Saturday, May 5, 2007

Asia's shifting balance

The past week has brought a host of stories pointing to how the balance of power — both globally and in Asia — is shifting, suggesting that the assumptions made by each major regional power will have to change accordingly.

First, Taiwan's place as the most likely cause of war between China and the US (with or without Japan) may well be shifting, due to growing appreciation on the part of the US that as the potential costs of war with China have risen, the costs of providing a security "blank check" to Taiwan have risen in parallel. It is not surprising, therefore, that Stephen Young, head of the American Institute in Taiwan (the de facto embassy), has called upon Taiwan to pass a budget that provides funding for US-provided weaponry. Is this a last-ditch effort by the US to urge the Chen administration to focus more on trying to correct the cross-strait balance and less on provoking China with moves toward de jure independence?

At the same time, Taiwan has selected Joseph Wu, a member of Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), as its representative in Washington; Wu acknowledges that in the face of deepening US-China ties, Taiwan will increasingly have to struggle to earn Washington's support, not to mention its attention. Meanwhile, it seems that some in Taiwan — most notably Ma Ying-jeou, the KMT's newly selected candidate for next year's presidential elections — recognize that Taiwan's future is increasingly across the strait, at least economically. Ma has called for removing restrictions on Taiwanese economic activities in mainland China, which raises the obvious question of whether a diplomatically isolated Taiwan that is increasingly economically dependent on China will be able to retain de facto independence for long.

In other words, strategic ambiguity is becoming ever more ambiguous, which undoubtedly is important for the US-Japan alliance (and may even explain why Taiwan was absent from the most recent SCC statement).

But fluctuation in the regional balance is not limited to Taiwan. Indeed, perhaps the more serious changes involve Japan, which is learning to look outside of the alliance for friends and partners. For all the talk about the strength of the alliance — Richard Armitage echoed the rhetoric emanating from last week's bilateral meetings in Washington in an interview in Mainichi — the US-Japan relationship is, oddly enough, much healthier in security cooperation between the US Military and JSDF than in political cooperation between the two governments. As the Economist reports this week, Abe's visit to the Middle East this past week is largely a product of Japanese realpolitik, with the Abe Cabinet looking out for Japan's security interests independent of other concerns. Similar thinking can be found in the growing trend in favor of a Russo-Japanese rapprochement, with Foreign Minister Aso, on a visit to Moscow, agreeing to schedule a summit between Abe and Putin at next month's G8 meeting in Germany.

And so the new regional balance of power comes into view. It is not an old-fashioned military balance of power, because the US presence in the region, with the help of its alliance with Japan, means that the US will continue to be primus inter pares as far as military power is concerned. In the shadow of the US military primacy, however, competition for energy, for trade, for commodities, and for the future of political and economic development in the region is burgeoning. Thus Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's advice to President Bush cannot be taken lightly: the US and Japan must become more flexible politically, even as they deepens military ties. But without political coordination and communication — clear explanations of the reasoning behind their respective independent initiatives — US-Japan security cooperation will be unsustainable over the long term.

After all, can the alliance survive without a clearly defined purpose, which is, in effect, the meaning of the "globalization" of the US-Japan alliance? Or will it flounder, just as NATO has floundered as it has tried to become more global in its vocation?


Michael Turton said...

LOL. You've got the US - Taiwan thing completely wrong. I've been blogging like crazy on this. Start with this, this, and especially this.

Also, you might think about instituting word verification for your blog comments, to keep spam away.

Michael Turton said...

Great post, otherwise. I've also bee blogging on Asia's shifting flashpoints -- shifting away from Taiwan, and toward many other things -- the Japan-China rivalry, the Himal, and those pesky islands in the South Seas that China keeps trying to claim, but actually belong to others, and of course, the entire state of India that China claims. Gonna be a fun fun fun future out here.