Thursday, December 18, 2014

US Foreign Policy in an Increasingly Complicated Asia

I attended the Japan-Asia Pacific Dialogue, entitled “The Asia-Pacific in Global Power Transition: How Many Great Powers?”, which was hosted by Global Forum Japan and Meiji University on December 12. Panelists at the Dialogue, notably Professor John Mearsheimer of Chicago University, presented a lucid picture of Asia-Pacific power games based on realist perspectives.

Actually, I was rather astonished to hear Wall Street Journal’s editor Bret Stevens talk suspiciously at the Munk Debates on November 5 that Japan’s plutonium facilities could be used for nuclear weapons, if the threat of China grows more critical. Though I agree on his criticism to Obama’s superpower suicide, it was somewhat perplexing that an influential opinion leader like him spoke so alarmingly as if Japan were in the same league with North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan. I am well aware that nuclear nonproliferation is a high priority issue in US foreign policy, and therefore, it sounded like he saw Japan a potential “enemy” to the United States. The problem is not just proliferation itself, but the rise of regional tensions beyond America’s control as we saw exchanges of nuclear tests between India and Pakistan in 1998.

However, Stevens’s comment may not be so “unfriendly” to America’s foremost ally in the Asia Pacific as I worried, according to Professor Mearsheimer’s realist perspectives. The state explores to maximize its national power and prestige, and tries to establish a solid sphere of influence in its neighborhood, for better chances of survival and more freedom in policy options. Therefore, realists see it natural that Japan acquire nuclear weapons, if the United States appeared too weak and unreliable to check growing threats of China. That is because it is the most cost effective deterrence against Beijing.

Granted such arguments, do Japanese leaders dare to get involved in power games with both America and China in their quest for nuclear weapons? Historically, the United States did not accept any dominant power in Asia, as shown in Secretary of State-then John Hay’s Open Door Policy in 1899. Even if seemingly appeasing to China, it is quite unlikely that the United States throws away its grip on Asia, nor does it want unmanageable Far East like the Indo-Pakistani nuclear rivalry in 1998. Therefore, Japanese leaders should act and speak carefully on wartime history, as prominent opinion leaders like Mearsheimer and Stevens speak about the potential of a nuclearized Japan so openly.

The Dialogue was so impressive and insightful, and I would like to raise the following points to consider. The first one is the Pivot to Asia. Certainly, market opportunities in emerging economies in Asia are important. But does that mean that America should be less involved in Europe and the Middle East? Is the Ukrainian crisis simply a diversion from Asia? No, because Russia intrudes Japan’s northern airspace frequently. It is a threat to us both in Europe and Asia. In addition, China defies America globally. Remember China objected to the Iraq War along with Russia for fear of a unipolar world, though the PLA has no power projection capability in the Middle East. Also, China explores to expand influence in Africa through controversial aid. Therefore, I believe that the shift away from Europe and the Middle East is no guarantee of strengthening American presence in Asia. To my regret, this is the real consequence of Obama’s pivot to Asia as typically seen in the rise of ISIS, while China grows increasingly provocative in East Asia.

Regarding China’s global challenge to the United States, we should reconsider why this country frequently mentions itself “still a developing country”. This is not out of modesty, but megalomaniac ambition. I would rather interpret its implicit meaning, “Developing countries of the world, unite! Rise against Western (and also Japanese) imperialism!”. Remember China is a revolutionary state, and there is every reason for them to defy Pax Americana on a global scale. In order to check China’s expansionism, I would argue that the broken window theory be applied. That is, when American enemies find some weak spots, they will be emboldened like gangs who found broken windows on the street.

The second point is a presumed case of hegenomic transition. Should China take over the American world order, the gap with its precursor’s will be huge. Pax Americaca inherited liberal values, culture, and political systems from Pax Britannica. In face of rising rivals in early 20th century, Britain saw America preferable to Germany to share the burdens of a global superpower. This Greece and Rome relations shall never emerge, should China rise furthermore, because the hegemonic fault line between Pax Americana and Pax Sinica would be immense. If it were to happen, China would be Attla’s Hun that devastated Rome and left nothing for the following generations.

The third point is whether the nature of the regime does not matter in great power rivalries even from realist viewpoints. I would like to mention one example which is Iran, because this country has been in quest of the great power in the Gulf region, whether modernist or Islamic theocracy. During the Pahlavi era, Iran sought to rise as America’s guard of the Gulf. The shah was an enlightened despot, and pursued a nation building through Western styled modernization. The shah even appealed great history of the Persians and their superiority to Arabs by de-Islamification. That made Iran very pro-American and pro-Israeli both in terms of realpolitik and ideology. On the other hand, current theocracy wants to rise by defying American supremacy, and extremely anti-Israeli by nature. They advocate solidarity with Shiite mostazafins among their fellow Arabs. There is nothing strange that they sponsor terrorism, both in terms of realpolitik and ideology.

The dialogue was very helpful to understand an increasingly complicated picture of the Asia Pacific region, and sent a critical message to Japanese leaders to behave carefully regarding sensitive issues. Among three questions I mentioned, the most critical one is the real meaning of the Pivot to Asia. Is this just a rhetoric, or kow-tow to market opportunities in China, or real strategic commitment in this region? That is the problem.