Chasing the Sun: Rethinking East Asian Policy

Morton Abramowitz and Stephen Bosworth
The Century Foundation Press
Chapter 7: What Do We Do? Pages 137-146

China Rises - And Then Rises Some More
The United States needs a clearer perspective on the implications of what is happening in China. China cannot be treated as an outlier that simply needs to complete its integration into the international system. China’s rise has begun to change the system itself as well as the U.S. role in it. Given the wide ramifications of our relations, both countries have no choice but to get along with each other. The U.S. government should consistently make clear that it supports China’s rapid growth, that it views China as a necessary collaborator in international affairs whatever our differences, that the United States will remain deeply engaged in East Asia, and that it will not pursue an anti-China alliance.

Getting a better handle on American policy toward China is the sine qua non for dealing with a changing East Asia. We need a vocabulary that is meaningful, and not replete with meaningless geopolitical jargon. A “unified” and even bipartisan policy would be desirable, but it is probably beyond our present political capabilities, certainly as the 2008 elections draw near.

A starting point: The United States cannot manage China, cannot control it, and cannot “contain” it. But we can and should influence it.

The Chinese giant has awoken from the slumber of two centuries. It has profound problems of governance and may stumble, but it is here to stay. The world will have to get used to that. The United States needs to approach China comprehensively as a central component of our regional and global policies. China may not be our major foreign preoccupation at this moment, but over time it will likely become such.

China has shown, so far, that it wants to work with the United States. Such sentiment, of course, may be temporary and certainly does not preclude future challenges, abrasions, and even sharp breaks on major issues. But China is well aware of its weaknesses. China also recognizes the ramified, deeper connections between our two countries and its own economic dependence on the United States. In the short term, its aspirations for international respectability and influence, including its overwhelming interest in the success of the 2008 Olympics, makes China predisposed to accommodation, not confrontation.

The Chinese are realists, and the United States needs to be realistic about China. It is a competitor of enormous potential. It is far too early, however, to conclude, as some in America have done, that the two countries are bound to be antagonists. Restraints on both sides abound. China faces huge problems in its economy and its polity. It is hard to envision how China will be governed a decade from now and what the role of the Communist Party will be. China no longer has a serious ideology. It is becoming more open but not democratic. Its long-term success - stability, greater prosperity, and hopefully the evolution of an open, more democratic system-is overwhelmingly in our interest. We should help make that happen, not work for China’s failure. The collapse of the Soviet Union was the realization of our dreams; breakdown in China would damage the whole world. Meanwhile, we will have to live with a more militarily powerful China, one that is unlikely to challenge us for a long time to come but one that will have sufficient capability to give us pause, mostly on Taiwan. For the foreseeable future, we will have to maintain major military forces in Northeast Asia, and China seems in no hurry to see them depart. It would be foolish at this point to depend on China’s internal politics to throw up a more democratic, conciliatory, unified government.

Nor, beyond its internal weaknesses, should we forget the restraints on China coming from its many neighbors - some quite strong and highly nationalistic. China wants and needs tranquility and stability on its periphery as it concentrates on its modernization. Its neighbors will take umbrage if China becomes too assertive or chauvinistic toward them. Some of these countries can also be expected to look to the United States for psychological and political support should China become too assertive. If that happens, our self-interest in providing such support is an important argument for our continuing diplomatic engagement and for maintaining some American forces in the area.

So how do we maintain a fundamentally decent, reasonably stable relationship with China and assert influence on its behavior? In the following ways and always with help from our friends.

First, we need to concentrate on our bilateral relationship and foster a continuing high-level dialogue on all major issues. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick has already begun doing this on a regular basis. That dialogue will have to be a long-term effort and will have to be better than most American bilateral dialogues or consultations, which have usually consisted of the United States telling its interlocutors what must be done and then waiting or not waiting for them to act. China has not accepted - and is unlikely to begin to accept - American views as revealed wisdom.

Nor will our goals be achieved by asserting that China must be a constructive stakeholder in the international system; that is, agree to abide by the rules of the system we have nurtured for more than half a century and which have served us well, except when we have decided to ignore them. Regrettably, China does not share many of our values, is not an ally, and will have its own notions of what needs to be done on major issues. That will be hard for Americans to take. Over time, China is likely to be less willing to tolerate our transgressions from some of the norms to which we are urging their adherence. This is not to say they will have better rules; most of the “rules” that we espouse on the economic side China has already accepted. We also will have to balance carefully our consideration of specific issues in terms of our overall approach to China.

None of this means we have to pull our punches. We will protect our economic interests if we can determine what they are, whacking China’s practices when they deserve it and resolutely seeking change when warranted. We will need to speak forthrightly on China’s affinity for the world’s least savory countries, like Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Burma, although they do not seem much disposed to listen at the present time. China does not tell these countries how to behave; they let them murder their people as they choose. On some issues, the United States considers vital, such as Iran’s nuclear weapons programs, our differences may well have serious and probably unavoidable repercussions on relations. We will need to be forthright and persistent on differences over human rights, democracy, and openness but cautious in our use of threats. Above all, the thrust of our dealings must be clear and reasonably consistent. To the extent we can enlist our friends and allies in a coordinated effort, we are more likely to make progress in influencing China’s perspective.

Second, we must search for areas where we can seriously, not just cosmetically, cooperate. For example, given the scale and rate of growth of China’s energy consumption, all countries have a major stake in China’s energy policies. China, too, has a deep interest in the global energy balance. It would seem a subject tailor-made for consultation and cooperation and that in fact is beginning to occur. Nor should we rule out cooperation on security matters, bilaterally to gain greater understanding of each other’s thinking, and multilaterally where our interests coincide as on getting rid of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Our two countries, however, part company on how to bring North Korea along. Nevertheless, a basis for further bilateral and multilateral dialogue has been established in the Six-Party talks.

Third, we should encourage China’s more active involvement in multilateral institutions. Despite its authoritarian regime, China should be invited to affiliate in some fashion with the G-8 given its growing role in virtually all the issues considered in that forum. We should push China to take greater responsibility in international peacekeeping and to be more transparent and cooperative on health and environmental issues. We believe all this will ultimately engender more constructive Chinese involvement in the world. Promoting China’s greater involvement in multilateral organs is of course a double-edged sword. We will have to listen to them and may not like what we hear. We may even have to adjust our own positions occasionally to accommodate their views.

Fourth, we will have to maintain a credible military capacity until we can better evaluate Chinese intentions. That will not be hard. China also will have to be more transparent on defense matters if it is to avoid sounding alarms in Washington and other capitals, although greater transparency will not preclude China increasing its own defense expenditures. However, the United States does not yet need to open wide the financial sluice gates for our own defense spending, although we are moving in that direction. We have considerable leverage on Beijing in many areas: they cannot, for example, resolve the Taiwan issue without us.

There is no silver bullet for dealing with China. It will require much effort, insight, and persistence; we must concentrate on the facts, not conjure up the phantoms. Obviously China too must be open to the give and take of real dialogue, not an easy matter for them. Even if we do all the above, it will not guarantee a harmonious relationship. So much can get in the way.

Managing our own domestic politics will be critical to fostering the relationship with Beijing. This will be a challenge given the myriad of conflicting interests of different American constituencies. So far, presidents have risen to the test more successfully than Congress. The current administration has held at bay most of the demands for confrontation and policies tailored to special concerns, but it is a constant struggle. Unfortunately, China does not always understand or take into account how its actions can affect the political agenda in the United States. For its part, the United States will have to choose its fights carefully with China, separating the vital from the merely important. Over time, Beijing is likely to become less willing to accommodate its economic behavior to threats of negative “congressional reaction.”

The domestic politics of China are very important in its policy-making, and we need to do more to understand them. We have learned much about China, but it is not always easy to divine the internal political workings of a still secretive China, although the Chinese decisionmaking process is also becoming more transparent. At times we may even want to try to influence directly contending factions as we have long done, for example, in Japan.

Dependable Japan
The toughest challenge in East Asia is preventing Sino-Japanese rivalries from getting out o f hand and threatening cooperation and fundamental stability in the region. The United States is crucial to avoiding such an outcome. It must be careful not to spark regional fears of a remilitarizing Japan or an anti-China alliance. At the same time, it must continue to reassure Japan about the vigor of our security alliance despite the obvious implications of China’s rise for U.S. interests and policy in East Asia. Having a Japan that is more influential in East Asia is important to the United States.

Japan has been our principal East Asian ally for many years. It is an impressive power whose star faded over the past decade, and we will benefit as it regains its economic dynamism. It is natural for us to continue to have a different relationship with Tokyo than with Beijing. We share with Japan, more than with any other country in East Asia, political values and beliefs. We have compatible though not identical views on most international economic matters.

When it comes to the Sino-Japanese relationship, the United States cannot assume that common interests will overcome nationalistic tensions and moderate hostility. Since there are always dangers that political forces in both countries will play on nationalistic sentiments for short-term political gain, helping improve relations between them should be a major American preoccupation. This is not the 1930s, and there is no objective reason for deep hostility between the two countries. Certainly, Japan and China have some ongoing difficult territorial disputes in the East China Sea, but the deepening ramifications of their economic relations and other common interests are as significant as those of China and the United States.

The Japanese have never fully come to terms with the legacy of their actions in the thirties and during World War II. Other Asian nations - particularly China, despite its own sorry communist history, and South Korea - publicly view Japan as still unrepentant and unapologetic. Over the years, the United States is perceived to have abetted - or at least to have gone along with - the Japanese inclination toward circumlocution and avoidance of meaningful accountability for the past. This issue, as far as we know, has not been discussed at very high levels in our two countries. One result is that Japan’s position in East Asia remains far less influential than would be expected given its huge contributions to trade and investment and the vast amount of economic aid it has provided its neighbors, including China.

We believe the U.S. government should reconsider its posture on this issue and quietly make known its unhappiness with Japan’s management of the “burden of history.” We should encourage Koizumi’s successor to settle the Yasukuni Shrine issue once and for all with a new approach, including perhaps a new shrine with a less problematic history. It is time for more serious diplomacy. Clearly, Sino-Japanese differences will not all fade away if the Japanese prime minister stops visiting the Yasukuni Shrine. Nor is it clear that China will do much of anything in response to such a change to help mend relations. In any event, Japan will at least get off a poor policy wicket. This should help Japan shore up its position in Southeast Asia - no easy job - which should be an important part of America’s attempt to help bolster the stability of that area.

As with all major countries, the principal avenues of policy are dialogue, consultation, and a search for cooperative ventures. We are used to it. We have extensive dialogue with Japan and growing dialogue with China. But there are no regular consultations with Japan and China together, which could become another useful mechanism for managing tensions between the two. China has not been interested in trilateral consultations with the United States and Japan, probably fearing that as allies we might gang up on China. Many Americans and Japanese have been urging the three governments to have such talks, but never succeeded in arousing much enthusiasm among officials. As China prospers and gains confidence, however, China’s attitude may change. A major initiative is required to get such an effort under way: the president should invite the Japanese and Chinese leaders to meet with him early in 2007 in the United States or East Asia to review outstanding issues in the region. This will likely cause consternation in the rest of East Asia. Some countries, like South Korea, will not like being left out, others will inveigh against a big-power condominium, but we believe this would be an important step forward in big power relations.

We should avoid stimulating - even inadvertently - competition between China and Japan by word or deed. We want to avoid concerns in China or elsewhere that we envision a Japanese military buildup as a means to contain China. While Japan has serious security interests in Taiwan and wants the island to remain separate from China, we should resist the temptation to bring Japan any further into the Taiwan problem or to seek from Japan public comments and support. Nor do we want to give encouragement to those forces in Japan that advocate a much more assertive approach to becoming a “normal” state and so urge Japan to shed major constraints on its military policies.

Japan has the economic weight and technological capability to become a major military power and quickly produce nuclear weapons. The Japanese public has not wanted to go down that dangerous road. We want to preserve that sentiment even as Japanese concerns about China and threats from North Korea tend to erode it. Beyond providing for its own defense, we see no great purpose served by Japan taking on expanded security responsibilities globally and regionally, except in close collaboration with the United States and the United Nations. Japan can and certainly should contribute even more to international peacekeeping. We believe it is important that the United States seriously search for a way to make Japan a permanent member of the UN Security Council soon. It certainly deserves it.

The United States must now look beyond the Koizumi era, which is drawing to an end, and the seemingly close Bush-Koizumi relationship, to the long-term management of relations. We will need to recognize that the Japanese public does not necessarily go along with the recent fulsome rhetoric of the two governments about the relationship. We will have to accept that Japan’s Iraq deployment will almost certainly end, perhaps as early as 2006. Moreover, the Bush administration, after five years, has still not resolved politically tough problems such as Okinawa basing. Japan’s need for energy may make Japan, like China, a difficult partner in dealing with Iran. While the bilateral relationship should remain strong whatever the problems, it will likely require a lot more tending in the coming years.

We should push ahead to negotiate the best possible nuclear agreement with North Korea in the Six-Party forum, but, given the nature of the North Korean regime, we need a longer-term strategy for dealing with the chronic threat from a failing but dangerous state. That approach should be based on working with South Korea and China to try persistently to draw North Korea out of isolation and open up possibilities for internal change. For example, the United States should push to open liaison offices with the clear intent of establishing diplomatic relations; we should offer to bring students here for study; and we should open talks on the lifting of economic sanctions and building trade ties even as we pursue a nuclear weapons agreement.

If there are lessons to be learned from the past decade, the first is that we have to deal with North Korea as it is and that waiting for it to collapse is not a policy. Another lesson is that a nuclear agreement, while crucial, is not by itself sufficient for ending the long-term threat from a dangerous and untrustworthy country. A third lesson is that our approach must be acceptable to the other principal concerned powers of the region, especially South Korea and China.

We welcomed the Bush administration’s decision last year to talk directly with North Korea about a deal to end its nuclear weapons programs. Along with many others, we conclude that negotiations are the only feasible way to end the North Korean nuclear threat. Economic pressures and isolation have little bite against a country prepared to limit its interaction with the world severely and one whose rulers do not shy from imposing great hardship on its population. Moreover, China and South Korea have made it clear they will not go along with such policies or with military options. It is far from certain, however, that an agreement will be concluded.

Whether Pyongyang and Washington have made the strategic decisions needed to reach a deal remains to be seen. For Washington, the main questions for reaching a satisfactory deal are who goes first in carrying out the required elements of an agreement and how much ambiguity can be tolerated in verifying North Korea’s compliance with a pledge to abandon nuclear weapons and efforts to build them. An important political consideration for the administration is how to justify a quid pro quo deal with Pyongyang to its domestic political base, one that would require the United States to do what it has done before but usually calls by another name, buy them off. For Kim Jong Il the strategic questions are whether he is prepared to live without the deterrent of having nuclear weapons or at least being able to say he has them and how attractive are the benefits of an agreement.

However unappealing it may be to deal with North Korea, we cannot see any alternative given the constraints posed by America’s friends and allies. The United States should pursue its own strategy of engagement-albeit conditioned engagement - with Pyongyang. We have much that Pyongyang needs, including, most importantly, our political recognition, the lifting of economic sanctions, and acceptance of its entry into international financial institutions. In contrast to South Korea, however, our goal would not be reconciliation with North Korea. Rather, we would seek to foster internal changes in North Korea that could lead to changes in external policy - relating concrete benefits to concrete change. The goal of such conditional engagement would be to weave an ever-thickening web of connections between North Korea and the rest of the world that would contribute to the greater opening of the country and create an interest in better behavior, including compliance with its obligations in a nuclear agreement. Such an effort also means making sure that South Korea stops subverting nuclear negotiations by continuing to open its pocketbook too widely, giving North Korea the benefits it would obtain through a nuclear agreement without having to give up its weapons programs.

The difficulty of implementing such a strategy is enormous. We would have to overcome the North Korean tendency to reject conditionality and to pick and choose among international connections. We would have to prevent North Korea from simply pocketing everything offered while doing little to increase transparency and confidence in its compliance with a nuclear agreement. We would have to coordinate such an approach closely with South Korea, especially regarding what we each require from Pyongyang. Such an approach would encounter stiff resistance in the United States; powerful forces reject any support for North Korea that would appear to countenance that regime’s profound mistreatment of its own population.

The only thing such a policy of conditional engagement has going for it is that it is better than the alternatives that we have previously discussed. It is the only approach that would not bring us into a collision with South Korea. Moreover, it fits with both China and South Korea’s engagement policy.

We have not yet sufficiently departed from reality to believe that the approach we propose will win the support of the Bush administration. We all may have to wait until a new administration is in place for this sort of change in Korean policy.

North Korea remains in serious domestic trouble. We may be seeing a bit more realism - the signs are still contradictory - on the part of Pyongyang about its plight, which could produce more flexibility in its approach to the outside world. Nevertheless, there is an inherent tension between North Korea’s need to open to the world in order to improve its economic situation and the regime’s fear that exposing its populace to greater contact with the outside poses major risk to its survival. China certainly took that risk. Given its economic support and considerable influence in North Korea, China can be crucial to the opening of North Korea, and indeed, the success of its economic model may still be the biggest inducement to change in Pyongyang. In the end, regime survival will remain the litmus test against which Kim Jong Il will measure his options. In the case of the United States, Kim Jong Il may come to believe he is better off waiting out the Bush administration.

The United States also should support Korean unification and refrain from substituting our judgment for South Korea’s on how best to achieve that goal. Unification will occur some time - some assert it is already happening - but how or when no one can predict. We believe it is more likely to occur abruptly as a result of breakdown in North Korea than as the outcome of any unification strategy. In the meantime, South Korea’s use of its economic power to improve connectedness with the North and create dependency, and the less bellicose tone of South-North relations, have made war on the peninsula less likely though far from inconceivable.

There remains a dangerous contingency. If the Six-Party talks continue without positive results, the Bush administration will face a major political and strategic dilemma. Will it do nothing and simply accept North Korea continuing to build its nuclear arsenal, or will it proceed - unilaterally, if necessary - to a much tougher approach to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programs? That could lead to a major confrontation with friends and foes alike, another reason for a determined negotiating effort.

The U.S.-South Korean relationship is in serious trouble despite the rhetoric coming from both governments. We can continue with different approaches for some time given the common concerns of both countries about a North Korean attack. But if we want to pre-serve the alliance for a long time to come, we have to try seriously to heal the breach; that may also have to wait until 2009.

Copyright © 2006 by The Century Foundation, Inc. all rights reserved.