December 2, 2004

December 2, 2004 | Commentary on Asia

A Fresh Start for America's Asian Policy

Condoleezza Rice's forthcoming assumption of the post of U.S. Secretary of State offers a golden opportunity for Washington to take a more assertive stance in challenging China's rising influence in Asia, and ensure that the U.S. retains its traditional role as the dominant power in the region.

Ms. Rice is known for her unsentimental vision of foreign policy and has publicly recognized that China is not a status quo power. In an article she wrote for Foreign Affairs in early 2000, she noted that China, "resents the role of the United States in the Asia Pacific region" and "wants to alter Asia's balance of power in its own favor."

That's a reality which Colin Powell, the outgoing secretary of state, often seemed to neglect. Smiling encounters between American and Chinese leaders, like Mr. Powell's late October visit to Beijing, without any mention of China's new muscle, left Asian democracies understandably worried about how far they could rely on the U.S. to protect them against Asia's rising power. In some cases, they reacted by trying to reach their own accommodations with China.

For instance, some in the Bush administration have been perplexed by the way in which the Philippines, America's oldest Southeast Asian ally, has been busy courting Beijing. Despite a massive infusion of U.S. resources into the Philippines army's counter-terror campaign against the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas in southern Mindanao and the fact that Manila has been Asia's largest recipient of foreign military-financing grants from the Pentagon, the Philippines now sees Beijing as crucial to its security.

"Within six weeks of pulling out of the Iraq coalition," one senior administration foreign-policy official lamented, "our Filipino 'allies' had sent President Gloria Arroyo to Beijing, completed reciprocal visits for their and China's defense ministers, and signed a confidential protocol with China on exploitation of South China Sea resources."

That makes little sense for a country which has been subject to repeated demonstrations in recent years of how China is now the major threat to its national security. Over the past decade Chinese military units have occupied Mischief Reef, a Philippines' atoll in the South China Sea off Palawan. Chinese naval vessels have also threatened Philippine navy patrol boats that were trying to enforce Manila's rights in its maritime "exclusive economic zone" (EEZ), and the Chinese embassy scuttled an effort by Manila to buy well-maintained F5-E fighters from Taiwan at bargain-basement prices.

Unless perhaps, Mr. Powell's failure to take such threats seriously sent the wrong message to the Philippines. Namely that Manila could not rely on U.S. support in defending itself against the threat posed by a rising China. That was the message which came through in 2002, when Mr. Powell did not lift a finger to help push through Taiwan's aborted sale of F5-E fighters to the Philippines. Simplistic pronouncements, such as the secretary of state's recent assertion that U.S. relations with China are "the best, perhaps, in decades," conveyed a similar impression.

China's strategy in Asia is an elegant one: find issues that force America's Asian partners to choose between Washington and Beijing, and make them choose China. Beijing warned Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of dire consequences after his unofficial visit to Taipei and the Singaporean leader responded with several acts of contrition, including an outspoken attack on Taiwan's leaders. To Australia, it has offered the lure of billion-dollar energy and mineral deals. Perhaps not by coincidence, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer recently dropped a hint that Canberra might stay on the sidelines in the event of a war with Taiwan.

For South Korea, the threat is territorial. China claims that most of North Korea forms part of the ancient kingdom of Koguryo, which was part of China for over a millennium. The unspoken assertion is that, in the event of the collapse of Kim Jong Il's regime, Beijing rather than Seoul would inherit much of his territory.

For countries that are not submissive, like Japan, Beijing probes their outer defenses and tests Washington's commitment to its allies. For over a year, Chinese ships have systematically violated Japan's EEZ near the Ryukyu Islands. The Pentagon, in cooperation with Taiwan, has been supporting the Japan Defense Agency in tracking Chinese submarine activity near Japan. But there was no public outcry from the State Department, even after the recent incursion of a Chinese Han-class nuclear submarine into Japanese territorial waters hit the headlines.

To Asians, that sends a message that the U.S. is reluctant to challenge China's misdeeds. So too did Washington's silence when Chinese Communist Party elder Qian Qichen blasted U.S. President George W. Bush by name for his "cocksureness" and "arrogance" the weekend before the U.S. presidential election -- a bald-faced effort by Beijing to ingratiate itself with Senator John Kerry's campaign.

That is a deficiency Ms. Rice urgently needs to address. Already, in the dieing weeks of Mr. Powell's tenure, there are the first signs of a more assertive stance. When the Philippines recently asked the State Department to bless a new Manila-Beijing intelligence cooperation relationship, Washington let the Philippines know, in no uncertain terms, that Manila can have an "intelligence cooperation" relationship with the U.S. or China -- but not both.

If her writings of four years ago are any guide, Ms. Rice does not share Mr. Powell's sentimentalism about the rise of China. That offers cause for optimism that America's new secretary of state will work quietly, but determinedly to counter Beijing's rising influence, and arrest the slide in America's prestige and influence in Asia.

John J. Tkacik Jr. is a research fellow in the Asian Studies Center of The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Related Issues: Asia

First appeared in The Asian Wall Street Journal