Review of the Realist Paradigm

Pivot or Trap? American Return Back to East Asia

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Pivot or Trap? American Return Back to East Asia

The new approach to East Asia by the Obama Administration was to overcome the limits of the previous Bush Administration and his diplomacy of transformation. The result was President Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” that declared American attention turned back to East Asia as the most vital area for its interest. The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review(QDDR), which was published in 2010, has focused on reforming the predecessor’s foreign policy framework and change the priority of the United States’ from the Middle East or Europe to East Asia. The QDDR has proposed the triple axis of American foreign policy that was composed of defense, diplomacy and development.2 The United States would have to take a smart approach in order to adapt to the 21st-century environment and increase the participation of civil populations and their functional capabilities in crisis management and the resolution of conflicts. A full spectrum of public diplomacy throughout the strategy of engagement towards other countries was declared in the QDDR as the primary target of the first term of the Obama Administration.3

Europe seems to have been estranged from America’s concern these days, while the Civil War in Ukraine and consequent energy problems have redrawn attention over the continent. The NATO might be the marginal threshold for which America is determined to be militarily involved in Europe when its member is attacked from outside. However, the problem for the United States is not so much a security commitment for Europe as the internal division within the NATO on burden-sharing among member countries. As the continent has lost its motive for a strong security alliance after the Cold War, more countries have taken the “free-riding” strategy in providing collective goods.4 In the Middle East region, the American public have become more skeptical of its performance in its war against terrorism. So the Obama Administration decided to retreat from Iraq and Afghanistan, despite disadvantageous situations in the region. Even after the United States’ army withdrew from Iraq, political and military struggles in the country have been exacerbated and President Obama recently decided to intervene in the region against the Islamic State (IS) via aerial bombing. Whereas it may be too early to evaluate the American policy in the Middle East as a failure, the status of the United States in the region seems to have been weakened eventually during the Obama Administration.

In the region of East Asia, the change of foreign policy by the Obama Administration was triggered by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with her initiative of the “forward-deployed” diplomacy in 2011. It was intended to materialize an active engagement and cooperation mechanisms in East Asia upon the full-scale support of American diplomatic assets. Key six missions for this change were: bilateral security alliances, working relationships with emerging powers, regional multilateral institutions, increase of trade and investment, broad-based military deployment, and democracy and human rights.5 America has shown its interests in several regional arrangements in Asia, such as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the East Asian Summit (EAS), ASEAN+3, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and the Trilateral Security Dialogue (TSD).6 The Six-Party Talks for the North Korean nuclear issue and the idea of “minilateralism” have been another type of American involvements in the region. As such, the United States has started to show its own big stakes in the region and regional movements.7

America has preferred a “divide-and-rule” strategy for maintaining its predominant role in East Asia during the Cold War era. It was obvious in its “hub-and-spoke” type in alliance architecture, unlike that of the multilateral NATO (Dittmer 2002, 40-41). Its legacy started to bounce back to America as it seems to be involved in serious challenges that were not expected before. The most serious among them include the rise of China as the contender for hegemony in the region, and the consequent territorial disputes among East Asian countries. The strategy of “Pivot to Asia” by the Obama Administration is dependent upon its attitude toward the traditional allies in the region, such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan versus the assertive China claiming the regional hegemony in East Asia. Not just the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands but also China’s unilateral claims over the Spratly Islands in South China Sea might become no less serious flashpoints than those of old ones such as the Taiwan Strait and the Korean Peninsula. Under the condition that the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 still effective, nobody can say whether and how much America provide security commitments to Taiwan if China tries to integrate the Island.

As the military alliance between the United States and South Korea has frequently been shaken due to domestic regime changes, it seems that Japan remains as the only secured geographic stronghold for America presence. The problem is that Japan, regardless of American preference, wants to normalize its global and regional status, but in a way that’s not compatible to its neighbors’ expectations. China, Taiwan, two Koreas and a couple of Southeastern countries have still claimed against the Japanese movement toward a regional power with rearmaments and nuclearization. As such, the United States may have to choose which side to support when any serious conflicts happen between China and Japan, or between any regional powers. Then East Asia may not be so much a “pivot” as a “trap” again like those of Vietnam and Afghanistan. The final decision should be upon the grand strategy of the United States, which seems not have been so clearly declared by the Obama Doctrine.8

This situation of America returning to East Asia has caused fierce debates over the goals and grand strategies, especially those against the rising China. One group who advocates the “engagement” strategy have argued that the United States should maintain the global leadership role by creating and sustaining a liberal order to guarantee economic prosperity. They prefer to establish a rule-based system for global politics that is favorable to American vital interests. The United States should, according to them, extend its security commitments over the world. On the other hand, scholars who are suspicious of the benefits of American leadership, have supported to retreat from abroad as existing grand strategy is counterproductive and unnecessary. Because the geographic environments of the United States keeps the country safe from foreign threats, it needs not to spend resources abroad too much to undermine its relative power position. So the scholars have argued that the United States should pass the bucks to foreign allies as much as possible rather than rush to aid them (Montgomery 2014, 118-121).9

Therefore, the strategy of “Pivot to Asia” by the Obama Administration has been obfuscated and thus criticized like the Middle East strategy of the Bush Administration. Nothing is clear about America’s goal in the region: Some are arguing that America intends to contain the rising China in order to keep it challenging American hegemony; others are proposing the thesis of the balance of power that it is natural for America to balance the threatening power of China in the region; still others see, in the perspective of rational strategy, America is deterring China not to do what it does not want. We are not yet sure the nature of American presence and strategic posture in the region without full theoretical discourses about it. Unfortunately, existing discussion over the American Strategy in East Asia has been dominated by the realist paradigm. Many concepts, as the tools for theoretical discourses, include such terms as power, interests, strategy, hegemony, balance of power, bandwagoning, deterrence. Also the existing dialogue over the issue has been focusing on the role and function of great powers such as the United States and China. While admitting the role of the realist paradigm in its explanatory refinement, I would like to add more to it. Three myths of the realist paradigm in understanding American strategy in East Asia will be expounded in this paper. However, before discussing the myths, I would like to discuss how the realist paradigm has relied too much on the “great power bias” and how it led to a misunderstanding of the rise of China as a hegemonic challenger in the next section.

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