President Clinton’s trip to Seattle later this week is fraught with significance. There he is scheduled not only to participate in, but also to act as official host for, the fifth annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation: Ministerial Meeting (APEC). In the four years since APEC’s initial gathering in Canberra, the global scene has been fundamentally recast and the dramatic developments that ended the Cold War have elevated the importance of the so-called Pacific Rim in world affairs. The disappearance of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, the atrophy of the former Red Army, and the economic dislocations now debilitating post-communist societies: all these increase the consequence of the political, strategic and economic issues facing governments in the dynamic Asia and Pacific region.
"The fundamental problems facing the Pacific Rim region, now and for the foreseeable future, are not economic in nature.They are instead political."
As the “E” in its acronym denotes, the APEC delegates convening in Seattle will be largely preoccupied with economic concerns. They will not lack for these in their upcoming deliberations. The fate of the NAFTA treaty, the troubled prospects for the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and the perennially thorny issue of local receptivity to foreign investment are but a few of the matters that bear directly on the prosperity of APEC’s 15 members--and which could be meliorated by specific actions on the part of member governments in this multilateral organization. The items on APEC’s economic agenda are portentous--and contentious. They will generate debate and extensive public commentary. For all the attention they will rightly attract, however, it is well to remember that the fundamental problems facing the Pacific Rim region, now and for the foreseeable future, are not economic in nature. They are instead political. Indeed: Four great political questions loom over the Asian and Pacific region today. The eventual answers to those four questions will decisively shape the economic outlook for the region.
The most pressing of these questions concerns Korea. How will the division of that peninsula finally come to an end? As presently constituted, the North Korean regime is doomed--but its leadership has built an awesome military apparatus, and is racing to develop nuclear weaponry, in the hope that these instruments will somehow forestall the march of history. Resolute in its determination not to be swept into the dustbin of failed communist experiments but increasingly grim about its actual prospects, North Korea finds its international relations gripped by extreme and mounting tension. If conflict were to erupt on the Korean peninsula, the outcome could only be horrendous. But even the “optimistic” version of a Korean endgame could pose formidable challenges to the local populace and the international community. A free and peaceful reunification would beg the issue of reconstruction for the distorted and impoverished economy of the former North Korea. Possible differences from the recent German experience notwithstanding, there can be little doubt that such an effort would entail enormous financial outlays--and that it would have very real repercussions for international capital markets.
The second great question facing Asia concerns Japan: more specifically, Japanese foreign policy. The so-called “Yoshida doctrine” (named after Yoshida Shigeru, the early postwar prime minister who codified it without ever articulating it) has guided Japan’s external relations for over 40 years, but that doctrine is no longer viable. Paradoxically, it is the victim of its own success. The strategy of concentrating on economic advancement while eschewing the cost of collective security and the burdens of international political commitment had much to offer a defeated and technologically backward nation.
But today, Japan is the world’s second largest economy, and with the end of the “Soviet threat,” the enunciated rationale for Japan’s near-total security dependence on the United States has been undermined. The dysfunctional state of current arrangements is reflected in contemporary Japanese political debate. On one hand, voices clamor for a Japanese seat on the U.N. Security Council; on the other, they cavil at even the tiniest disposition of Japanese forces to U.N. peacekeeping operations. Japan cannot forever remain a one-legged giant upon the world’s stage; learning to walk, however, may prove to be a painful process.
The third great question facing Asia is the future of China. Over the past 15 years, China’s economic policy has turned outward--and to remarkable effect. Yet impressive as these gains may be, the fact is that China’s government is still a Leninist dictatorship--consigned by the logic of Leninism to international conflict. Beijing insists that forcible reunion with Taipei (a fellow APEC member) is her prerogative. She is rapidly augmenting her military capabilities and furtively promoting the proliferation of nuclear and missile technology. More troubling than such current policies is the uncertainty over what lies in store after paramount leader Deng Xiaoping passes from the scene.
Communist China has yet to enjoy a smooth and orderly transfer of power, and “warlordism” is hardly an unknown tradition within the People’s Liberation Army. It is arguably natural for a nation like China to entertain Great Power aspirations. But unless and until Beijing succeeds with a transition from Leninist rule to rule of law, the manner in which she articulates her aspirations promises to be unpredictable and costly for the international community and the world economy.
"Will America continue to accept the enormous responsibilities and costs that necessarily devolve upon the world leader?"
The final question concerns the United States. Will America continue to accept the enormous responsibilities and costs that necessarily devolve upon the world leader? The answer is by no means self-evident. Despite nearly half a century of Pax Americana, the United States remains a most reluctant and unlikely superpower. The isolationist tendency in American sentiment and thought runs deep. It has firm philosophical foundations, being rooted in the premise that entanglements abroad inevitably restrict freedoms at home. To a liberty-loving nation, this will always be a powerful argument.
But the alternatives to active U.S. international engagement all pose far greater threats to America’s freedom. There is no country waiting in the wings to grasp the banner of liberal leadership that Britain passed off to America earlier this century. More than any other single factor, it is American power that is indispensable for security and prosperity around the Pacific Rim. This will remain true for the foreseeable future. We may hope that Mr. Clinton’s journey to Seattle is a sign that he recognizes this reality.
Nicholas Eberstadt is a visiting scholar at AEI. This piece was originally prepared as a National Bureau for Asian Research Analysis.