Friday, December 2, 2011

The US, China and East Asia: 'Zero-sum' or 'win-win'?

The US announcement that it is establishing a base in northern Australia could mark the most significant adjustment of US strategic and military presence in East Asia since the 1970s, or perhaps even since the establishment of military alliances with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan in the 1950s.

The move has generally been seen, however, in narrower terms, as a response to perceptions of greater Chinese assertiveness over the last couple of years, itself perhaps partly prompted by a belief that the global economic crisis marked a turning point in the decline of global US power.

The zero-sum mentality which this thinking reflects is unfortunately prominent on both sides of the Pacific. Indeed, there are risks that this dynamic could turn into a classic 'security dilemma' scenario: two suspicious powers interpret as hostile moves which the other believes it is taking 'defensively' to try and improve its security. A vicious cycle could then lead to conflict.

Wiser counsel should prevail on both sides of the Pacific. But if we look at the wider context, there may even be some 'win-win' potential to be gleaned from the US's latest move.

For Washington, the last few years have been difficult for the US security posture in East Asia, and not just because of China. It is not just the behaviour of a few US personnel on Okinawa. Japanese political sentiment has been shifting following growing irritation at the effective outsourcing of the country's foreign and security policy to the US – one consequence of this may even be in constraining on improvements in Chinese-Japanese relations.

Nearby, in South Korea, an earlier administration reached agreement on a timetable for US troop withdrawals, though this was put on hold after Lee Myung-bak came to power in 2008. Further, it is difficult to envisage scenarios for hypothetical reunification of the Korean peninsula which involve US troops staying there, and are acceptable to all the parties in the region, particularly China.

The existing structure of the US presence in East Asia therefore seems unsustainable. But given the US's continued global interests and strength it is not realistic to expect the US to withdraw from the region.

Could we therefore see the Australian base as a possible precursor to a broader reconfiguration of US presence in East Asia? It allows the US to maintain its presence and the support for naval patrol of sea lanes (though there is more which needs to be said on naval activity another day), whilst creating space for future arrangements with South Korea and Japan which fit the evolving diplomatic and political realities more closely. This could be in the interests of all those in East Asia.