Participants in the East-West Center's fifth annual Senior Policy Seminar agreed that the overall strategic environment of the Asia Pacific region in 2003 is positive. Nevertheless, a number of continuing issues are cause for concern. The threat of terrorism and the potential for the Korean peninsula to lurch into deeper crisis remain the paramount concerns of the United States in the region. On the other hand, non-American participants expressed concern, and in some cases alarm, over the overwhelming power of the United States in international affairs. The multilateral world that many had expected to emerge after the end of the Cold War has not eventuated, and America's position as the sole superpower has strengthened. Much of the Seminar was devoted to discussions of what this means for the countries of Asia as they seek to deal with the United States.
Key points that stood out in the Seminar discussions were:
- The United States remains predominant in the Asia Pacific region, as throughout the world. U.S. power, rather than giving way to multipolarity, has arguably grown and will continue at least into the medium term. Current international institutional structures, however, are incongruent with the reality of American military and economic dominance.
- U.S. relationships in the region are being influenced directly by the war on terrorism. The violent attacks of September 11, 2001, caused both an outpouring of sympathy for the United States and recognition by many countries in the Asia Pacific region that terrorism represents a shared threat. However, the war in Iraq has generally worked to lower public esteem for the United States, and not just in Muslim majority countries--although sentiment against U.S. foreign policy is strongest in the latter group of countries.
- There is a strong perception in the region that the United States, under the Bush administration, is a unilateralist power. Although there are many situations where the United States has chosen to work through multilateral architecture (for example, on North Korea), the war in Iraq has dramatically overshadowed these other cases in the public perception. The contention within the United States, however, may be less between multilateralism and unilateralism than between institutionalized and "a la carte" multilateralism.
- The United States will maintain its guarantee of Asia Pacific security, a situation welcomed by all. A rearrangement of U.S. forces in South Korea will not alter the U.S. commitment to that country, or diminish defense capacity in the event of hostilities with North Korea. The Bush administration will continue the Clinton era policy of seeking "places, not bases," but, where it has bases (Korea and Japan), it is seeking to use them more flexibly and efficiently.
- The U.S. current account and budget deficits may impose limits on U.S. geopolitical power. Much of this deficit is financed by foreign exchange reserves in East Asian banks. There is little danger that East Asian governments will work in concert to undermine the U.S. currency, but there may be limits to their willingness to hold dollars.
- Relations between the larger powers in the Asia Pacific region are far more benign today than at the end of the Cold War. Reasons include the absence of the Soviet Union/Russia as a strategic player in the Pacific Ocean, China's emergence as a market economy and constructive player in global affairs, and moves toward democratization in the region.
- The war on terrorism has given Southeast Asia a level of prominence for Washington not seen since the Vietnam War. The United States is encouraging the countries of maritime Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines and Indonesia, to improve their security capabilities, including their capabilities in the field of counterterrorism. However, in collaborating on antiterrorism there is a danger that the United States will become entangled in local conflicts such as in Mindanao, which have their origins (and solutions) in local problems rather than in their links with al Qaeda.
- The war on terrorism has also given an impetus to increased regional security cooperation. However, the threat of terrorism in itself will not likely provide a long-term basis for organizing security arrangements in the region.
- Nuclear proliferation is a major security problem for the region. Most immediately, North Korea's nuclear program has the potential to cause neighboring nations to reconsider their own nonnuclear status. The U.S. government sees North Korean nuclear material as a direct threat to its own security, not just a threat to its allies.
- North Korea's assertive pursuit of nuclear weapons has created a renewed, grave crisis in Northeast Asia. Its twin goals of regime survival and massive external assistance present serious challenges to U.S. policy and to regional cooperation. There is every possibility that the United States--and the regional and global community--may have to live with a nuclear North Korea.
Additional titles in the Senior Policy Seminar series