Why Are Current American Relations with Asia More Stable than with Europe?

Ambassador Nicholas Platt, Asia Society President

New Haven, CT
February 9, 2004

International Security Seminar
Yale University


This question occurred to me several months ago when I joined a team of regional specialists convened to brief Senator Bob Graham, who was then a candidate for President. As we went around the world, the speakers detailed a diplomacy in tatters in Europe, where France and Germany (sneered at as the “old Europe”) opposed our unilateralist initiatives at every turn. We had better support from the “new” European countries like Poland, but that only exacerbated the split on the continent. Russia had strong interests in Iraq and stronger doubts about our policy there.

The Middle East presented a similarly grim picture, dominated by disapproval over our tacit support for Israel’s draconian measures against the Palestinian population designed to control terrorist attacks. This attitude was shared across the Muslim world and blocked the development of positive relationships. Similar concerns were voiced about policy toward Latin America and Africa. The US administration was criticized for an arrogant, domineering, go it alone diplomacy, lacking in consultation, resulting in the worst drop in world opinion since the Vietnam War.

When in came my turn to review relationships in Asia, I found myself describing a different pattern. While there was scant approval among the populations of the Asian countries for our policy towards Iraq, the behavior of the governments was generally supportive of the US, and our relationships were, for the most part in good shape.

Japan, our oldest ally in the region, was backing us, even to the point of authorizing the dispatch of military units to Iraq, the first time forces were to be sent outside the country since WWII, an unprecedented measure that could even require a revision of the post war constitution. The security relationship and economic links are as good as they have been for a long time.

China, while disapproving of policy in Iraq, was determined not to spoil the improvement in bilateral relations that they had developed since 9/11, and which they regard as an essential element of their twenty year development strategy. In the UN, where they held a key veto as a member of the Security Council, they stood aside at key junctures in the tortuous debate over action in Iraq. A series of high level visits by the leaders of both countries in the last year have cemented the highest level of cooperation in recent years, despite some friction over trade.

South Korea has gone through a generational and a leadership change, which at one point seemed to threaten the foundations of the oldest most operational of our security alliances in Asia. But both sides have adjusted and a consensus has emerged in favor of continued cooperation. The ROK government is sending troops to Iraq as a token of support.

There is disagreement over the tactics of dealing with North Korea, to be sure, but the issue has always been treated as a neighborhood problem, with the United States adopting a consultative diplomatic approach involving the Chinese, the Japanese and the Russians as well as the South Koreans.

In Southeast Asia, the Philippines and Thailand have gained concessions from the United States for early supportive measures. Indonesia and Malaysia, both Muslim countries are unhappy with our policy in the Middle East, but continue to work with us bilaterally. Singapore, the smallest country with traditionally the biggest grasp of strategic realities is helping in a number of ways.

Australia’s Howard government has gone out of its way to back the United States, proudly parrying domestic criticism that it is our “Deputy Sheriff” in the region.

President Bush has gone out, one might say way out, of his way to attend Annual APEC meetings in an effort to pursue a collaborative multilateral approach to the countries of Asia and the Pacific.

The pattern continues as you move to South Asia. India relishes it’s new position as a potential strategic partner of the US—a big boy on the block at last—despite the fact, as our Ambassador once put it, that anyone walking from Delhi to Madras would not find a single person supporting our position in Iraq. We have just signed an agreement to cooperate in the fields of civilian space, high tech trade, and to discuss missile defense.

The US is using its new leverage with India to work quietly behind the scenes to facilitate dialogue with Pakistan. For its part Pakistan, while uncomfortable with the choices we have forced it to make against Islamic fundamentalists in its own society and across the border in Afghanistan, has opted for a closer relationship with the United States, and is reaping tangible benefits for its cooperation.

Afghanistan is dependent on the United States and the rest of the international community for its survival. President Hamid Karzai reacts to accusations that he is a US stooge by saying,”You bet I am.” The entire international community, including increasingly NATO, agrees that it has a key role in the complicated task of Afghanistan’s national reconstruction. This is clearly a collaborative rather than a unilateralist effort.

A stable Afghanistan is the key, in turn, to Central Asia, where the US now has bases in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, a tactical response to the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban to the south. These moves may end up having strategic significance.

So, what accounts for the differences in approach as well as the results of US relations with Asia? This is really the topic of our discussion today. I hope you will help me with some of the answers, because I do not have them.

Let me suggest some factors for you to consider:

Strategic imperatives

The key to stability in East Asia is a balanced, essentially constructive relationship between Japan, China and the United States. When I last spoke to this group, in December 2001, I focused on the US –China relationship, starting with the Nixon Trip. I made the point that the visit resulted in a situation that the US had not seen since the 1930s. For the first time since Japan annexed Manchuria in the 1930s we had constructive relations with both Japan and China. This gave us an enormous advantage in the region over the USSR--including both the strategic land-mass along the Soviet border and control over the Pacific seas. This, among other things, enabled us to prevail. For the Soviets this was the beginning of the end. Perhaps more important and enduring, the elimination of Sino-American confrontation and the end of the Vietnam War stabilized East Asia, facilitating the onset of an unprecedented two decades of explosive economic growth that enveloped virtually all the countries of the region.

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.

Economic Imperatives

The difference in economic growth patterns between Asia, Europe and the Middle East must also contribute to the difference in treatment and results. US trade with Asia passed that with Europe in 1979, and has never looked back. Europe’s direct investment links with the US are huge, but the contrast in economic growth rates are striking. The EU community as a whole has been stagnant in recent years, as has Japan, but China, India and Southeast Asia are growing rapidly. Their growth is fueled by domestic consumption, foreign investment and trade. The US is the major trading and investing power for the region.

Economic interests provide a certain ballast for the relationships in the region. If we did not have such a high level of trade and investment in China, for example, we would have been blown off course by the P-3 incident in 2000, the bombing of the Belgrade Embassy and other incidents during the 90’s. But an influential business lobby pressured the Administration to adopt a cooler approach, which brought us back to equilibrium.

Our economic relationships in South Asia, so far, lack the weight to act as effective ballast, but the growth of the Indian economy plus strong relationships between Indians and Americans in the Information Technology area can change that over time. At the same time, the sense in both India and Pakistan that their confrontation had deprived them of the benefits that inter-regional trade and investment had brought East Asia in recent decades, has contributed to the momentum behind the current efforts a détente.

Experience and Access:

If you look at the backgrounds of Bush Administration officials, you will see many with long and strong experience in Asia, a factor which must contribute to the stability of policy toward Asia. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific James Kelly were both naval officers with service records in the Pacific and hands on knowledge of Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia. Armitage is also thoroughly familiar with Pakistan and India, and has been the point man in dealing with that region. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, best known as the author of our Iraq policy, was former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, and served as Ambassador to Indonesia for several years. Ambassador to China Clark “Sandy” Randt has extensive experience as a lawyer in Hong Kong, speaks Mandarin, and most important has a strong personal relationship with the President. As a former fraternity brother in college, he can pick up the phone any time and get through. There are others, but it is clear that this government is not flying blind when it comes to Asia.

Domestic Politics

Finally, with the exception of a looming issue this election year centered around the export of jobs to Asia, there are few areas of our Asia policy that have strong constituencies in domestic American politics. Taiwan has an effective lobby on capitol hill, but has few domestic links, and nothing compared to the clout of AIPAC, which can directly hurt the reelection chances of any congressman or senator who goes against it on Middle East policy. The émigrés of Dade County, Florida dominate the policy of a key Presidential election swing state, dictate our policy toward Cuba, and affect our diplomacy throughout Latin America. American politicians are increasingly aware of the growing Asian American communities in their districts and woo them for votes, but the communities are still too fragmented to represent real power on any one Asian issue.

So, there you have it. For a variety of reasons—strategic interests, growing relative economic importance, qualified personnel in government and a lack of domestic political complications, we have a more stable and successful foreign policy in Asia. Let’s pray it stays that way.

Now, let’s open the floor for discussion.