Published on Saturday, April 14, 2001 in the International Herald Tribune
Washington Should Look Beyond Short-Term Interests in Asia
by William Pfaff
The classical definition of national interest says that foreign policy must defend the state against threats to its power.
Power is taken as an end in itself.
Dealings with other states are treated in zero-sum terms: I win, you lose. If you win, I lose. Concessions are seen as national humiliations. The China-U.S. standoff over the downed American intelligence aircraft was treated in this way in much of the press, and in the Washington political debate. Conservatives in both Washington and Beijing insisted that compromise would produce a humiliating loss of national prestige.
The agreement actually achieved by President George W. Bush and his administration contains ambiguous expressions of regret by the United States, and the promise of a future meeting at which China's intention to raise the question of "U.S. reconnaissance missions near China" is recognized.
Thanks to this diplomatic inventiveness, hawkish critics of the Bush administration have been able to accept the agreement by contending that the episode "sweeps away illusions" that China is not an enemy of the United States.
The idea that China is the enemy rests on the assumption that China's hostility to surveillance by U.S. aircraft and naval vessels reflects an ambition to replace the United States as the paramount power in East Asia - which undoubtedly is true - and concludes that the American power position has to be defended.
This reflects a classical conception of power and state relations, as old as the European dynastic state. It says that the proper purpose of state policy is to augment state power and "glory." Power comes from territorial conquests. Glory comes from victories in battle and from the material magnificence of the monarch's court. (In today's case, the splendors of the U.S. economy would probably substitute.)
The classical idea of war for national aggrandizement was supposed to have been ended by the World War I. War for traditional purposes had a bad name after that. What followed was ideological war.
The United States thrived in the ideological age because it believes that it is the product of great progressive ideas, which it can and should transmit to others, including the Chinese.
One should not forget that President Franklin Roosevelt insisted on presenting Chiang Kai-shek's China as a nearly democratic protégé of the United States, to be treated as one of World War II's allied "big four." Much subsequent bitterness in American-Chinese relations arose from the fact that the Chinese rejected Chiang, accepted Mao and spurned Washington's patronage.
Classical power rivalry is not the only way to look at international relations. Foreign policy whose long-term objectives are peace and order looks for short-term adjustments and compromises that can accommodate the legitimate interests of other states, while checking their illegitimate, aggressive and peace-disrupting actions.
Doing so is known as statesmanship. It tries to make realistic assessments of power relationships and national interests. In the Chinese-American case, its starting point has to be that China is where it is, and the United States is on the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean. Since 1945 and the defeat of Japan, the United States has been in the abnormal situation of effectively dominating Japan, formerly East Asia's greatest power.
The United States keeps large military installations in Japan, where 21,000 U.S. troops are stationed. As a result of the Korean War, Washington also now keeps a force of 36,000 in South Korea - a country that U.S. diplomacy had, in 1950, identified as outside the zone of U.S. security interest.
This military deployment has only remotely to do with the security of the United States. Neither China nor Japan has now or ever had an interest in conquering the United States.
Japan in 1940 wanted to drive the United States and the European colonial powers out of the western Pacific, which it considered its legitimate zone of interest.
Even in the days of the Vietnam war, China had no global ambitions, despite much nonsense said in official Washington at the time. It has always seen itself as a self-sufficient empire, demanding acknowledgment of its suzerainty over its small neighbors and international respect as a great power. That presents problems for its small neighbors, and possibly for its larger ones. But it certainly does not threaten the United States. China's hostility to American military patrols on its borders is a normal reaction.
The question for both China and Japan is: What does the United States want, since it is the non-Asian actor in this situation? Being the foreign power, it must in the long term leave the region to them, and to the smaller political actors in Asia. They can see this, even if today's Washington cannot.
What the United States cannot reasonably want is to exercise permanent power in the Far East, against China's hostility, and eventually that of Japan, which sooner or later will shake off its subordination to the United States. However, that is a long-term consideration, and Washington deals in the short term.
Copyright © 2001 the International Herald Tribune