Foreign Policy Blogs

China, Japan’s Collective Self Defense, and U.S. Interests in Asia

What's really at stake?

What’s really at stake?

On July 1, the U.S. simultaneously engaged in a naval exercise of co-operation with Chinese units, and one implicitly aimed at resisting China. On the same day, Hong Kong protesters marked the anniversary of China’s re-assumption of sovereignty there with their annual demonstration for democracy. Japan reinterpreted its constitutional restrictions on the use of defense forces, to allow “collective self-defense,” to defend allies even if Japan itself were not under attack. And South Korea was preparing for a visit from Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose itinerary does not include a stop in North Korea.

Even this partial, one-day rundown of news items points to numerous cross-currents, contradictions, and clashes. More exist, and more are latent, in East Asia.

Americans fret over the portents. Is Japan inclining toward armed belligerence, as a New York Times editorial asks? Can Xi’s visit weaken Seoul’s ties to the U.S.? Will China impose full-blown dictatorship in Hong Kong? Is their participation in joint naval maneuvers near Hawaii mere cover for their expansionism?

Perhaps, though, Asia’s developments, including China’s growth in wealth and power, actually show the spread of America’s deepest values. China, while not a political democracy, now allows great economic liberty. It has an interest in freedom of the high seas and thus in the U.S.-based maritime order. Hong Kong, not a democracy under British rule, now serves as a vehicle for Renminbi convertibility, giving China incentive not to crack down on Hong Kong politics. Japan, while voicing nationalistic sentiments currently, has cemented a democratic government into a modern society. South Korea has transitioned from military government.

America is founded on principles of liberty. Their long-term progress in Asia marks a great American success. Geopolitical influence, military power, a reserve currency, and alliances, are means, not ends. In our true national interest, namely the advance of our norm that government serves people’s unalienable rights, we have been gaining, and still are.

If continued development in this direction is not assured, we have considerable means to influence events. Of course a primary influence is our own domestic conduct. In Richard Haass’ words, foreign policy begins at home. If our Liberal society does not repair its dysfunctions, “Asian values,” social and government limits on liberty, will increasingly seem better for prosperity and order. If we, as an open society, can exhibit competent self-government, we re-validate liberty’s innate appeal.

Creative foreign policy initiatives can also help. If we shift our focus from the trappings of influence to our fundamental values, plausible new stances and measures, that turn troubling developments back toward our ends, suggest themselves.

A new Japanese doctrine could actually point to improved security alliances. Our deepest alliances, NATO, NORAD, ANZUS and U.S.-Japan, date from the Cold War and are uncertain as to their purpose today. Measures such as NATO expansion can be seen as geopolitical encroachment, for example by Putin’s Russia. The U.S.-Japan alliance binds us to Japan in potential hostilities with China.

That said, those alliances do comprise the world’s freest societies. Their members also share affinities and connections ranging from technological prowess to aging populations to limited hostile land borders. The alliances could plausibly merge into a community of collective defense, for democracy and free communication.  Re-aligning their capabilities to clear defense of this freedom could damp others’ perceptions of threat. Premising membership on full conditions of liberty, we would explicitly approach other countries as they come to share that interest. Our alliance would become a vehicle to extend security to all, rather than a wall to exclude outsiders.

Japan’s new doctrine of collective defense would allow it to contribute to such a community. Rather than portending Japanese power projection in Asia, the policy could bind Japan into a global defensive scheme. America would reaffirm our commitment to Japan for their democracy while diluting the hint of confrontation around its constitutional action.

Prospective membership for South Korea – already a democratic U.S. ally — in this new community would bring a new country, which has growing ties to China, into the fold. The potential for a standoff between China and the West would attenuate as and if those relations develop.

China’s interest in open maritime communications allows for a relationship with this security community, including more joint naval exercises. That relationship offers a stake to offset the value of transgressions against democratic or developing neighbors’ freedoms. It could form a security-based common interest alongside our economic interdependence, and offer China a geopolitical role that fits the interests of freedom. It may, without our preaching, promote freedom’s value to China.

Of course any new course entails risks. But viewing the stakes in terms of America’s deepest national interest, the Declaration’s expressed faith in the unalienable rights, rather than worrying over power’s accouterments, points to a better approach in a complex region.



George Paik

George F. Paik is a former political affairs officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, as well as a twenty year veteran of U.S. capital markets. He is a current board member and former chair of the World Affairs Forum (a sister to FPA in the World Affairs Councils of America network) in Stamford, CT. His work as a diplomat straddled the fall of the USSR, and included political analysis, human rights, trade affairs, and environmental policy, in postings were in Brazil and Trinidad, and in the Department of State. Financial experience includes stints with Mellon Bank, Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. and People’s United Bank. He currently holds the position of Managing Director at Lord Capital, LLC, a firm focused on international trade finance.

Paik graduated from Harvard University with a BA in Social Studies; he also holds an MBA in Finance from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He counts ten years playing Rugby, with club mates from countries around the globe, as part of his international experience.