January 29, 2013 | Commentary on Asia and the Pacific, Alliances, US-Japan Relations

Asia on the Horizon

As senators prepare questions for Chuck Hagel, they would do well to clarify his views on Asia, a crucial region for U.S. interests. It boasts the world’s two largest economies after the United States and much of the world’s holdings of U.S. dollars and dollar assets, such as Treasury bonds. Moreover, it is the source of much of the high technology that undergirds American economic activity. As demonstrated in the Japanese earthquake, any disruption to the region can have global consequences, rippling through international supply chains.

Chinese foreign policy has become increasingly intransigent. Xi Jinping, the new Chinese leader, has indicated little flexibility on territorial disputes like the Spratlys or the Senkakus. Given China’s growing tensions with our treaty ally Japan, this is of immediate concern. Xi’s recent comments are backed by a People’s Liberation Army that has enjoyed over two decades of double-digit budgetary growth. That investment has produced advanced fighters, warships and missiles, as well as a burgeoning cyber threat.

North Korea remains a chronic threat to regional stability. Pyongyang’s recent missile test demonstrates both North Korean willingness to defy the international community, and the unwillingness of China to rein in Kim Jong-Un. North Korea’s nuclear program, meanwhile, proceeds unabated, with the high likelihood of another nuclear test in the next few months.

China and North Korea are two of the world’s most opaque countries, and both have new faces in their leadership, limiting U.S. ability to predict future behavior based on past trends. Moreover, there is some evidence that both North Korea and China are experiencing more internal unrest. This is not to suggest that either regime may imminently collapse. But the United States must be prepared for instability in either regime, and the attendant effects of refugee movement, economic disruption and potential military action.

It is therefore important that Senator Hagel make clear what courses of action he is likely to pursue in order to preserve American interests in the region. In particular, the Senate should ask him to clarify how he would “pivot” to Asia in a period of constrained resources and in the face of sustained Chinese military modernization and North Korean provocations. Put another way: Where is he prepared to assume greater risk in Asia, as defense spending plummets?

About the Author

Dean Cheng Senior Research Fellow, Asian Studies Center
Asian Studies Center

First appeared in The New York Times' "Room for Debate."