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Pacific Angst

John Lee

On Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama will hold his meeting in Tokyo with Japan’s new — and surprisingly assertive — prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, whose Democratic Party of Japan surged to power in August’s election. An ongoing dispute over the desire of U.S. Marines to construct a new runway for their base in Okinawa (which may yet go unresolved) serves as an unhappy backdrop for the meeting.

Some may worry that serious strains could be emerging between Washington and its most important and powerful ally in Asia. After all, Hatoyama has already indicated his desire for more independence in Japan’s relationship with the United States. However, the existence of some tension is not all bad news.

The very fact that America needs to negotiate with its Asian allies and partners — and sometimes even compromise — means that Washington will adapt in ways that allow it to remain the preferred security partner in the region. As one former Singaporean leader said to me recently: The United States is still willing to sit at the table, even if the superpower takes pride of place. A rival Asian power in a similarly dominant position would insist on standing on a podium above the others, not necessarily the best strategy for securing alliances.

America is first and foremost the preferred security partner for Asian countries because of its military strength. It has been the world’s unchallenged superpower for almost 20 years. No power can be pre-eminent if it cannot maintain its military advantage. Yet, despite spending more on defense than the next 10 military powers combined, the United States has never been a regional hegemon because it relies on the cooperation of other states to remain dominant. For example, without cooperation from allies such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and the Philippines, the United States could not retain its forward military positions in the West Pacific. The United States needs the cooperation of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand to host its critical radar infrastructure in these countries.

Strategic influence is also built on the back of economic success. Some believe that Japan’s new assertiveness is in part linked to the United States’ apparent relative economic decline in the world. Hatoyama’s recent idea of an “East Asian Community” that importantly does not include the United States would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

However, this does mean the United States will watch the region evolve from the sidelines. There remains broad-based regional approval of U.S. alliances with Japan, South Korea, and Australia, as well as with partners such as the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and India. The key to the effectiveness of these bilateral relationships is that they enjoy widespread support and legitimacy as stabilizing arrangements in the region. The security relationships of various Asian capitals with Washington enhances overall regional security.

Were an Asian country, such as China, to rise to the top, it would not need the same explicit level of acquiescence from the region to maintain its presence and strategic position. Unlike Washington, Beijing would not need the same level of regional cooperation to maintain its regional military footholds. But this would not necessarily serve China’s rise.

The fact that the United States has to negotiate and balance interests is an advantage, not a disadvantage, in ensuring its continued role in the region. History actually shows that balancing acts tend to preserve a hierarchy, not replace or supersede it.

In Asia, other states tend to resist the bids of any rival Asian power to rise to the top of the pyramid — be it Japan, China, or perhaps India in the future. Despite occasional flights of fancy about “strategic regionalism,” almost all Asian states are ultimately comfortable with American strategic primacy in the region and will ensure that it remains this way.

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