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Compensating for Decline: Revitalizing US Asia-Pacific Hegemony
Editors' Note: The following is an adaptation of the remarks delivered by Dr. Joseph Gerson at the Japan Peace Conference in Sasebo

Compensating for Decline: Revitalizing US Asia-Pacific Hegemony

Editors' Note: The following is an adaptation of the remarks delivered by Dr. Joseph Gerson at the Japan Peace Conference in Sasebo

Editors’ Note: The following is an adaptation of the remarks delivered by Dr. Joseph Gerson at the Japan Peace Conference in Sasebo, Japan on December 2, 2010. The conference brings together peace activists from across Japan, plus some leading peace movement figures from Korea and the Philippines.

I want to thank the Japan Peace Committee for the opportunity to join this year’s peace conference. It is a privilege – and a necessity – to work together.

In an article about Obama’s week in Asia, the journalist-scholar Fareed Zakaria wrote, “Obama was making America’s opening move in a new great power game unfolding in Asia.” He and his advisers were reinforcing Washington’s military alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, building tacit alliances with India and Indonesia, and putting China on notice that it will not have a free hand in Asia, the South China Sea or the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The goal is to ensure that the US can “moderate Beijing’s behavior.”[1]

The Obama administration is attempting to leverage its allies’ resources and power while taking advantage of the insecurities resulting from China’s rising power and its aggressive assertions of its territorial ambitions. The US is weaving together a system of military and political alliances and relationships from Japan to India and across Central Asia, as well as to Europe and to NATO.

Even as China develops its “string of pearls” – basing and access agreements with Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and possibly Bangladesh – the US is reinforcing its more powerful collar: alliances, military cooperation, bases and access agreements with South Korea, Singapore, the Philippines, Guam, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand and Afghanistan. And, in pushing “the reset button” with Russia, it hopes to complete China’s encirclement.

The Korean crisis

In the US, we were initially shocked by reports of an unprovoked and deadly North Korean artillery barrage on Yeonpyeong Island, the most serious such attack since the Korean War. Only later could we read that the target was a South Korean military base in disputed territorial waters, that the first dead were South Korean marines, and that, “The attack … occurred after South Korean forces … fired test shots into waters near the North Korean coast.”[2]

The North Korean attack must, of course, be condemned, but we need to address its causes and prevent it from escalating into an extremely dangerous and wider war.

Numerous reasons have been given for the attack. Most cogent is North Korea’s goal of “driving the US to the negotiating table” to win US recognition of its legitimacy, a peace treaty ending the Korean war, removal of sanctions and new aid, trade and investment.[3]

Washington initially coordinated its responses with South Korea and then escalated the confrontation with military exercises, including the aircraft carrier George Washington and its support fleet, in the Yellow Sea. This threatens not only North Korea, but the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (D.P.R.K.) Chinese patron as well. And, rather than encourage resumption of the six-party talks, the Obama administration repeated that it will not resume negotiations until the North abandons its uranium enrichment program and demonstrates that there is no possibility of additional North Korean nuclear or missile tests.[4]

This policy is marketed as “strategic patience,” the purpose of which is to break North Korea’s cycle of provocations by not rewarding Pyongyang’s “bad behavior.” US negotiations with the D.P.R.K. are not to resume “until the North cease[s] provocations and demonstrate[s]” that it is “living up to past commitments to dismantle, and ultimately give up, its nuclear capacity.”[5] This approach, combined with provocative US military exercises, threatens to bring us to “the brink of war.”[6]

Geopolitical considerations

In the aftermath of the cold war, Zbigniew Brzezinski published his primer about the US empire and how to maintain it. He explained that dominating the Eurasian heartland is essential for US global hegemony and that to do so, the US must have geostrategic footholds on Eurasia’s western, southern and eastern peripheries. Japan, South Korea and western Pacific client-states serve that function in the East, just as NATO does in the West.[7]

At roughly the same time, Joseph Nye voiced concern about China’s rise. He warned that during the 20th century, the dominant powers (US and Britain) failed to integrate rising powers (Germany and Japan) into their systems, resulting in two catastrophic world wars. It is therefore of the utmost importance, he concluded, to ensure China’s integration into US-dominated global systems through engagement and, as necessary, containment. He has since written that maintaining our alliance with Japan would shape the environment into which China [is] emerging. “We want … to integrate China into the international system … but we need … to hedge against the danger that a future and stronger China might turn aggressive.”[8] Strike this balance remains the crux of US Asia-Pacific policies.

The situation in East Asia is, of course, further complicated by North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and by China’s perceived need for a buffer state to secure the Manchurian keystone of its territorial integrity.

Articulated policy

Washington and Beijing understand the opportunities and challenges of our “competitive interdependence.” However, our respective cultures, histories and domestic political considerations tend to obscure our common interests. With the US economic crisis, still more resources will likely be devoted to containment as our 2012 presidential election approaches.[9]

The Obama administration’s Asia strategy explains that, “Our alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand are the bedrock of security in Asia. …” In addition to defining Japan’s role as “the cornerstone” of US policies, it stresses that “Japan and South Korea are increasingly important leaders in addressing regional and global issues.”[10]

Even as the “strategy” reiterates that the US seeks “to pursue a positive, constructive, and comprehensive relationship with China,” it warns, “We will monitor China’s military modernization program and prepare accordingly to ensure that US interests and allies, regionally and globally, are not negatively affected.[11]

Cornerstones and confrontations

The Obama administration cannot be faulted for the fall of the Hatoyama-Ozawa government, but it was not an innocent bystander. Hatoyama’s vision of an East Asian Economic Community, which by definition would marginalize the United States, the Democratic Party of Japan (D.P.J.)’s commitment to renegotiate the Futenma relocation agreement and to confirm the existence of the secret agreement which allowed the US to bring nuclear weapons into Japan all undermined Washington’s confidence in its principle Asia-Pacific ally.

While the D.P.J.’s failing policies, scandals and vacillations and Japan’s stagnant economy all contributed to the Party’s loss last July, the US did its part by playing “hardball” on Futenma, highlighting the D.P.J.’s weaknesses and vacillations.[12] As Japanese fears were fanned by the Cheonan incident and by China’s increasingly assertive military exercises, the Pentagon refused to consider alternatives to building the new base at Henoko. The implicit message was that if Japan refused to honor the Futenma-Henoko agreement, it could face North Korea and China alone.

Soon after Prime Minister Kan defeated Ozawa in the D.P.J. party election, Washington’s game became more apparent. While in Japan, Richard Armitage praised Kan’s victory and “suggested he send China a subtle reminder that Tokyo and Washington remain firmly in step.” Armitage advised that “the best way” to further heal the Hatoyama-Ozawa rupture of US-Japanese relations would be “to send a signal” to China by slightly increasing Japan’s military budget.

“You don’t have to say anything about the Senkakus,” he advised, “the message would be there.”[13]

Kan and Maehara did more. They pledged that the Futenma base relocation would not be permitted to disturb the alliance. During the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, Prime Minister Kan committed to engage in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations pressed by Obama and confirmed that Japan would continue to provide the US with $2.26 billion a year as “host nation support.” In yet another violation of Japan’s constitution, Kan signaled his willingness to send medical officers to join the US war in Afghanistan. More importantly, he pledged to work with the US to develop new “common strategic objectives … to enhance the Japan-US strategy toward China.”

Most important are the commitments Kan made for the strategic defense review to be issued this month. It will urge new deployments of Japanese troops onto western Okinawan islands to monitor and respond to Chinese naval activities, remove the ban on arms sales and spend trillions of yen to triple the size of Japan’s submarine fleet and buy US F-35 fighters

All of this makes Washington very happy. As one US official put it, “We don’t hear the teeth-sucking caution any more … [T]here is finally talk about what we can do together, rather than what we can’t.”[14]

The Obama administration and China

During the past year, China has pressed the limits of the US-Japanese dominated system. Of greatest concern to Washington was Beijing’s declaration of its complete sovereignty over the mineral-rich South China Sea – the sea lanes of which also serve as East Asia’s energy and trade lifelines – as a “core national interest” equal to its claims to Tibet and Taiwan. This challenges US regional hegemony, but it also provided the US an opportunity to remind Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) members that they “have this friend from Washington, and he’s really big. …”[15]

For this reason, Secretaries Clinton and Gates responded that the freedom of the South China Sea is a “core” US national interest. Their assertion was followed by a carefully orchestrated Obama-Asean heads-of-state meeting at the UN to demonstrate unity against China’s claims and, soon thereafter, we had the astonishing image of a Vietnamese general being welcomed aboard the George Washington as well as joint US-Vietnamese military exercises and US warships being welcomed back to Cam Ranh Bay. Elsewhere in Asean, President Obama returned to Indonesia, which his advisers see as “the intersection of a lot of key American interests …[and] a partnership that is very important to the future of American interest in Asia.”[16]

In terms of encircling China, the importance of Vietnam and Indonesia pales in comparison to India, the first stop on President Obama’s November itinerary. India has difficult history with China: border wars and competition for influence in Central Asia, as well as a naval arms race in the Indian Ocean. Beginning with the nuclear agreement negotiated between the US and India, New Delhi and Washington have created a tacit alliance on the basis of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” So, Obama came to India, promising to end export controls on sensitive technologies and lend US support to secure a permanent seat for India on the UN Security Council; he also announced that the US-India relationship is a “defining partnership of the 21st century.”[17]

The US Navy plays a crucial role in securing what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls “the new American moment.” US geostrategists believe that, like Britain before it, the US is an island power, with naval power being essential to its ability to influence Eurasia. For this reason, according to Clinton, “maritime rimland remains pivotal.” Just as conquering Hawaii, the Philippines and Guam as stepping-stones to Asia was essential to building the US 19th century empire, retaining and modernizing these bases of intervention is seen as equally important in the 21st century.[18]

Thus we have the “diversification” of the US infrastructure of military bases across the Asia-Pacific, including US plans for Okinawa, the transformation of Guam into a military “hub” at the expense of the Chamorro people, the US courtship of Indonesia, the tacit alliances with Vietnam and India and the call by a Congressionally mandated panel to “expand the Navy to deal with threats from rising powers in Asia.” The bipartisan report by senior advisers to presidents Clinton and Bush urges that the US Navy be expanded from 282 to 346 warships and advises that: “The United States must be fully present in the Asia-Pacific region to protect American lives and territory, ensure the free flow of commerce, maintain stability and defend our allies in the region. A robust US force stricture, one that is largely rooted in maritime strategy and includes other necessary capabilities will be essential.”[19]

Resistance and common security

Given the realities of history, the crisis in Korea and the competing ambitions of the region’s great powers, utopian dreams are hardly in order. There are, however, powerful historical forces – the actions of people over time – that demonstrate that a different future is not only possible, but, if we work for it, assured. First is the resistance and inevitable victory of Okinawans, who will win withdrawal of all US bases.

Next is entropy. More than three generations after they were created and imposed, the institutions and alliances created to serve the US’s post-World-War-II Empire are outmoded, tinsel and increasingly seen as illegitimate. As a result, fewer of the world’s people see the US as a model to be emulated and more envision creating futures free of US political, economic, military or cultural hegemony.

Third is imperial overreach. Even as powerful forces in the US urge massive military increases, the country cannot afford it. For the first time in my lifetime, serious proposals for cutting the US military budget are being voiced in Congress, and the bipartisan commission on debt reduction has recommended reducing US foreign military bases by a third.[20]

Finally, we must recognize our common interests and our need to work together. None of us is safe and secure if others are in danger or fear for their security. Just as it makes no sense to liberate the people of Ginowan City at the expense of those in Henoko, we should not attempt to solve our problems by supporting the Pentagon in further oppressing the people of Guam. A generation ago, the concept of “common security” was used to end the cold war in Europe. If the peoples of the United States, Japan and other Pacific-Asia nations are to win future security and prosperity, we would do well to press for policies that replace the pursuit of hegemony with common security.

1. Fareed Zakaria. “Hedged bets on China.” Washington Post, November 15, 2010.

2. Editorial. “A Very Risky Game.” New York Times, November 24, 2010.

3. Simon Tisdall. “The keys to Pyongyang.” The Guardian, November 23, 2010.

4. “No 6-party talks without halt to uranium enrichment.” Asahi Shimbun, November 24, 2010.

5. David E. Sanger and Mark McDonald. “South Koreans and US to stage a Joint Exercise.” New York Times, November 24, 2010.

6. Terms of a threat made by North Korea, as reported by US National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” November 26, 2010.

7. Clyde Prestowitz. “The Betrayal of American Prosperity: Free Market Delusions, America’s Decline, and How We Must Compete in the Post-Dollar Era.” New York, Simon & Schuster, 2010.

8. Joseph Nye. “An Alliance Larger Than One Issue.” New York Times, January 6, 2010.

9. David W. Chen. “In more US races, China is the villain.” International Herald Tribune, October 11, 2010.

10. Kurt M. Campbell, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Principles of US Engagement in the Asia-Pacific. Testimony to the Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Washington, DC. January 21, 2010.

11. Ibid. Emphasis added by author.

12. Joseph Nye. Op. Cit.

13. Cameron McLauchlan. “Armitage hails Kan’s ‘normalcy.'” Daily Yomiuri, September 16, 2010.

14. Ibid.

15. Thomas L. Friedman. “Containment-lite.” International Herald Tribune, November 11, 2010.

16. Reuters. “Obama in Jakarta to boost trade ties.” Daily Yomiuri, November 10, 2010.

17. Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Jim Yardley. “Countering China, Obama Backs India for U.N. Council.” New York Times, November 8, 2010; Japan Times. “Obama backs India on Security Council,” November 9, 2010.

18. Robert D. Kaplan. “Obama and the new Eurasia.” International Herald Tribune, November 12, 2010.

19. Eli Lake. “Defense review calls for Navy building: Refocus urged for Pentagon.” Washington Times, July 29, 2010.

20. Jackie Calmes. “Panel Seeks Cuts in Social Security and Higher Taxes.” New York Times, November 11, 2010.

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