The Imperative of American Multilateralism in Asia

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In November 2009, President Barack Obama will travel to Japan, Singapore, China and South Korea. The trip will provide for a second meeting with Japan's newly elected Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and a third with PRC President Hu Jintao. Additionally, President Obama will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Singapore, where he will also hold bilateral meetings with leaders from Singapore and other countries, and hold the first meeting between a U.S. president and leaders of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). While the administration's attention to the greater Asia-Pacific is reasonable given the region's growing importance to global economic and security matters, presidential summitry must be paired with purposeful diplomacy aimed at a producing a new multilateral framework to support US foreign policy in addressing long simmering challenges now coming to a boil.

Bilateral To A Fault

The end of the Cold War should have been an opportunity for the United States to explore a multilateral mechanism for the Asia-Pacific, but American anxieties over Japanese economic prowess and horror at the brutal Chinese suppression of pro-democracy protestors in Tiananmen Square precluded a constructive examination of the possibilities. The PRC clearly possessed potential, but successive administrations concentrated on engaging the PRC at the expense of comprehensive regional approaches.

During its first term, the Clinton Administration vacillated between liberalizing trade with China or upholding campaign promises to punish it for human rights violations. After committing to free trade (and sending two carriers to the Taiwan Straits to deter PRC aggression), the Clinton Administration pronounced China a “strategic partner” despite the illicit acquisition of US military technologies and an increasingly strident nationalistic posture on the world. The succeeding Bush Administration pivoted by asserting the PRC was a “strategic competitor” and identified the nation's burgeoning military strength as the premiere challenge to American security – at least until the September 11 terrorist attacks.1

Ultimately, the subsequent war in Iraq and Afghanistan distracted the nation from the rise of China and destroyed its capacity for unilateral action – while foundering in Afghanistan and Iraq, China has become a global economic power (and potential military power) and America's unipolar moment has come to an ignominious end. Instead of transforming the international system during its tenure as the sole superpower, the global war on terrorism and crash of 2008 discredited both the crusade for democracy and globalization. In contrast, China's economic resilience and diplomatic offensive has positioned the country as a robust counterpoint to the United States in Asia.

With the election of the center-left Democratic Party of Japan and the potential for serious cleavages in the “cornerstone” of American security in the Asia-Pacific, the fragility of relying on bilateral security arrangements and the consequences of failing to establish complementary multilateral institutions become readily apparent.

Priorities In Pursuing Multilateralism

Persisting on a unilateral course or clinging to obsolete bilateral arrangements would be folly, as would multilateral initiatives to “contain” China. The US-PRC relationship is qualitatively different than that of the US and USSR after the end of the World War II. Neither completely antagonistic nor entirely friendly, the unique degree of cooperation and competition between the United States and China forecloses an outright shift to overtly anti-PRC alliances.

The priority for American is to accommodate and integrate Chinese power, while ultimately bounding into a broad Asian collective security system. Intriguingly, China's “two-ocean” commercial and military strategy, a natural consequence of its ambitions to raise the country out of poverty, provides a template for American diplomacy going forward. As astutely identified by American correspondent Robert Kaplan, China's economic expansion has led to emphasize not only security concerns in the Pacific Ocean, but the Indian Ocean as well, underscoring the criticality of addressing the entire Asian littoral and mainland as a continuum of security interests. In the same fashion, America must also explore opportunities for continental multilateralism with the capacity to address or accommodate multiple levels of interests and values.

Numerous multilateral fora already exist in Asia, but they began organically among regional nations without the United States (ASEAN) or were established as improvisations in response to crises (the six party talks over North Korea).

Options For Pursuing Multilateralism

What is possible has been comprehensively addressed by American scholar Gary J. Schmitt in his essay “Facing Realities: Multilateralism for the Asia-Pacific Century.” Mr. Schmitt argues the seeming incoherence of a region with two major powers (the US and China), uncertainty associated with other key players (Japan, India, South Korea, Australia), and the wide range of regime types (autarkic dictatorships to capitalist democracies) actually presents an opportunity for the United States to move beyond ad hoc and bilateral approaches.

Schmitt acknowledges the diversity of regimes and variance in power precludes a NATO or European Union equivalent in Asia. If corresponding deep institutions are not possible right away, then perhaps, at the minimum, broad ones are. Accordingly, the model for Asian multilateralism is the 1975 Helsinki Accords founding the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). The security components of the Accords were premised on key principles such as abstaining from the use of force, territorial integrity, conflict resolution, and confidence-building measures to foster greater transparency on military matters.

The precedent for an equivalent Asian CSC can be found in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), first signed in 1976 by Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines. Similar to the Helsinki Accords, the TAC emphasized territorial integrity, peaceful settlement of disputes, renouncing the use of force, and non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations. Since 1976, new signatories have includes each member of ASEAN, the PRC, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Pakistan. In November 2007, the charter advanced with the establishment of a secretariat and standing committees on economics and political security.

An Asian CSC would abstain on encouraging democratic governance or capitalist economies, as the premise would be institutionalizing constructive multilateral approaches to conflict prevention and resolution, as well as cooperation on common challenges, such as humanitarian disasters, maritime trade, and environmental priorities. As Schmitt notes, “while such a multilateral forum would be limited in its capacity to tackle more divisive issues … it could provide a normative baseline for state behavior that would bring increased stability to the region.”

Of course, to democracy proponents, stability is the end to which democracy is sacrificed. Schmitt recognizes this and accordingly proposes as a complementary multilateral initiative the American sponsorship of an Asian forum for democracies.

Schmitt reiterates hub and spoke relationships with democracies in the region have been inadequate, especially when the region is primed and the time is right for a more comprehensive alignment of democratic interests. If the PRC's intense focus on cultivating economic relationships dovetails with overall regional economic priorities, then American attention to bolstering democratic governments will fit with those countries with corresponding aspirations.

As Schmitt notes, pursuing a two tiered approach permits Asian countries to align with both the PRC and US – this flexibility will provide Asian democracies with a safe harbor should the PRC become too dominant. Moreover, while the US is less inclined than the PRC to accommodate dictatorships, the PRC is markedly more afraid of democratic contagion. Finally, an exclusive democratic counterpart to the Asian CSC would be another mechanism for aligning the US with Japan and India, and equally important, securing Taiwan's future.

But Not Just Multilateralism -- Additional Steps For Consideration...

To return to Kaplan's analysis, China's capacity to expand its influence along the continuity of the Pacific and Indian Oceans begins with Taiwan. A matter of national pride for China and a democratic ally for the United States, Taiwan is still above all as Kaplan recalls Gen. MacArthur describing it – “an unsinkable aircraft carrier.” Taiwan represents the last reminder of the “century of humiliations” and securing its reincorporation into the motherland would, as Kaplan notes, “[sever] the maritime straitjacket it represents.” Moreover, if China consolidates Taiwan, “China [will be] more liberated to pursue a naval grand strategy in both the Indian and Pacific oceans. … [and] its national energies will be just as dramatically freed to project power outward, to a degree that has so far been impossible.”

However, as noted previously, this insight should not induce the impulse to contain China. To reiterate an earlier point, if the US-PRC relationship is neither completely antagonistic nor entirely friendly, an outright shift to overtly anti-PRC alliances would be counterproductive. Again, if the priority is to accommodate and integrate and ultimately bound Chinese power, then perhaps the following diplomatic initiatives could supplement Schmitt's two-tiered approach.

First, the United States should agree to abandon efforts to reverse North Korea's nuclear status and re-establish diplomatic relations on the condition the PRC assists in creating an Asian CSC and declines to inhibit the founding of an Asian democratic forum. Ostensibly, the PRC would welcome closing the nettlesome issue of North Korea, since it is an ally and China has repeately balked at imposing the sanctions regime proposed by the United States. Similary, endorsing new American multilateral initiatives would be a small price to pay to close out this perennial problem.

However, in addition, the United States should also insist the PRC will act as guarantor for North Korea's security.

The PRC is indeed North Korea's only ally, but an increasingly displeased one. Long past ideological ties, the PRC needs North Korea as a buffer state vis-a-vis prosperous and democratic South Korea. Moreover, Korean reunification would result in a highly nationalist state inclined to resurrect its historically antagonistic crouch against China. The PRC would prefer a less erratic ally than Kim Jong-Il, but supports him only because regime collapse would put China on the front line of a gargantuan humanitarian catastrophe.

Kim knows this and thus acts provocatively to spur American attention, all in an effort to win the bilateral recognition that would secure his regime. Unfortunately, launching missiles and testing nuclear weapons is the only means Kim has (and makes for lousy diplomacy) and the United States has reciprocated unimaginatively with proposals for sanctions and covertly exploring a joint US-PRC response to the fall of Kim's regime (only to be rebuffed, search "ALeqM5gxx-7ln9PA5F8Hr14O-xRZ9_PiKAD99Q71U80").

Moving forthrightly on diplomatic recognition would allow the United States to wash its hands of the situation and fully cede the matter to China. In the same breath, the United States should duplicate the initiative vis-a-vis Myanmar by establishing diplomatic relations, forswearing regime change, and accepting the PRC as the junta's guarantor.

The United States could publicly asserts the steps simply constitute an acceptance of the changing dynamics in the region, specifically the PRC's rise as a regional hegemon. Privately, the United States would examine opportunities to introduce China to the challenges associated with such hegemony.

America could ensure subsequent relations with North Korea and Myanmar result in “pickpocket” embraces, whereby relations provide a cover for the introduction of surreptitioius diplomatic and commercial linkages capable of providing much needed intelligence on these secretive regimes as well as other venues into PRC machinations.

Moreover, American abandonment of North Korea means the Chinese would be have to rebut Japanese and South Korean diplomatic pressure and counter Russian designs on the peninsula.

Similarly, the immediate priority of securing North Korea would ensure initial Chinese power projection occurs in the Western Pacific rather than the Pacific-Straits of Malacca-Indian continuum as the PRC would prefer. A strengthened PRC position in Myanmar would indeed enhance access to the Indian Ocean, but by switching places as regional security guarantor, the United States could explore more aggressive options in the years to come – think US support for anti-communist rebels during the twilight of the Cold War.

To conclude, designing an American multilateral approach toward Asia is cumulatively about transitioning to a multipolar international system and facilitating the rise of China with an eye toward encumbering it. Founding an Asian CSC and democratic forum could be the nascent institutions Asia needs to achieve the continental peace secured in Europe. Complementary diplomatic initiatives vis-a-vis Asian rogues could advance American diplomacy beyond the perennial challenges that have complicated security interests. Perhaps North Korea and Myanmar will ultimately be to the PRC what East Germany and Nicaragua was to the USSR – an albatross on the road to reform and the emblem of misguided patronage that persuades the pretender to global hegemony to stand down.

Key References:

1) The Rise of China: Essays on the Future Competition, edited by Gary J. Schmitt; "Chapter Five: Facing Realities: Multilateralism for the Asia-Pacific Century" by Gary J. Schmitt

2) China’s Arrival: A Strategic Framework for a Global Relationship, Center for a New American Security; "Chapter II: China’s Two-Ocean Strategy" by Robert D. Kaplan


1 By the end, the Bush Administration framework cast the PRC as a “responsible stakeholder” of the international system – an optimistic portrayal of Chinese interests at best, a realistic acceptance of global realities at the minimum. The Obama Administration has framed US-PRC relations as a matter of “strategic reassurance” whereby the two nations “must find ways to highlight and reinforce the areas of common interest, while addressing the sources of mistrust directly, whether they be political, military or economic," as stated by Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg in September 2009. However, the Obama Administration has not yet fully elaborated on the concept.

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