The United States’ Coming Role in a Changing Asia-Pacific

While the rise of ISIS, the “War on Terror,” and the crisis in the Ukraine may have the attention of U.S. policymakers focused on Europe and the Middle East, it is in the Asia-Pacific region that American strategic interests are most at stake. With China rising rapidly on the world stage, it will be increasingly difficult for the United States to act as the dominant regional actor. As suggested by its recent “pivot” to the region, the United States needs to refocus attention on the Asia-Pacific if it wishes to play a constructive, balancing role in the coming decades. However, the circumstances of the region will limit America’s capacity to ‘contain’ China and directly shape the balance of power. This paper explores the dynamics of the Asia-Pacific. Drawing into consideration the numerous possibilities for and limitations on American influence in the region, it lays out a possible policy direction the United States can take in the coming decade – that of ‘cooperative competition’ with China.

 The ‘Asia-Pacific’ is an expansive region, home to major powers such as China, Japan, and Australia and to advanced economies such as Singapore and South Korea. For over the last half century a key characteristic of the Asia-Pacific has been the American presence, a result of the United States’ regional participation in World War II and Cold War strategy of ‘containing’ communism. Having forged close military and economic relationships with Japan, South Korea, and Australia, the United States was arguably the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific through the latter half of the 20th century. This leading role was maintained despite multifaceted and often daunting challenges: the “loss” of China to the Soviet camp and subsequent U.S. alignment with its Maoist government, the costly and protracted wars in Korea and Vietnam, and the United States’ seeming inability to compete economically with Japan in the 1970s and 1980s[1]. America’s historically preserving influence in the region thus suggests durable leadership and offers hope for its continuation through the 21st century.

 Yet the Asia-Pacific today is a region of changing dynamics and balances of power, the likes of which present an enormous challenge to American regional leadership. The United States itself is emerging out of the worst recession in almost a century, protracted and inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is suffering from acute political polarization and gridlock. These factors have eroded American international clout and limited the United States’ ability to make policy for the region. Meanwhile, an increasingly assertive Russia is trying to reestablish itself in Asia. Japan and India are trying to play larger regional roles, and China is on course to be a global superpower second only to the United States by the 2020s[2]. Looking at the region in the ‘Realist’ perspective of international relations, strategic cooperation and balancing between these powers – especially the United States and China – point to future characterized by major-power competition. American policymakers cannot expect the United States to be the unrivaled hegemon in the coming decades.

However, a structural polarity between the United States and China has not emerged. A Cold War-esque system of competing blocs and alliances is no longer a realistic scenario for the region. Rather than aligning with either the United States or China, many countries have opted to form close ties with both[3]. Increasingly, states in the Asia-Pacific seek to maximize their range of strategic options by avoiding commitments that could lead them into conflict. They do not feel a need to seek alignment with a major power in order to protect themselves. Instead, states are forming diverse bilateral and multilateral relationships in order to increase their security and support strategic interests. The unwillingness of states in the region to be put into a ‘sphere of influence’ constrains the United States’ ability to pursue a strategy of ‘direct’ containment and coalition-building against China. Still, China’s growing military capability has increasingly motivated neighbors to draw themselves more closely to the United States[4].

This “hedging” strategy of engagement with both China and the United States is in part a result of complex interdependence developing between growing regional economies. China is the number one or two trading partner of almost every country in East Asia, and six of China’s biggest trade partners are found in the Asia-Pacific[5]. As a major importer of Asian-produced goods, the United States is also deeply connected to the region economically. ‘Liberal’ international theorists see these economic ties and this interdependence as binding countries together, thereby restricting their strategic competition. These economic ties are an important part of the security calculus for many states. Deeply interdependent with both America and China, Asian countries would resist choosing sides in a future conflict[6]. A conflict or trade dispute between the United States and China would greatly impact the economies of countries throughout the region, if not the world. Recognizing this, policymakers in both Beijing and Washington are wary of competition which would jeopardize their economic relationship.

The Asia-Pacific is also marked by increased intra-regional interaction and interdependence and the development of multilateral institutions. Liberal international relations would argue that these organizations, along with other forms of multilateralism, allow states in the region to build norms of cooperation and deepen strategic ties. More than a dozen major intergovernmental organizations can be found in the region, though there currently exists no single pan-regional organization[7]. It should be noted, however, that while the proliferation of intergovernmental organizations is becoming a feature of the regional order, they are at present under-institutionalized, often non-binding, and too diffuse[8]. Still, the growth of Asian multilateralism and interdependence nonetheless offers the United States a chance for deeper integration into, and thus influence in, the region.

As China’s rise is bound to influence and alter regional dynamics, it is crucial for American policymakers to understand China’s perspective and foreign policy goals. A stable regional environment that supports China’s economic growth and regional influence is the preferred outcome for Chinese policymakers. China’s strategic dilemma thus lies in the difficulty of forming a dominant regional role without antagonizing the United States or alienating other regional powers. To achieve this aim, the Chinese disclaim a desire to dominate Asia, announcing instead that they pursue a policy of equality, mutual respect, and non-interference. Yet increasingly, Chinese policymakers are expecting weaker countries to defer to China’s wishes[9]. Meanwhile, China is highly sensitive to and suspicious of America’s power projection, which it views as an attempt to contain China’s economic and political rise. Nonetheless, Chinese policymakers acknowledge that the desire to avoid a military confrontation with the United States will encourage US-Chinese cooperation[10].

Such are the dynamics of the Asia-Pacific, which serve as the context for America’s policy in and recent “pivot” to the region. The pivot can be seen as the United States’ strategic rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific, a signal to regional powers that its attention on the Middle East, terrorism, and democratization is over[11]. It is easy to see China’s rise as the causal explanation for the pivot, but it is far from the only one. Piracy, international smuggling, illegal drug trades, nuclear proliferation, climate change, and natural disasters are only a few of the many issues in the Asia-Pacific which extend beyond the nature of the U.S.-China relationship. To frame the United States’ renewed focus on the Asia-Pacific as simply a means to counter China’s rise, then, risks drawing suspicion from Chinese policymakers and limits the possibilities for American engagement in the region. As such, the United States’ has tried to portray the pivot as focusing on the region at large[12]. Indeed, the pivot is really just a continuation of policies that have shaped America’s interaction with the region for nearly a decade – forming deeper ties with established and emerging markets and strengthening its regional diplomatic, military, and multilateral ties.

Moving forward into the next decade, the United States should continue, and redouble, those efforts. American policymakers must recognize that China’s rise is an inevitability, that the United States is heavily constrained in its ability to directly ‘contain’ China, and that conflict with China is highly undesirable for the region. How, then, can the United States maintain a dominant role and favorable balance of power in the region? This paper suggests that the United States should play a leading role in creating an environment of cooperation and multilateralism, in which regional actors are mutually pursuant of issues of common interest. The suspicions and security dilemmas that come with ‘realpolitik’ will be tempered by norms of cooperation and mutual support. In such an environment, unilateral aggression or assertions of hegemony will be met with a regional counterbalance; feeling threatened, states will naturally form ‘coalitions’ to contain the threat. Considering the current dynamics of the region, it would thus be strategically and economically detrimental for rising powers such as China to over-assert their power. With regards to the Chinese-American relationship, such an environment would enable them to channel competition for regional influence and dominance in a constructive manner. Rather than building spheres of influence through military alliances and power-of-balance considerations, they could do so by taking the lead on facing the vast array of issues affecting the region at large. This ‘cooperative competition’ has the potential to reframe the nature of the Chinese-American relationship in the coming century; rather than two great powers strategically competing for hegemonic dominance over the region, these two great powers can share – potentially even support support each others’ – influence by combating regional issues in a multilateral way.

Such a policy is formed by a consideration of the United States’ limitations in the region and it’s current regional policies. The Cold War-era of alliance blocs and post-Cold War-era of unipolar hegemony are over; the world is increasingly multipolar and increasingly interdependent. Though countries may look to the United States to play a leading regional role, they do not want to be drawn into a major power conflict. Ultimately, the greatest potential for American influence may lie in its ability to engage and strengthen ties with intergovernmental organizations, support regional economies, and combating issues of regional interest. It is, after all, through these means that the United States’ has been able to maintain a position of relevance in a changing region. Though the Asia-Pacific’s present intergovernmental and multilateral environment, upon which this policy relies, is fractured and weak, it is growing – the United States thus has a powerful opportunity to shape it in line with its strategic interests in the coming decade. This policy is further formed by a consideration of domestic American politics. Economic and multilateral ties are not as reliant upon congressional funding as, say, a sustained military presence. By focusing on building norms rather than employing hard power, the United States will be more secure in its regional footing should partisan gridlock or funding cuts come out of Washington.

The Asia-Pacific, and in particular the United States’ relationship with China, is poised to become the international focus of the 21st century. It is thus imperative that the United States pursue a strategy that establishes lasting norms of peaceful cooperation – and peaceful competition – in the coming decade. This is an area marked by changing dynamics which limit the United States’ ability to directly contain China’s rise, but which also offer new possibilities for American regional leadership. Whether American policymakers recognize this and take advantage of it will be seen in the coming years.

[1] Sutter, Robert. “The United States in Asia.” In International Relations of Asia, edited by David Shambaugh and Michael Yahuda, 93. Lanham:Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

[2] Shambaugh, David. “International Relations in Asia.” In International Relations of Asia, edited by David Shambaugh and Michael Yahuda, 17-18. Lanham:Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

[3] Ibid, 16.

[4] Cossa, Ralph A. “Security Dynamics in Asia.” In International Relations of Asia, edited by David Shambaugh and Michael Yahuda, 368. Lanham:Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

[5] Kim, Samuel S. “The Evolving Asian System.” In International Relations of Asia, edited by David Shambaugh and Michael Yahuda, 53. Lanham:Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

[6] Shambaugh, David. “International Relations in Asia.” In International Relations of Asia, edited by David Shambaugh and Michael Yahuda, 17-18. Lanham:Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

[7] Ibid, 21.

[8] Ibid, 20.

[9] Roy, Denny. “More Security for Rising China, Less for Others?” AsiaPacific Analysis, no. 106, January 2013.

[10] Xeutong, Yan. “China. Striving for Preventive Cooperation,” Regional Perspectives on the U.S. Rebalance. Asia-Pacific Defense Forum, January 1, 2014.

[11] Schiavenza, Matt. “What Exactly Does it Mean That the U.S. Is Pivoting to Asia?” The Atlantic, August 4, 2014.

[12] Forum Staff. “Regional Perspectives on the U.S. Rebalance.Asia-Pacific Defense Forum, January 1, 2014.

Journal Entry – August 17th, 2014

Outwardly we are all facades, playing the character we want others to see us as. Yet like the mask the actor wears onstage, the character we play for others hides our true self. We are constantly being dishonest with each other, deceiving one another in order to conform to the (arbitrary) rules and standards of conduct society expects of us. Everyone has an honest self, a character that only they know, a character with deep flaws, anxieties, and desires. Those emotions and qualities, the ones we tuck away deep inside and keep secret from everyone but our closest intimates, are what truly make us human. They transcend the human experience, affecting every individual who’s ever walked this Earth. Yet, if placed into the social environment, someone ignorant of this reality would never come to discover it… for so well hidden we have managed to make our honest selves available for others to see.

I am no different. In fact, I am probably one who hides his true character nearly the most among the people I know. Cody Knipfer has two faces, one familiar to everyone I interact with, and one familiar only to me. Surely this is no doubt different for anyone else, but I have come to recognize and become disgusted with the dishonesty of that reality. How different my life would be, and how differently others may see or feel about me, if they knew my true perceptions, my real desires, my honest anxieties. How different the world would be if I wore my true colors on my chest rather than tucking them to the far back of my wardrobe. Why have I, for my entire life, allowed myself to do so? Is it because I am a product of a society where the uglier, realer side of my being is a taboo? Is it because I am too paralyzed by my fear of how others think or feel about me to become so vulnerable? Is it because I worry that, despite the troubles that plague all of us, I am more troubled than others? It is all three of these factors, plus many others, which have kept me from bringing honesty to my outward character.

But no longer. I am now in a point of transition in my life, my senior year of college. After this, I will leave behind all of the friendships I’ve developed and all the people I’ve come to know in order to enter the real world. The next few years of my life will be a fresh start, a blossoming of sorts. I figure that, if I hope to enter the adult world an honest individual, a person unfettered by social expectations or by social anxieties, then I must begin to bring that person into being. What better time or place to do that is there than now? Except for my closest intimates, I do not expect to see or talk to any of these people ever again. Who cares if the mask I wear is more appealing than the reality underneath? Who cares if I embarrass or humiliate myself by opening up. Who cares how others will feel if my desires, my worries, or my anxieties were revealed to them? One year from now, I will be forever be history to them, and they to me. A few faux pas and stumbles is, in the grand scheme of things, the least of my worries.

How do I set about accomplishing this, though? How do I become my “honest self?” Having lived 21 years hiding the reality of my being away from others, how can I bring it to light? Part of the journey will be through a journal, this journal – a diary of sorts. I have been meaning to write my personal thoughts down for a long time now… like I do with my intellectual pursuits. I *want my personal reality to come through in my writing, so that I may look upon it years from now and see from where I’ve come and how I’ve grown. But I will be making this journal publically available, visitable on my blog. It is out there for the world to see. In a way, I will be wearing my true colors on my chest. It is a first step of many on the road to me becoming, in the eyes of others but most importantly in the eyes of myself, a genuine human being.

Could the things I say in this hurt me or others? Yes. Could they be a cause for humiliation or anxiety? Yes. Yet the things I say which would do that are genuine and real, and come from my true being. Not revealing them, not bringing them to the surface, not coming to acknowledge and accept them, would keep me from accomplishing my goal. I doubt that anyone will ever read this blog, or that those who do will have any relation to the things or people about whom I talk. Nonetheless, those who do read my reality and see themselves as a part of it will at least know that these words are coming from a position of true honesty. I hope that starting from such a place will be more constructive than coming from our default position of dishonesty and masks.

Without further ado, then – my journal.

August 17th, 2014.

Our Height of Power

Apollo-11-US-flag-on-moon-001The Pyramids at Giza, the Great Wall of China, the Colosseum, the Taj Mahal, the Arch de Triumph – these spectacular structures are not only testaments to human creativity, productivity, and ingenuity, but are symbols of a civilization at its height. Great nations accomplish great things, because they are capable of mobilizing the inordinate amounts of resources, manpower, and brainpower required to pull off such feats. Yet only the richest, most prosperous, most secure, most advanced, or most powerful nations are in a position to produce such wonders. Those that have will forever be remembered as humanity’s defining civilizations; the era of their accomplishments as one of humanity’s golden ages.

12 pairs of human footsteps are imprinted on the surface of the Moon. An American flag hangs bravely on its barren terrain, another testament to human creativity, productivity, and ingenuity. The Apollo program which took humans to the Moon was a modern wonder, one which perhaps dwarfs all of the other great accomplishments of mankind. However, unlike those spectacular standing structures, which will eventually crumble to dust, the American footprints on the Moon will remain indefinitely. The knowledge and expertise needed to send humans on a week-long voyage through space to walk upon another world, and to bring them back safely, had no parallels. The Moon landings are perhaps humanity’s proudest achievement.

Neil Armstrong and the Apollo Program can be seen as symbols of our civilization at or approaching its height of power. They represent the apex of American ability. The Moon landings required our country’s largest mobilization of resources since the construction of the intercontinental railroad. Other than World War Two, the Apollo Program was by far our largest mobilization of manpower and brainpower. The organizational, financial, and technical challenges facing the program were so staggering, only the most powerful country on Earth could pull them off. We did.

The Apollo Program, it seems, came at a time when America and Americans cared about being on top. It can at a time when we wanted to make history, to define humanity’s future. It came a time when we thought we could do something extraordinary, something no country had ever done before. It was a time when Americans thought they were at the height of their power, and wanted to demonstrate it. We landed men on the Moon with less technology than can be found in modern-day cell phones. We landed men on the Moon in the midst of violence in Vietnam and violence on college campuses, amongst the Kennedy assassination and Civil Rights struggle. Despite all of the challenges around us, we rose to something greater. The United States of America forever secured a defining position in human history for this accomplishment, the likes of which had never been seen before.

Or ever since. 42 years that have passed since the last human walked atop the Moon. It’s difficult to say that the United States has been on the decline since then. Our economy has only grown since the Moon landings, and is still the strongest in the world. It would take another two decades after our accomplishment until we were the unrivaled global superpower, a position we still hold onto today, even if only tenuously. American engineering, technology, and culture still dominate the world, perhaps even more so than in the 1960s and early 1970s. Yet clearly, something has changed. We are no longer the nation that produced wonders, that accomplished humanity’s greatest feats. If we were, there wouldn’t only be 12 pairs of footsteps on the Moon. We would’ve gone back.

Americans today, it seems, no longer think of themselves as on top… or at least, are no longer acting like it. Where can the willpower that once drove us to think the unthinkable, to do the undoable, be found today? Where is that pride in our ability and our determination to utilize it? Where are those individuals, the likes of John F. Kennedy, Wernher von Braun, and Neil Armstrong, who recognize our privileged position and  are driving forces behind accomplishing something great?

The Egyptians are remembered for the Pyramids, the Qin Chinese for their Great Wall.  These structures mark the height of these civilizations power. They represent their golden age. Thousands of years from now, people will remember the United States for sending the humans to walk on another world for the first time.  Were the 1960s and the early 1970s our height of power? Was that our golden age? Undoubtedly, it was a remarkable period for our country, but it doesn’t have to be the only.  America is still a great country; indeed, it is still the most powerful country in the world. If we find the will, we are still in the position to accomplish even greater things.

It is inevitable that the 12 pairs of footsteps on the Moon will be joined by others. It is inevitable that more flags will fly on the Moon, and that some will fly on the dusty surface of Mars. America – if it truly hasn’t yet reached its height of power, if it hasn’t yet entered its decline, if the Moon landings were only harbingers of things to come -will be the nation to fly it.