Obama and Asia

President Barack Obama can start planning for potential problems in Asia. In light of possible threats from China, North Korea, and even Japan, a renewed focus on U.S. policy toward Asia would benefit American strategic interests.

Wendt Scholar
Nicholas Eberstadt

Outgoing President George W. Bush faced many challenges--from September 11 to North Korea's nuclear test--that his administration never anticipated. President-elect Barack Obama can't see into the future, either. But his team can start to plan for possible problems in an area that he hasn't talked much about: Asia.

It would be smart to start with China. In academia, the business community and governmental circles, the received wisdom is that China's dazzling economic ascent will continue, the current world recession notwithstanding, perhaps for decades. Consequently, the thinking goes, Chinese economic success will be the dominant factor altering the international equation in Asia over the years ahead.

This scenario may indeed turn out to be the case--but then again, it may not. There are a great many ways in which China might instead "fail." The country's very real, looming demographic troubles and rapidly slowing economy raise concerns of resource shortages or environmental crises. It is not beyond the scope of possibility that China's brittle, authoritarian and increasingly corrupt political system could suddenly unravel. American policy makers must of course deal with China as it is, but they would also be well advised to devote attention to what such seemingly low-probability alternatives for the Chinese future might portend.

Asia hasn't figured much on Mr. Obama's agenda so far. Changing that now may stave off bigger problems in the future.

The Korean Peninsula is another area where Mr. Obama might get an uncomfortable "surprise." A central question here, of course, is the future of the North Korean state--a political construct that appears particularly ill-suited for gradual political adjustments or reforms. Pyongyang's success in staving off sudden systemic change thus far does not in itself guarantee continued and indefinite success in this effort.

Big changes in North Korea could raise the specter of dangerous new humanitarian challenges and security threats, including destabilizing refugee flows, military conflict and possible nuclear proliferation. Alternatively, the fall of North Korea could also set the stage for a Korean unification--an eventuality that might possibly alter Asia very much for the better, just as German unification did in Europe. U.S. policy makers are likely to deal better with sudden change in North Korea if they have thought about the issues it would raise in advance.

Then there is Japan, to which Mr. Obama has paid little, if any, attention. His advisors may think that Tokyo's policy makers will do little more than incrementally tinker with the "Yoshida doctrine"--whereby Tokyo has implicitly traded its right to self-defense for U.S. military protection for over half a century. Yet Japanese international policy in the past has tended to make sudden, and monumental, shifts--and the current gap between Japan's economic might and her instruments of international influence is perhaps more conspicuous than for any other major actor in the contemporary international arena. The current Liberal Democratic Party coalition, too, looks weak, and for the first time in over a decade, may be voted out of office.

It's not beyond the realm of possibility that Japan might suddenly arrive at a national consensus to make the leap at last to being a "normal nation": a country unashamed of identifying its national interests, and willing moreover to defend these interests. How would such a seismic shift affect Asia--and the American security architecture in Asia?

Mr. Obama and his team will have to address immediate foreign-policy challenges, such as Israel's conflict with Hamas, India-Pakistan tensions and the looming specter of a soon-to-be nuclear Iran. But that shouldn't stop him from planning for problems elsewhere. Asia hasn't figured much on Mr. Obama's agenda so far. Changing that now may stave off bigger problems in the future.

Nicholas Eberstadt is the Henry Wendt Scholar in Political Economy at AEI.

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