium is to understand the basic meaning of the massive transformations that the world faces, and pursue innovative policies to move into the future at the optimal time. Herein lies the supreme test of the leader—but beyond this, the test of the citizenry at large.


What lies ahead for the United States in Asia? In an age like this it would be foolish to posit a certain outcome for many of the issues that confront America. It is only possible to sketch a broad road map, allowing for detours and impasses, starting with the supremely important issue of economic relations. The United States cannot restrict itself to a single level of economic interaction with other nations. At the bilateral level the United States will be involved in continuous negotiations with its key trading partners, notably Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China using a variety of mechanisms to advance dialogue from the SII to the trade action discussions. Efforts will be focused on resolving disputes before they reach the highly emotional political level. As in the case of U.S.-Japanese economic relations, however, the issues will go beyond tariff and sector-specific issues to a discussion of general administrative and structural barriers to an open trading and investment system. Inevitably this will reach into highly se,nsitive areas, evoking the charge of interference in a country s internal affairs. But that is the price to be paid for interdependence.

Another aspect to the new economic order is emerging. The United States will find restraints on imports increasingly controversial because of the damage caused to other parts of its own economic system and the risks of retaliation. Increasingly industry-specific protectionism will be challenged by American companies hurt by such action even as it is supported by those companies assisted. Increasingly restraints will have to be justified less on traditional grounds of security or unfairness and more on the grounds that it is a temporary measure to enable an industry to become competitive. But the premium will be upon the efforts for, and the logic of, competitiveness.

Unquestionably the level of frustration in important sectors of American society will remain high, and many U.S. grievances are justified. The major differences relating to the timing of development and economic strategies between the United States and its key Asian trading partners will not suddenly disappear. Thus the temptation to move to more comprehensive protectionist measures will continue to be strong, especially if economic regionalism in Europe and Asia proves to be exclusivist. Indeed, in political terms, the present system of restraints and retaliatory measures serves as a shield against more extensive protectionism.

The capacity of the United States to play a key role in preserving and developing more open global markets hinges upon action on the home front. Macroeconomic policies require extensive revision. The massive investment in military research and development can and must be redirected to commercial purposes. The private sector must engage in rapid technological innovations and restructuring. In the past Japan borrowed much from America, including earlier methods of quality control; it is now appropriate that America borrow some (not all) techniques from Japan and others.

Meanwhile it will be critical to encase bilateral economic relations in a regional and global context. In the first instance, this requires that Washington try to develop the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum into something more than a debating and discussion society. APEC is the one organization that should eventually encompass all Pacific-Asian societies and take the lead in inaugurating policies, combining assistance for latecomers with a more open system of economic intercourse across national boundaries.

Subregional groups will undoubtedly emerge, formally or otherwise. The nonwhite East Asian Economic Group proposed by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir harkens back to the old Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, and it is out of step with the times. Any group that seeks to represent East Asia alone, omitting Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico and above all, the United States, not only adds fuel to protectionist fires in the United States, but fails to take into account the degree to which the American economy, and particularly that of western America, is becoming integrated into Asia. It may be meaningful to have quasi-formal North Pacific, South Pacific and ASEAN groups (joined eventually by Indochina) as stepping-stones to APEC, but not in competition with it.

In any case for the United States the critical challenge will be to operate regionally on two fronts, North America and Pacific-Asia, to facilitate maximum openness and cooperation. For the time being these fronts are moving at a different pace, but that could change. Already extensive Asian investment is taking place in Canada and Mexico as well as in the United States. Proposals to extend the North American Free Trade Area to the more advanced portions of Asia are now being heard, even before the NAFTA has come into being. Whatever the barriers, the process of economic integration is irreversible, and future policies must be planned and executed with this fact in mind.

Finally, it is of great importance to make the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade work. Otherwise regional trade blocs are likely to be inevitable, and that could produce the type of economic damage America has not known since the 1930s.


On the political front one worrisome fact emerges. For the first time in the twentieth century, U.S. relations with Japan and China are troubled simultaneously, albeit for largely different reasons. Previously America had good relations with one while it confronted the other. To be sure the U.S.-Japan relationship is fundamentally sound and supremely important. In both societies, however, public opinion has been moving in a negative direction. Especially in the United States, negative sentiment toward Japan has risen rapidly, principally due to a perception that Japan pursues self-interested, selfish policies without regard to the interests of others. And in Japan resentment has been growing against what is perceived to be slander and unfair policies on the part of the United States to compensate for shortcomings in American industry and society.

In the years ahead a new foundation for U.S.-Japan relations must be laid. The time when the Soviet threat served to underwrite the relationship, whatever the immediate storms, is ending. Such a foundation will require resolute domestic actions on the part of both countries. If interdependence is to be made viable, greater economic compatibility must be achieved; objections by either party that this would require impermissible cultural changes or economic measures unpopular with the electorate cannot be accepted. Cultures do change, and never more rapidly than in this era. It is the responsibility of leaders to make their electorate understand why certain measures are imperative.

Beyond this, however, the U.S.-Japan relationship must be broadened to encompass new or expanded fields: cooperation in the monumental environmental tasks that lie ahead; joint research in such fields as biotechnology and space; cooperation in advancing programs relating to peacekeeping in concert with the larger international community; interaction in dealing with regions of tension, particularly in East Asia; and much more broadly gauged cultural relations that bring the younger generations into sustained contact with each other.

Japan is no longer a follower in many lines of basic research; it is a pioneer. The challenge is to seize upon this fact and to build a new relationship based upon it. This can best be accomplished in the fields that are on the horizon, the areas that will determine how well we live in the 21St century. The two countries that together make up nearly 40 percent of the global gross national product can lead together in these endeavors, and in leading, reduce the friction that has dogged our bilateral relations in the recent decades.

What of China? Economic issues between Washington and Beijing are rising and Chinese sales of strategic weapons to sensitive areas are of great concern, but political issues remain central. It is appropriate to continue to criticize the violations of human rights occurring in this society, and to point out that China is involved in a tremendous waste of much needed manpower by treating its intellectuals in a shoddy fashion, both in material and political terms. In the United States alone some 50,000 Chinese students and intellectuals reside, unwilling to go home—not merely because of political uncertainties, but because only rarely do they get the type of respect and remuneration that they feel they deserve, verbal assurances of their importance to the contrary.

At the same time Americans should also recognize that China is in a transitional phase, with leadership changes—and quite possibly policy changes—lying ahead. The two principal objectives of the moment, economic diversification and political tightening, are basically incompatible, and the tension between them can only grow with time. Meanwhile, decentralization is an irreversible process, made more complex by the growth of the NETS previously described.

Thus the United States must not treat China as a monolithic society, frozen in its current posture indefinitely. It is entirely appropriate for Washington to act in a pluralistic fashion, with private activities and official policies pursuing different emphases, and with maximum contact maintained at different levels.

No doubt some Chinese leaders will continue to accuse the United States of being the leader in the effort to subvert Chinese socialism by “peaceful evolution.” But in fact the external sources of stimulation for China’s people are numerous, many of them coming from the market economies and open societies of East Asia. One important influence is Taiwan, which combines a dynamic economy that now reaches deeply into coastal China as well as Southeast Asia with an unfolding democracy—fragile and facing problems but still indicating to the Chinese people that there are Chinese alternatives to Leninism.

China is a society that will undergo many travails in its long march toward development. Weaknesses and strengths in all areas, including the military realm, are likely to be interwoven. The greatest probabilities for the decade ahead are for some form of authoritarian-pluralism on the home front and a continued effort to create a loose buffer system by building upon the recent improvements in its relations with Russia and the East Asian states. Although it can no longer play the pivotal role in a U.S.-China-Soviet triangle, China intends to be a regional power. American policy must take its cues from those facts.

At some point it is likely that the United States will establish diplomatic relations with Vietnam and North Korea (Cambodia represents a special case where recognition of a consolidated government will come soon if present trends hold). Both of these governments cling to hard-line political policies at present while they wrestle with adverse international trends and serious economic problems at home. Prediction in each case is hazardous.

Vietnam is the more porous, with economic changes already under way. The legitimacy of the present government is low, the differences between north and south are pronounced, and a generational change in political leadership is at hand. Hanoi is almost desperate for Washington to lift its embargo, hopefully followed by recognition. Hence Vietnam is en route to meeting most American conditions. Meanwhile diverse pressures have mounted within the United States for a change of policy. Those who expect great economic returns are likely to be disappointed; except for a very few fields such as off-shore oil and tourism, Vietnam is not an investor’s bonanza.

The North Korean situation is even more cloudy. The political system is essentially Stalinist, with extensive nationalist trimmings. There are scant indications of any serious challenges to the regime, at least from the grass-roots level. A transition in governance is under way from Kim Il Sung to his son, but the father’s charisma cannot be transferred. After his father is gone, Kim Jong Il must depend upon performance to earn his own legitimacy. Without major economic changes, substantial improvements are impossible—hence the current quest for normalized relations with Japan, the expansion of barter trade with the South and other signs that Pyongyang may seek to take a leaf from Beijing’s book.

Projections for North Korea’s future range from a political collapse, which could have serious repercussions for the South’s stability, to a military regime controlled by technocrats operating within an authoritarian-pluralist structure. The variables are too numerous to make a firm prediction. It can only be asserted with some confidence that the status quo cannot hold much longer.

In this situation it behooves the United States to raise the level of official dialogue with North Korea, allow the expansion of private scholarly and cultural contacts, and work toward military as well as political measures that will reduce tension. These activities should and will be undertaken while America’s basic commitments to the Republic of Korea are maintained and extensive consultation is carried out. America’s stake in peace and development on the Korean peninsula remains high and demands a flexibility and innovation in American policies that has not yet appeared.

As this century draws to a close, the profound changes in the nature of alliances and the character of interstate relations will continue. The old, exclusive patron-client relations of the past are fading away. Those alliances that continue will be at once more conditional and permit greater independence of action for both parties. In most cases, moreover, they will be encased in various multilateral agreements and arrangements.

Much speculation surrounds key bilateral relations. The likelihood, however, is that no relationship between two major Pacific-Asian nations will be threatening to others in the foreseeable future. Sino-Russian relations will be normal, but scarcely intimate, with severe limits due to geography, economics and politics. Both sides need a reduction of tension; hence, both will seek “normalcy” and expand economic and cultural contacts. Fundamentally, however, Russia will look west, and China will look east.

Relations between Russia and Japan will gradually shift from confrontation to accommodation as the Russian military threat recedes, but the economic foundation of this relationship will remain limited for the foreseeable future due to conditions in Russia, despite Japanese cooperation with other industrial nations in helping the Russians chart a new economic course. Moreover cultural as well as political ties can only be slowly advanced. Mutual suspicions will die hard, as in the case of Korean-Japanese relations.

Sino-Japanese relations will have a strong economic footing, but the thesis advanced by some observers that the intimate relationship sought by various Japanese and Chinese throughout the twentieth century is now in the offing is fanciful. The political and economic systems of these two nations are at great variance, and will remain so despite a process of continuous change in China. Moreover their cultures are radically different, notwithstanding their shared Confucian heritage. Both are destined to eye each other warily, given their mutual interest in playing a significant regional role. Here, as elsewhere, a strong quotient of competition will coexist with cooperation.

Given the likely power relationships in East Asia, U.S. policy can proceed with minimal concern about new hostile coalitions; Washington can fit its policies to the specific needs of each situation, building above the bilateral level whenever possible.

Meanwhile the situation in the Asian subcontinent is undergoing profound changes. On the one hand the Russian factor in Indian foreign policy has been substantially reduced by ongoing events. The Soviet-Indian alignment has ceased to have meaning. At the same time new political forces are emerging that, while weak and uncertain, appear dedicated to abandoning India’s neo-mercantilist, quasi-socialist policies and casting their lot with market economics. On the other hand the U.S. need to protect Pakistan against Russian power has essentially disappeared, and with the Afghanistan civil war in a holding pattern, the threat of large-scale violence in this region has significantly diminished.

Under these circumstances the time has come for a fundamental reappraisal of American policies toward India. Such a reassessment will happen, assuming present trends are not disrupted. For the first time in history there is a genuine prospect of a constructive American-Indian relationship, but one that does not ignore American interests in other South Asian states and the vital issue of nuclear proliferation.

The process of Asianization will accelerate, but a continued U.S. presence in the region will be desired by virtually all Asian governments. To be sure, the current leaders of the People’s Republic of China are telling both Russia and Japan that there must be closer cooperation to block a hegemonic America—ironically at the same time as certain prominent Americans are suggesting to Beijing that the United States and China must work together to prevent Japan from emerging as a dominant power. Most states seek some kind of card to play in efforts to bolster their position vis-a-vis others. But it is indicative of the times that even the North Koreans whisper into American ears that since the Russians are talking to the South about military relations, it might be wise for the United States to improve its relations with the North.

In truth it is widely recognized that for the near term the United States is necessary to play the role of buffer, balancer and stabilizer in a Pacific-Asia rife with unresolved bilateral and multilateral problems. The real issue is whether the American people can be persuaded that such is their mission in the post-Cold War era. Fundamentally this is related to the degree of cooperation and burden-sharing in every field that can be expected from America’s Pacific-Asian neighbors, the instruments and institutions that can be utilized to bring about greater equity and responsibility on the part of medium and small as well as large states and, above all, a more successful resolution of America’s domestic problems.


In no area have bolder global measures been announced by the U.S. government than in the security realm. With the Russian response indicating a willingness to advance still further, the United States appears to be on the threshold of startling breakthroughs in the critical field of strategic weaponry—breakthroughs that could change the entire history of the 21st century.

As yet, however, new ideas relating to American security policies in Asia have not been forthcoming from Washington. On the contrary, the present line is that the United States should pursue the same course, except at the reduced level necessitated by budgetary cuts. America has managed to look as if it were being driven out of Subic Bay against its will, and deplored the Philippine Senate vote as a tragedy for the Filipinos. Perhaps such a view has some merit, but it is an example of old thinking in a new era. It should have been realized long ago that by remaining as a large military presence in a nation where the United States had once been the colonial power, Americans were certain to make themselves the focus of domestic politics, thereby perpetuating old attitudes and policies deleterious to both American and Filipino interests.

At the end of this century the United States will have departed from most if not all fixed bases on foreign soil. The emphasis will be upon staging areas and bases kept in readiness by those states aligned with the United States strategically, with a small number of American technicians in residence in some places. The premium will be upon lift capacity and rapid deployment, keeping in mind the contingencies most likely to occur. Moreover, with its primary military forces mobile, the reliance will be upon air and sea power; there is virtually no chance that large American ground forces will be sent into combat in Asia again.

This new strategy will be put in place for both political and economic reasons. The political costs of foreign bases are not limited to the Philippines. Those costs will rise in South Korea and even in Japan as the perception of the end of the Cold War sinks in fully. Moreover the American people will rightly expect Asian states to bear the primary responsibility for their own defense, even in those cases where such defense is critical to an overall regional balance of power and, thus, to American national interests. The premises of the Guam Declaration of 1969 will come into play ever more prominently.

Does this mean that the United States will cease to be a meaningful part of an Asian-Pacific security structure? Not if Washington makes timely adjustments suitable to the situation at home and abroad. The argument currently being advanced to Asians and Americans, however, that the United States must maintain its present strategic policies in East Asia because of the Middle East security requirements has only the barest chance of being accepted by either constituency. Future security policies must take into account a new world: the extraordinary changes in the global and regional environment, the greatly altered nature of real and perceived threats, the revolution in military technology and the need for revised American priorities. Security policies must take on a stronger multilateral component, with issues like nuclear proliferation and strategic weapons sales placed on the international agenda. At the same time America must make progress through unilateral and bilateral actions in adjusting its vast arsenals to these new realities, exercising that degree of caution dictated by the uncertainties surrounding the old Soviet Union.

Experience dictates that the United States must conceive of security structures suited to specific situations, whereby concentric arcs are constructed, arcs rather than circles so that contacts can flow among levels when necessary. In the case of the Korean peninsula, for example, the first arc is naturally composed of North and South Korea, the parties immediately concerned; beyond them, the four major states long involved with the Korean problem; as an outer arc, international bodies, both economic and political, that may provide services.

A similar structure was used in making progress in Cambodia: the first arc being the four Khmer factions; the second composed of China and Vietnam, states whose concurrence with any formula was critical; beyond them, the ASEAN members and the United Nations and in this case, more specifically, the five permanent members.


The future of Asia and of American relations with Asia are promising. The risks of a major power conflict are small. Most subregional tensions have eased and, with very few exceptions, the costs of armed struggle, even between smaller states, are such as to make that option highly undesirable to the leaders concerned. Meanwhile the new priorities are on economic development. Hence pragmatism is ascendant, ideology at a lower premium.

Nationalism, to be sure, is a force with which to reckon. It takes many forms, including that of xenophobia, as fearful elites seek to bind their people to existing political dogma. It is also a prominent factor in nations afraid of external economic inroads, including the United States. But the broad course is toward greater economic contacts of all types across ideological-political boundaries, and a growth in political inclusiveness and openness, various problems notwithstanding. Meanwhile the leaps taking place in science and technology make possible a pace of development impossible to envisage only a few decades ago—if the proper policies are instituted.

America’s future policies in Asia must be based on these realities. There is a middle path between withdrawal and the status quo, and the United States must take it. To withdraw precipitously under current circumstances would be irresponsible and would seriously damage U.S. national interests. America cannot withdraw since it is a part of the Pacific-Asian region in every sense. To hew to the old policies, however, is impossible in light of the tremendous changes under way. Despite the natural attention recently given to Europe and the U.S.S.R., it is time for America to cease merely reacting and to start innovating in its policies in Asia, a region that constitutes half the globe and may well determine the fate of the United States in the 21st century.