A signed People’s Daily editorial suggested on Thursday that America should play a more constructive role in Asia, and that America was in no position to grade Asian countries. The editorialist didn’t need to invent his advice to Washington. Evan A. Feigenbaum and Robert A. Manning, a short Council of Foreign Relations overview suggests, apparently offered similar advice to the Obama administration, in 2009:
The Obama administration has an opportunity to help define new roles for the United States in this changing Asia. But to sustain its position in the region, Washington will need to move beyond its traditional “hub and spokes” approach to Asia–with the United States as the hub, bilateral alliances as the spokes, and multilateral institutions largely at the margins of U.S. policy. Otherwise, the United States will pay increasing costs to its interests, credibility, and influence.
Apart from advocating multi-lateralism, the report advised that Washington should avoid intractable security issues and focus instead on topics ripe for cooperation. If it is true that there were differences between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2010 – that’s what this Los Angeles Times article suggests -, Clinton’s “ideas and worldview” have certainly had an impact on U.S. foreign policy in Asia.
That’s basically a good thing. The Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam certainly don’t mind a situation where they can pit one hegemon against the other, depending on the situation. In that way, the U.S. helps to ensure exactly the “democracy among nations” Beijing is calling for – Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi (杨洁篪) came back to the topic less than a week ago, on an ostensibly “non-official” World Peace Forum in Beijing, where he deplored an existing “zero-sum mentality”, and pointed out the need for a strengthened democratization of international relations (国际关系民主化有待加强).
But then, democracy needs limits – and the CCP is the only referee to define such limits. That’s a feature Chinese dissidents at home are familiar with. And besides concepts of sovereignty and equality among states, there is an – imagined – concept of “Asianness” at play in Beijing’s worldview, just as well. Within that Asianness, i. e. close to home, the rules of inter-state democracy doesn’t seem to count quite as much as further away from home. Or, as the same Yang Jiechi as the one who waxed poetic about democratic international relations just recently, reportedly told then Singaporean foreign minister George Yeo (杨荣文) in July 2010 in Hanoi, China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.
What is rarely looked at is what the small states make of the situation. It is obvious that even Vietnam, a “socialist country”, welcomes a strong U.S. presence near its coastline, despite an extremely brutal American war on the country which only ended four decades ago. So long as the Americans don’t come ashore, things appear to be fine.
As for Singapore, the city-state’s mega-elder himself, Lee Kuan Yew (李光耀), urged Washington in 2009 to strike a balance – America risked losing its global leadership if it didn’t stay engaged not just in China, but in the whole of East Asia and India.
If a totalitarian (Vietnam) and an authoritarian state (Singapore) want a strong U.S. role in Asia, this is hardly based on a desire for democracy or human rights. Clinton’s talk to that end isn’t empty – and the role America is currently playing might also help to make these two concepts more attractive in Asia -, but clearly, neither poor human-rights records nor undemocratic political systems are criteria for exclusion, in Washington’s choice of allies.
That’s why U.S. politicians should spell out – to the American people – what they expect to get out of these informal alliances. If this is about freedom of navigation – and it is understandable if people don’t simply want to rely on Beijing’s assurances -, this should be as much in the interest of China’s neighbors, as in the American interest. In other words, Asian countries, too, need to contribute to a sustainable defense of these rights.
The key issue for the U.S. should be to transform the current relationship with Asian countries from a hegemonic one into a real partnership. As far as that is concerned, both the People’s Daily editorial and other proponents of such an approach have a point. The U.S. should also try to include China in such a security partnership, wherever feasible.
But if China keeps criticizing American hegemonism, without abandoning its own hegemonism, chances are that smaller states will appreciate a choice between at least two hegemons.
As long as the U.S. can afford the defense budget a hegemonic role requires, anyway.