President Obama and Asia
Rajan Menon is the Monroe J. Rathbone Professor of International Relations at Leigh University and a fellow at the New America Foundation. His book The End of Alliances argues that America’s Cold War- era alliances have become irrelevant to today’s challenges. In the original article below he looks at how Obama should address Asia.
The number of challenges awaiting President-elect Barack Obama in Asia, from Iran in the west to Japan in the east, will be matched only by their complexity, with nuclear proliferation, failing states, terrorism, outmoded alliances, and the governance of globalization being but a few on a long list. The good news is that while the rest will plague him from the moment he crosses the threshold of the White House, the third—recalibrating America’s alliances—will afford him the luxury of time.
Still, the unbreakable link between solvency and strategy will become evident to the new president quickly and starkly. The economic crisis now gripping the United States will have long-term consequences that will force reductions in US defense spending and even a scaling back of commitments to allies. Apart from the financial reasons, this shift will occur because the strategic environment bears little resemblance to that of the Cold War and because the American public’s patience with expensive ventures and commitments abroad has worn thin. Obama must also establish a realistic basis for working with states who are not allies, but important partners nevertheless.
A reassessment is overdue, particularly in Asia. America’s key allies in the North Pacific, Japan and South Korea, can do far more to protect themselves. Japan has the world’s second largest economy but has spent less than 1 percent of its GDP on defense on average since the end of World War II. The assumption that it cannot do better and that the rest of Asia will conclude that it is about to revert to militarism if it does has become gospel within the US foreign policy establishment. Contrary to this prevailing assumption, however, Japan is fully capable of thinking strategically and adapting to its external environment: just consider its history from, say, the Tokugawa period onwards. There were several adept changes of course of which the disastrous path taken in the 1930s was but one. Nor does Japan face the Manichean choice of militarism or minimalism; there is a sensible, feasible intermediate choice. Japan can better defend itself without scaring its neighbors and has the responsibility, indeed the right, to work out the modalities independently. It does not lack the acumen and assets necessary.
The same applies to South Korea. Its GDP is the world’s 13th largest ($ 1.2 trillion in 2007) and its industries and technological base are world-class. The contention that it cannot safeguard itself against moth-eaten North Korea (whose $40 billion GDP ranks 95th) unless the American military presence on its soil stays the same is fatuous, not least because Seoul is also far ahead of Pyongyang in the caliber of vintage of weaponry.
Devolving greater responsibility to allies is not equivalent to abandoning them. The United States will remain a Pacific power. Obama should work out arrangements for the common defense that reduce America’s burdens and responsibilities and that also safeguard its interests. He should do so in concert with America’s allies but also through a regional security system featuring arms reductions and confidence-building measures.
Maintaining the status quo (which is what the United State has done, except for some repositioning and drawing down of its forces in Japan and Korea and changes, though hardly far-reaching, in the terms of the US-Japan alliance) is not the only way to advance US interests. Indeed, it is not the best way, nor will it prove practical given America’s new financial and strategic exigencies.
Apart from alliances in the strict sense, the United States has forged important alignments (cooperation based on overlapping interests but not binding commitments related to security) in Asia in recent years. India is the best example, and the convergence is natural in the aftermath of the Cold War, during which the relationship was cool, even hostile at times.
Both countries are democracies. Their elites are familiar with one other. The Indian and US economies are becoming progressively more intertwined and the shared strategic interests include the threat of terrorism and the desire to counterbalance an ascendant China. This was the backdrop for the 2008 Indo-American nuclear agreement, which refashioned America’s prevailing non-proliferation in order to cement the entente with India.
Despite this concord, the new administration must maintain realistic expectations. There will certainly be collaboration between the United States and India—not on America’s or India’s terms, but on complex calculations and compromises. America will surely be disappointed if it expects that India will ally overtly with it against China. For India, the most sensible strategy is to be coveted by both sides. Why alienate one when you can gain benefits from, and hedge against, both by positioning yourself in the middle? In particular, why anger China, a large, powerful, and proximate state?
Nor should Washington expect India to support stiffer sanctions on Iran, let alone an American military strike against Iranian nuclear installations. India has longstanding, substantial, and multifarious ties with Iran and will not damage them. Moreover, New Delhi does not want to be seen as deputy to the American sheriff. The new-found alignment has strong critics in India. Some worry that it will compromise India’s autonomy, others that it will stoke the great power fantasies of nationalists and divert the country from urgent problems rooted in poverty and social justice. Virtually no Indian political figure of any consequence would endorse an attack on Iran; nor would the Indian public.
Obama’s challenge will be to define areas of convergence and points of divergence with India realistically and to craft policies that prevent the latter from undermining the former.
Getting America’s alliances and alignments in Asia right will hardly be the first item on President Obama’s to-do list. That’s a good thing. There’s time to ensure that America’s critical relationships in Asia are in sync with the times. Yet it must on the agenda of a President whose campaign theme was change.