Professors Yoichiro Sato and Tan See Seng’s recent book, United States Engagement in the Asia Pacific: Perspectives from Asia, has been praised by Professor Tommy Koh, Ambassador-at-Large at Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Rector of Tembusu College, National University of Singapore, as being “an important book about an important subject.”
The following is an interview with Dr. Sato and Dr. Tan on some key questions which they cover in their book.
Why is it important for the US to consider these Asian perspectives on the pivot to Asia?
Sato & Tan: The Obama administration’s “Rebalance to Asia” strategy is more multilateral than any previous Asia strategy by the U.S. government. Not only U.S. relations with key allies, such as Japan, Australia, and South Korea, call for close consultations, but also the growing U.S. partnerships with new regional partners must be framed within the comfort zones of these partners.
Similarly, why is it important for China to do the same?
Sato & Tan: Asian countries are carefully observing progression of the U.S.-China relations. As the Obama administration carefully crafts a mix of economic and diplomatic engagement of and military deterrence against China, China’s reactions to this U.S. strategy shape Asian countries’ perceptions of China and their positioning of themselves in the emerging regional order.
Your book compares Cold War and post‐Cold War containment policies. Please tell us briefly what this comparative analysis revealed.
Sato & Tan: Geopolitical instincts of the United States as a major maritime power do play a role in the U.S. strategy through the two periods. At the same time, much closer U.S. economic interdependence with the whole of East Asia including China today necessitates that the United States balances its military security interests with economic interests for its own sake and for the sake of its regional allies and partners.
The book also discussed changes in China’s foreign policy. Could you please elaborate?
Sato & Tan: China today is much more confident than two decades ago when its reformed economy was in an early stage of integration with East Asia and the United States. Deng Xiaoping’s strategy of keeping low foreign policy profile while focusing on export-led economic growth through continuous access to the U.S. market has been replaced by more assertive foreign policy as seen in the ongoing confrontations in the South China Sea.
Could you please tell us briefly what are some important points that we should take away from each of the country’s perspectives? Let’s start with Japan.
Sato & Tan: Japan, as the prime military ally of the United States and a major historical rival of China, is capable of asserting most influence upon the emerging U.S. strategy. Assuring U.S. commitment to the bilateral alliance is clearly Japan’s motivation for upgrading its own growing sharing of collective defense responsibilities.
What about Taiwan?
Sato & Tan:Taiwan’s satisfaction with its de facto (not de jure) independence needs symbolic U.S. commitment. “Balancing” of China’s threats with more tangible U.S. commitment may inadvertently trigger a more classical security dilemma for Taiwan, inviting aggressive PRC reactions.
Now what about Korea and DPRK?
Sato & Tan:North Korean threat is an opportunity for the United States to enhance trilateral cooperation with Japan and South Korea, while not pointing a finger at China as a common enemy. China also sees the North Korean problem as an opportunity to win a diplomatic credit as a “responsible stakeholder” in regional security management. However, North Korea with its own internal difficulties at the time of leadership transition has not responded to the U.S. “Rebalance.” South Korea with its historical grievances against Japan has also been extremely cautious to sign up to the U.S.-proposed trilateralization.
Let’s move to the southeast now. What about Singapore?
Sato & Tan: The chapter on Singapore argues that Singapore has long viewed and continues to view the US as the “indispensable power” whose post-World War II role as the strategic guarantor and balancer in the Asia-Pacific remains as crucial, not least in the face of China’s rising power and influence. To that end, Singapore has pursued robust relations with the US short of a formal alliance. That said, the rebalancing strategy adopted the Obama administration, which Singapore welcomes, has complicated the latter’s ties with China.
Sato & Tan: As the Vietnam chapter has detailed, Vietnam’s vexing dispute with China in the South China Sea (SCS) is complicating their long and complex ties. While the positive direction Vietnam-US ties is taking has its own logic and imperative, there is no question Hanoi’s SCS dispute with Beijing has driven Hanoi and Washington closer together. But this doesn’t necessarily mean Vietnam has chosen the US over China.
Now please tell us about Vietnam’s neighbor, Myanmar.
Sato & Tan: Under President Thein Sein, Myanmar, in the eyes of many, has evolved from a pariah state to a country seeking to liberalize, albeit fitfully. Its relations with the US have vastly improved. Like its CLV counterparts, Myanmar remains highly reliant on China economically, but of late has shown an incipient willingness to diversify. Its future ties with the US will be defined by how Myanmar handles its domestic political transition, its intra-ethnic conflicts, and its relations with China.
You also discuss India and Australia. Let’s talk about India first.
Sato & Tan: As the India chapter shows, Delhi’s positive relationship with Washington, underscored by their nuclear deal, should not be taken to mean India is bandwagoning with the US against China. Despite Mr. Modi’s radical credentials, he has surprised many with his deft diplomacy including strong engagement with the US. While India makes no bones about regarding China as a peer competitor, it nonetheless prefers to maintain strategic autonomy.
Now what about Australia?
Sato & Tan: The Australia chapter reviewed the ongoing debate within Australian strategic circles regarding Canberra’s longstanding strategic dependence on the US, on one hand, and its economic cum diplomatic engagement with Asia on the other. Although Australia remains a key security ally of the US, the emergence of China as Australia’s top trading partner has led many to question the wisdom of continued reliance on the US, which could potentially lead Australia into an “entrapment trap.”
What are some general points you hope your readers take away?
Sato & Tan: Despite questions over the ability, resolve and even ethical behavior of the US as a global power, its importance to the Asia-Pacific cannot be denied. China’s power and influence have elicited mixed reactions from its regional neighbors over its strategic ambition and assertive behavior. While US balancing has complicated things for Asian countries especially their relations with China, they’ve largely welcomed it, whether as a way to politically balance against China or to hedge against the big powers.
What words of advice would you give to the new president of the United States in 2016 regarding the US strategy towards Asia?
Sato & Tan: The US should continue to engage Asia in ways that contribute to the region’s stability, prosperity and security. It will likely have to accomplish this through accommodating China’s ambition and interests whilst encouraging the latter, with the aid of a strong normative and institutional framework, to behave responsibly.
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Yoichiro Sato is a professor at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University and is the director of the Democracy Promotion Center.
Tan See Seng is the deputy director of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, the founding head of the Centre for Multilateralism Studies, and Professor of International Relations at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.
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This book will be on display at the 2016 ISA conference in Atlanta and the AAS conference in Seattle.