The Soviet Union is gone, but a changed strategic imperative remains. The Chinese want stability so that they can pursue a policy of change and development, increasing their real power in peace. The Japanese, who seem to have reached the apogee of their growth pattern and seem content to level off are deeply worried about China’s growing power. While their economy is still four times the size of China’s, this discrepancy will not last long. Furthermore, the Chinese, while not there yet, are beginning to behave like a great power in the region.
At regional gatherings as recent as the APEC meetings in Shanghai 2001, Asian countries complained that China was a giant vacuum cleaner sucking up trade and investment at the expense of others. Only Korea saw the growth of China’s economic power as an opportunity and moved aggressively to take advantage. In recent years, China has purposefully become the major trade and investment partner of most other Asian countries. China is still seen as a huge competitor, but is now regarded as a major regional engine of growth.
The Japanese see us as a protector and a key to strategic balance. So do the nations of Southeast Asia. Everyone agrees that we need each other when dealing with the Korean Peninsula.
The Bush Administration came to power with a neocon chip on its shoulder, inclined to treat China as a rival and a threat. The spy plane incident in March of 2000 brought both close to confrontation and gave each a chilling look at the dangers conflict could bring to the region and their strategic and economic interests. They drew back and settled. 9/11 provided the Chinese with an opportunity to be supportive against the war on terror, and they followed through, helping us in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. Their constructive role in persuading the North Koreans to come to the table has been vital. In turn, the Bush Administration has backed the PRC on Taiwan, the strategic issue of top priority to Beijing.
Strategic concerns also figure heavily in US policy towards South Asia. The only initiative of Clinton Administration foreign policy kept by the new Bush administration in the ABC (Anything But Clinton) period after inauguration was his opening to India. They saw India as a strategic counterweight to China in the long run and moved to strengthen relations. This has proven to be very valuable during a period of high tension between nuclear armed India and Pakistan, as well as a time when Pakistan has become pivotal in the war against terrorism and the strategic balance in Central Asia.
Let’s face it. In the post Cold War, post 9/11 era, Asia has become much more important to US strategic interests than Europe. Perhaps the Administration felt it could afford to disrespect its old key allies in the Atlantic Alliance.