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The World : Just What Should the Role of the U.S. Be in the 'Pacific Century'?

November 20, 1994|James A. Baker III | James A. Baker III served as secretary of state from 1989-1992

WASHINGTON — Will the year 2000 mark the advent of the "Pacific Century," as many experts predict? And will East Asia's ascendance, as some of the experts assert, mean the eclipse of the United States as the region's dominant power?

I sought answers to these questions on a recent trip to Singapore, Taiwan and Japan. For these and the other dynamic nations of the Far East, the Pacific Century has already begun. This is certainly true in the economic realm. Despite Japan's recession, Far East economies remain the envy of their competitors and an example to less-developed countries everywhere.

But the United States has nothing to fear from a Pacific Century. Indeed, we are uniquely positioned to advance our strategic, political and economic interests--both within the region and internationally. But we can do so only if we are prepared to use our military power and diplomatic influence to help meet critical East Asian challenges in the years ahead.

Perhaps the most important challenge is Beijing's emergence into a post-Deng era--a transition with vast ramifications not just for China but for the entire region. Deng Xiaoping's approach of economic liberalization combined with political authoritarianism has yielded remarkable short-term results in growth. It is not, however, sustainable in the long run.

Indeed, delaying the transition to a more popularly based form of government risks turmoil when the current generation of leadership passes from the scene. The most likely scenario is a period of calm, lasting perhaps six months to two years, as the leading figures of the new generation share power. Then the internal jockeying for position will begin. One possibility is the emergence of a military dictatorship prepared to suppress political discontent and resort to regional adventurism. Even more dangerous is another possibility--that China might revert to the chaos it knew during the 1920s, when rival warlords struggled for primacy.

The United States and its allies in East Asia have a powerful interest in China's long-term stability. This stability is best served by an approach that balances close economic ties with China and the maintenance of a credible U.S. military presence in the Far East. Our defense relationships with Japan, South Korea and the countries in the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations will remain linchpins of Asian security--not as part of an anti-Chinese alliance but as a force for stability.

The growing economic ties between China and the outside world are the best guarantee of responsible Chinese behavior toward its neighbors. In particular, the United States must beware of counterproductive confrontations like the one over most-favored-nation status that the Clinton Administration narrowly averted. Nothing plays more directly into the hands of potential post-Deng hard-liners.

A second key Pacific challenge is the instability represented by the Korean Peninsula. Unfortunately, North Korea's dangerous game of nuclear cat and mouse appears to have paid off. The recent agreement between the Clinton Administration and the Kim Il Jong regime represents a tacit acknowledgment of North Korea's nuclear status. As such, it undermines both the international non-proliferation regime and peace in Northeast Asia.

North Korea's nuclear weapons, whatever their number, constitute a direct threat to South Korea and the U.S. troops stationed there. The Clinton Administration may have gained some breathing room. But it has done so at a real cost.

The medium- to long-term strategic consequences of the agreement may be an increased, not diminished, risk of conflict on the Korean Peninsula. This places a premium on maintaining, and perhaps bolstering, U.S. military assets on the Korean Peninsula and surrounding area.

Moreover, the continuing threat of a nuclear North Korea requires that the United States review its current policy on the development of theater antiballistic missile systems. If we are willing to forgo full adherence with the international non-proliferation regime--and the Clinton Administration, regrettably, appears ready to do so--then we must also be prepared to develop the necessary tools to protect U.S. forces from nuclear attack. One thing is clear: The message of the Administration's agreement with North Korea will not be lost on other rogue states seeking nuclear capability.

A third challenge confronting the Far East will be the region's economic transformation. Following Japan's export-led development model, East Asia's economies have, in just a few decades, become global forces to reckon with. Yet, Japan's experience also demonstrates the limits of export-led growth.

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