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The East Asian Triangle

Joseph S Nye is Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and author, most recently, of The Power Game: A Washington Novel. His previous post on Webdiary was Winners and losers in the post 9/11 era

by Joseph S Nye

Once again, North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is threatening Asia’s stability. Japan’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, hastily arranged a summit in China with President Hu Jintao on the eve of North Korea’s nuclear test, a meeting that saw both men agree that such a move was "intolerable."

The meeting is a welcome development. But Abe comes into office with a reputation as a stronger nationalist than his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, whose insistence on visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine (where Class A war criminals from World War II are buried) helped sour relations with China. For stability to be preserved, Sino-Japanese relations must improve.

Although North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are worrying and destabilizing, China’s rise is the key strategic issue in East Asia. For three decades, its economy has grown by 8% to 10% annually. Its defense expenditures have an even faster pace. Yet Chinese leaders speak of China’s "peaceful rise" and "peaceful development."

Some believe that China cannot rise peacefully, and will seek hegemony in East Asia, leading to conflict with the United States and Japan. Others point out that China has engaged in "good neighbor" policies since the 1990’s, settled border disputes, played a greater role in international institutions, and recognized the benefits of using soft power.

A decade ago, I oversaw preparation of the US Pentagon’s East Asian Strategy Report, which has guided American policy under the Clinton and Bush administrations. Back then, there was a debate between those who wanted to contain China’s growing strength increased and those who urged China’s integration into the international system. Containment was unfeasible, because, unlike the Soviet Union during the Cold War, China’s neighbors did not see it as a clear and present danger. Moreover, treating China as an enemy would ensure that it became one, thus unnecessarily ignoring the possibility of benign outcomes.

The strategy we chose was to "balance and integrate." The East Asian balance of power rested on the triangle of China, Japan, and the US. By reaffirming the US-Japan security relationship in the Clinton-Hashimoto declaration of 1996, the US helped structure a favorable regional balance. By simultaneously encouraging China’s entry into the World Trade Organization and other institutions, we created incentives for good behavior. So integration was hedged by realism in case things went wrong.

That strategy has largely worked. China’s military power has increased, but its behavior has been more moderate than it was a decade ago. China is a long way from posing the kind of challenge to American preponderance that the Kaiser’s Germany posed when it surpassed Britain at the beginning of the twentieth century. The key to military power in today’s information age depends on the ability to integrate complex systems of space-based surveillance, high speed computers, and "smart" weapons. It is not likely that China (or others) will soon close that gap with the US.

Of course, the fact that China is unlikely to compete with the US on a global basis does not mean that it could not challenge the US in East Asia, or that war over Taiwan is not possible. If Taiwan were to declare independence, it is likely that China would use force, regardless of the perceived economic or military costs. But it would be unlikely to win such a war, and prudent policy on all sides can make such a war unlikely.

So what is the strategic problem today? Stability in East Asia depends upon good relations between all three sides of the US-China-Japan triangle, but ties between China and Japan deteriorated in the Koizumi years. China permitted demonstrations, sometimes violent, against Japanese consulates in protest of changes in Japanese textbooks that softened descriptions of Japan’s invasion in the 1930’s. After 22 million Chinese signed a petition against Japanese membership of the United Nations Security Council, Premier Wen Jiabao announced China’s opposition to such a step.

China also objected to Japanese statements about Taiwan. And there are territorial disputes about small islands and potential gas reserves near the China-Japan maritime boundary.

The most contentious issue, however, has been prime ministerial visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, and, until Abe’s visit, China had been reluctant to engage in any summit meetings with Japan so long as such visits continue. Although China has become Japan’s largest partner in trade and foreign direct investment, nationalists in the two countries have fueled each other’s extremism, while their governments play with fire.

American interests rest on regional stability and continued growth in trade and investment. So President George W. Bush could quietly tell Abe that we welcome good relations between Japan and China, and that prime ministerial visits to the Yasukuni Shrine undercut Japan’s own interests in East Asia. It reminds Asians of the repulsive Japan of the 1930’s rather than the attractive Japan of today.

At the same time, the US can be cautious about involving Japan in Taiwan issues – a neuralgic point for China – while encouraging the development of Asian institutions that increase contacts and dampen conflict. This can include the development of the East Asian Summit, revival of the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), and the evolution of the current six-party talks on North Korea into a permanent Northeast Asia Security Dialogue.

Fortunately, there are signs that both China and Japan are seeking to back away from the impasse of recent years. While Abe has maintained his position on Yasukuni, his summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao was a promising step forward. Some Chinese analysts, for their part, recognize the danger in stimulating too much nationalism toward Japan.

The US should quietly try to nudge these steps forward. The US-Japan alliance remains crucial to stability in East Asia, but it takes three sides to make a triangle.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2006.

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