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Jan 27, 2009 | 12:07 GMT

9 mins read

Part 1: The Obama Administration and East Asia

Editor's Note: This is the first piece in a series that explores how key countries in various regions have interacted with the United States in the past, and how their relationships with Washington will likely be defined during the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama.

As the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama takes office, much of East Asia expects Washington to continue the existing U.S. policies in the region for a year or two, while Obama focuses on more pressing issues such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Russia. Some gradual shifts in U.S. East Asia policy are likely, though these will be driven more by overarching national interests and changing international circumstances than by the specific desires of Obama.

Key Drivers and Strategies

Historically, relations between the United States and East Asia have been driven by two key concerns: economics and defense. Late to the game of colonization, Washington sought in the mid-1800s to push its way into the region through gunboat diplomacy and a free trade policy that undercut the advantages of the existing colonial powers. From the start, trade issues and security shaped U.S. relations with Asia — from surges of Asian immigration to fuel development in the western United States to rising economic integration with an industrializing Japan in the early 20th century.

Economic integration did not necessarily preclude war, however. As seen in 1941, in many ways it was Japan's economic dependency upon the United States that contributed to Tokyo's decision to attack Pearl Harbor. Further, the demographic disparity between Asia and the United States had long raised fears of the "yellow horde" being able to outnumber and overwhelm the Americans. As the United States learned in the 20th century through a series of wars in Asia — World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War — the population difference was nigh insurmountable.

Throughout the Cold War, the United States saw East Asia as an outpost to check Soviet expansion and squeeze Moscow between European allies and Asian allies. The U.S. military maintained outposts in Korea, Japan and elsewhere as part of a strategy to bottle up any potential Soviet expansion, while supporting autocratic and military regimes in places like Seoul, Bangkok and Jakarta to preserve U.S. interests and further prevent the spread of communism in the region. In 1979, Washington established diplomatic relations with Beijing, bringing in communist China as a partner in countering the Soviet Union.

Asia also became a major economic engine during the Cold War years, however. Indeed, one of the things that helped move the United States to the center of the global economic system — the shift of the center of gravity of world trade from the North Atlantic to the Pacific — also kept Washington worried about one rising Asian economy after another. This happened first in Japan, where Washington revitalized industrial production — this was done initially to support wartime operations in Korea, and later as a quid pro quo to Tokyo in return for allowing the large-scale U.S. military deployments.

By the end of the Cold War, Japan was seen as a rising superpower, challenging Washington's global competitiveness and influence and triggering fearmongering and calls for protectionism in the United States. Japan's economic malaise in the early 1990s, however, opened the way for the other "Asian Tigers" — including South Korea — to take up the slack. By the mid-1990s, there were warnings once again that the United States was going to be left behind in a new Asian century. But the Asian economic crisis in 1997/1998 left the Asian Tigers bruised and licking their wounds. This opened the way for China to launch into its own massive economic expansion — with warnings once again flying in Washington that another Asian threat had emerged, this time from communist China. With a global economic downturn now under way, the world is waiting to see whether the China threat proves as hollow as that of Japan and the Asian Tigers did before.

This history has led to an unstated U.S. strategy in dealing with Asia that continues today: do not allow a single power to dominate Asia, whether politically (as in the case of communism), militarily (as with Japan in the 1930s and 1940s) or economically (as some currently fear China could come to do).

The View from China: Caution

At the center of U.S.-Asian interaction is, of course, China. Beijing has had mixed feelings about Obama's election. On the one hand, Chinese officials hope he will be more "multilateral," allowing Beijing a bigger voice in international affairs. On the other hand they are concerned that, as a Democrat, he will begin reversing the relatively benign trade policies the United States has pursued toward China in recent years. Trade protectionism is a major concern of Beijing's, and early comments by Obama administration officials about Chinese "currency manipulation" are doing little to assuage Chinese concerns.

Beijing also has another concern about Obama: as a minority, his ability to be elected to arguably the most powerful position in the world could encourage minorities (or other disempowered groups) in China to challenge the political system there. Such a push, should it come now, would find the Chinese Communist Party struggling with the effects of a global economic slump that is already challenging China's economic and social stability — and thus the coherence and stability of the Party itself.

China's first message to the incoming administration, then, was communicated through timing rather than words per se: Beijing released its biennial Defense White Paper on the day Obama took the oath of office. This was meant as a quiet warning that, while China could be a valuable asset in cooperative efforts to ensure global peace and security, it could just as easily be a competitor and challenger to the United States, depending upon the decisions made in Washington.

China is not on the top of the new administration's priority list (the U.S. economy, Afghanistan and Russia all rank far higher), but nonetheless some of these interests do intersect with China's. This is particularly so in the case of the U.S. domestic economy, given Washington's need to finance its debt in the midst of the global economic slowdown. China's attempts to export its way out of its own economic crisis by essentially "dumping" goods on the world market will only deepen tensions with the United States, raising China's profile in a less-than-friendly way.

The new U.S. administration is likely, however, to take a fairly benign approach to China for the first year or so as it deals with more pressing priorities (though the reality might appear to be different if one watches only the rhetoric coming out of Washington and Beijing). China will use this time to try to influence and understand the future direction of the Obama administration, but also to consolidate its economic, political and security relations with its neighbors and along its critical resource supply lines, in case relations should go south.

Japan and the Koreas

While Washington is not likely to take an immediate hard-line approach toward China, even on economic issues, it is going to be preparing defensively for the future. The Asian alliance structure — largely neglected at the end of the Cold War and further neglected following the 9/11 attacks in the United States — is likely to get a shot in the arm as a buffer to prevent the excessive expansion of Chinese influence or action. Japan and Australia will form the cornerstone of this alliance, with Tokyo being called upon to move away more rapidly from its postwar prohibition on asserting itself militarily.

Japan is being asked to take a larger and more active role in regional security and beyond, and Washington fully supports this transition. The message being sent to China by reinvigorating this alliance will be unmistakable: coexist peacefully, but don't overstep your bounds. The military focus on Japan may also translate into a revival of economic ties — something that Japan, facing a rapidly aging population, will embrace after more than a decade and a half of economic stagnation.

Washington wants to wean itself off of its close economic relationship with China. Economic ties with Japan will focus on newer, greener technologies, new methods of energy generation and storage, and other high-technology industries rather than the basic manufacturing China has provided. This is not something that can happen rapidly, but the cornerstone of U.S. attention in Asia will be shifting from China back to Japan.

This leaves South Korea in its traditional unenviable position: stuck between a rising (and increasingly active) China and Japan. Seoul has already expressed concern that it will be left off the shortlist of U.S. priorities for Asia (and it is probably right). The evolution of U.S. forces in Korea will continue, with U.S. deployments there continuing to become smaller and more mobile and transferring more responsibilities to the South Koreans. Seoul's hopes for a free trade agreement with Washington also are facing problems. The deal is dead, barring a re-negotiation — which Seoul has vowed against, but may do anyway upon the insistence of the U.S. Congress.

The other concern for Seoul — and for Beijing and Tokyo — is the question of how Obama will deal with North Korea. The new administration in Washington has already suggested it will take a more bilateral approach with Pyongyang, weakening the influence of both China and South Korea. North Korea, meanwhile, is facing its own internal troubles — and there are rumors that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il will transfer power to a successor in 2012 due to concerns about his health. If that is the case, North Korea will be seeking to speed up its attempts at normalization of relations with the United States over the next four years, so that Kim can hand over power after accomplishing the first step in the goal toward ultimate reunification of the two Koreas: a formal peace treaty between Pyongyang and Washington. This very urgency on the part of the North may also leave the new U.S. administration knowing it has the upper hand — a position that will only be reinforced by Washington's expanded military cooperation with Japan.

In general, the early part of the Obama presidency will see little fundamental change in East Asian policies. There are other, much more pressing issues that need to be dealt with, so the region's issues will remain largely second- or third-tier ones for Washington for a year or two (barring a new Asian crisis). In that time, however, the Asian states will seek to influence any future policy shifts, jockeying for position on the priority list. But the ravages of the global economic slowdown could prove to be a more important determinant of the course the administration follows — as with all presidencies, it is the unexpected more than the anticipated that shapes priorities.

Part 1: The Obama Administration and East Asia

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