Written by Rodger Baker
March 11, 2008
By Rodger Baker
China is contributing troops to a hybrid U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force in Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region. Japan has resumed refueling operations in the Indian Ocean in support of U.S. and coalition anti-terrorism operations in Afghanistan. And South Korea, which at one point had the third-largest contingent of troops in Iraq, is revisiting its defense relationship with the United States and preparing to take a more active role in East Asia and elsewhere.
U.S. distractions in the Middle East and the collapse of U.S. Cold War security guarantees to Japan and South Korea have played a key role in creating the environment necessary for these experiments to occur. Overall, a fundamental reassessment has been taking place in Northeast Asia over the past decade. Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul are reviewing their strategic positions not only in relation to one another in Asia, but in regard to their global role and vulnerabilities. Once-insular East Asia is debating the merits of breaking from historic patterns and seeking a more assertive global role economically, politically and militarily. To help understand how Asia got to where it is today, some historical background is in order.
The European Age
In the 1500s, Europe underwent a rapid expansion of global exploration and conquest, spreading European influence and involvement far beyond the North Atlantic and Mediterranean to nearly every part of the globe. The European age, stretching from the late 1400s to the late 1900s, was driven by the need for raw materials and resources, markets and power. Power resulted from industrial capacity and wealth, which foreign resources and domestic labor fed.
The imperial age created a competitive cycle, with European powers building bigger fleets and armies to protect their economic interests and scrambling for new territories and resources to feed their war machines. The more territory a country held, the bigger its navy needed to be; the bigger the navy, the more resources the country needed; the more resources it needed, the more territory it needed to hold.
For better or worse, Europe engaged the world aggressively, spreading European influence and power worldwide. It engaged other countries in their respective regions. For example, when Europe engaged Asia, it did so in Asia. Europe colonized the world; the world did not colonize Europe. Before the European age, spreading powers had engaged Europe in Europe via the Mediterranean or the Eurasian heartland, but these occurred before European exploration created the first truly global international system. For the most part, Asian powers stayed in Asia, African powers stayed in Africa, and so on. It was Europe — and its technological revolutions in shipbuilding, navigation and naval warfare — that united the world into an integrated system.
By the mid-1800s, and increasingly after the U.S. Civil War, the United States had joined the Europeans in spreading its own economic, political and military power and influence in the world. The United States spread its wings in the Western Hemisphere, but its aspirations later extended far beyond. With one flank on the Pacific, the United States was perfectly positioned to take a more active role in Asia, which was increasing in importance due its trade and resources. While the United Kingdom had “opened” China to the outside world, it was the United States that had opened Japan and Korea.
Cold War to Asia as Trade Cornerstone
World Wars I and II left Europe in shambles and its global empires crumbling. As the European age faded, the United States and the Soviet Union embarked on a global Cold War, spreading their respective influence and power in a strategic worldwide chess game. Soviet and U.S. interests squared off in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa. What had once been the playground of Europe was now the proxy battleground of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry. While Europe still dabbled in internationalism, its focus mostly shifted inward.
Like the imperial age it replaced, the Cold War brought a certain sense of order to the world despite the high-stakes rivalry. The collapse of the Soviet Union left a power vacuum, with the United States as sole global hegemon. The U.S. Navy was far and away the most powerful in the world, giving the United States the ability to assert its interests quickly, nearly anywhere in the world. After Sputnik, the United States worked to establish a strong lead in space, which evolved into a cornerstone of U.S. technological dominance and war-fighting capability. Global trade patterns had shifted, too. Trans-Pacific trade equaled trans-Atlantic trade by 1980, and surpassed it in the next decade.
While post-Cold War America remains the dominant global power by dint of sheer size and industrial and economic heft, global trade is focused on Asia. The Asian export powers — China, Japan and South Korea — all sit among the top 12 economies in the world. But their dependence on resources from abroad, particularly energy, and on overseas export markets have stretched their economic interests far beyond the reach of their military capabilities. During the Cold War, this did not matter nearly so much. Japan and South Korea fell under the U.S. security umbrella, while China was not really a part of the global economic system. It matters now, however.
China is now a major global economic player. And U.S. interests now more frequently collide with Japanese and/or South Korean interests. For example, Japan’s energy deals in Iran greatly displeased Washington, and South Korea has different views on relations with North Korea than the United States does. The vulnerabilities of the three Asian countries’ respective economic positions are increasingly obvious. But as Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul consider expanding their political and security reach to ensure their economic interests, they have little experience to build on outside of Asia.
China, the “Middle Kingdom,” was long the dominant power in Asia. In times past, it demanded tribute from surrounding nations and maintained land-based trade routes southward into Southeast Asia, northward into the Mongolian and Russian steppes, and westward into Central Asia — and even as far as South Asia and Europe. But China had little experience with maritime power projection.
The treasure fleets of Chinese explorer Zheng He, which reached along Middle East and African coasts and might have spread to the shores of South America, were more of a frivolity than a necessity for China’s economic security. So when trouble developed at home in China, the government scuttled the massive fleet. The Chinese disregard for maritime power was dramatically highlighted once again when the naval budget was redirected to the construction of Beijing’s Summer Palace, including a massive hand-dug artificial lake.
Until the modern era, China could get its vital resources — including its energy needs — domestically or via land routes. But that has changed. China now reaches far abroad not only for oil, but for minerals and other raw materials to feed its export-driven economy and internal growth and urbanization. It is also seeing a training ground in the developing markets for its budding global commercial players.
This has caused a major shift in Chinese strategic thinking, and the once-reticent giant — which for the vast majority of its history held an insular view of its role in the world — has of late taken a more proactive role internationally. This has included everything from a stronger role in international organizations such as the United Nations, to sending peacekeepers abroad, to working with the government of Sudan to break a deadlock over the deployment of foreign forces to Darfur.
Certainly, China’s steps are hesitant. And Beijing is working to stress to the nations it is dealing with and the United States that its interests are not imperialistic, but simply friendly and mutually beneficial. But despite its efforts to sugarcoat its global ambitions, China is starting to see some resistance to its encroachments in Africa — Beijing has been accused of coming to Africa just to despoil its mineral resources, as the Europeans have done before. Despite the resistance, the need for secure supply lines and market access will continue to drive China away from its long-held insular focus and into more proactive international involvement.
Japan has the greatest experience in recent history in imitating the imperialist system of Europe. From the time Commodore Matthew Perry’s black ships steamed in and opened Japan to the world, Tokyo began seeking not only to play on European terms, but to rewrite the rules of the game in its own favor. But even Japan’s imperialist moves were limited to the Asia-Pacific theater. Moreover, Tokyo quickly found itself caught in the same cycle Europe had faced — it needed more resources and territory to supply the industrialization and military construction necessary to ensure resource security. Ultimately, Japan ran up against U.S. interests in the Pacific, and lost.
Following World War II, Tokyo exploited the U.S. position in the Cold War to gain security guarantees while building up its own economic might. But Japan’s economic rise eventually began raising concerns in the United States.
With the end of the Cold War, Japan’s interests were no longer necessarily synonymous with U.S. interests. Since Tokyo could no longer count on Washington to ensure Japanese national interests, Tokyo began rethinking its military capabilities and reach. Japan has the world’s second-most powerful navy, and aside from domestic constitutional restrictions on the use of its military abroad, it has the technological prowess to further expand its military capabilities. But historic animosities with its neighbors — and in many cases, former colonial subjects — as well as a domestic satisfaction with the Cold War status quo that required little military or political action abroad, have left Tokyo walking a cautious line in restructuring its regional and international role.
The United States in some ways is encouraging the reassertion of Japanese power, treating Japan as a partner in regional security, and encouraging the strengthening of Japanese defense capabilities. This cooperation with the United States helps mask Tokyo’s own national interests and keeps the expanding role couched in terms of international cooperation. But Tokyo is also learning from the cooperation. Refueling U.S. vessels in the Indian Ocean provides real-world training for sustaining a force abroad — potentially even a naval force in the Indian Ocean as part of Tokyo’s energy supply lines — and Japanese defense procurement plans show a clear path toward power-projection capabilities.
South Korea, by far the smallest of the trio of Northeast Asian powers — but not necessarily the least technologically advanced — also is rethinking its own defense posture in relation to its international economic vulnerabilities. Korea has flirted with big regional power status in the past — the Koguryo kingdom reached far into Manchuria — but for the most part, it has been overshadowed by its neighbors, in part since it has the weakest geographic position of the three. South Korean foreign policy thus has been to appear as inconspicuous as possible and to portray itself as not worth attacking.
Successive Korean kingdoms would pay homage to China to maintain Korean independence, but would be most unwelcoming to visitors trying to open the so-called “hermit kingdom” in the peninsula. Certainly, there was maritime and land-based trade throughout the region, but the Koreans made sure to keep that trade largely away from their peninsula. When the regional system grew too difficult for Korea to handle on its own, it would turn to one of the larger regional powers to keep the others at bay.
This strategy ultimately failed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and Korea became a Japanese colony. The practice of turning to larger powers was resumed after World War II, with the North seeking Soviet and Chinese assistance and the South turning to the United States.
Since the Korean War, South Korea largely has depended upon the United States for its security abroad, and to a large extent for domestic security. Only in the past decade has there been a significant shift in Korean defense policy and capability, with South Korean forces taking a larger role in defense of the peninsula. First and foremost, its defensive posture has been aimed at North Korea. More recently, it has focused on threats further abroad, particularly Japan, with which South Korea has competing claims on islands in the East Sea/Sea of Japan.
Like Japan, South Korea can no longer fully rely on the United States to ensure its strategic interests. After all, both Japan and South Korea in many ways are economic competitors to the United States. Without the common threat of the Soviet Union, Washington has little interest in sacrificing U.S. economic interests to keep these East Asian allies happy. Seoul is now debating a more active and assertive role internationally, building on the so-called Korean Wave, which has seen the spread of Korean TV dramas, movies and pop music abroad and the election of a Korean as U.N. secretary-general.
This is not to say that South Korea and Japan are both fleeing the U.S. embrace altogether, only that the two East Asian nations also are addressing their own independent strategic needs as well. Thus, South Korea contributed the third-largest contingent of military forces to Iraq, not necessarily just to appease the United States, but rather to expand its own interaction and influence in Iraq and the Middle East. Korean forces were stationed in Iraqi Kurdistan, and Korean energy companies followed the troops in a bid for access to the region’s petroleum. South Korea is considering establishing its own Peace Corps-type concept, sending Koreans abroad to spread influence and increase the political clout of the nation. It also plans to expand its overseas development assistance — a tool Japan once used to spread its influence and ensure its interests in Southeast A sia.
A Shared Conundrum
Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul at present all face a similar problem: Their economic interests — both in resources and markets — are spread further and further around the globe, but each lacks the military ability, established policy or experience to ensure their interests far from their shores. While soft power formerly was all they could bring to bear, this is slowly changing. The initiative is now present for more active political and security roles to match their economic involvement around the world.
While the United States will remain the dominant power globally, East Asia is waking up to the prospect of an active global role. This marks a further evolution in the global system, which has gone from European global activity to American interaction, and has seen Soviet and now Asian involvement. This represents untried territory for the Asian nations, which will face new challenges in logistics, in foreign policy and in the widespread strength of the United States.