It has become conventional wisdom to prematurely claim that the days of American presence in Asia Pacific are numbered, and that the region will eventually be incorporated into Sino-centric system where, of course, Beijing will be ascendant. Proponents of this argument are quick to point out the halting of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Obama’s Pivot to Asia, which failed to come to fruition. It is true that America’s relative influence is declining and its ability to have an impact on internal developments among the region’s actors will be limited. But is America ready to exit the region, and are allies in the Pacific willing to live without her presence?

The answer is: hold your horses. America will remain in the region for quite a while.

For the sake of a fair argument, Beijing indeed has carried out rather successful economic policies to attract its smaller neighbors, including those who have for decades been under America’s umbrella. Among the most noteworthy achievements is the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) which opts for reducing the influence of institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) as well as accelerating Beijing’s wider economic ambitions. Furthermore, the collapse of the TPP has created a vacuum which will most likely be filled by a new proposed trade agreement: the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The purpose of the deal is to promote trade relations between ASEAN countries and six partner states: Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, and South Korea. Needless to say, China has been vehemently advocating for the materialization of the project.

But does China’s economic integration alone signify a fundamental change in regional geopolitics where American presence is seen as obsolete or unwelcome? Yes, if you only ask China. Most Asian countries have benefited greatly from an American liberal international order in which maintaining peace and guaranteeing the free flow of goods have been crucial. Additionally, unresolved territorial disputes, nationalism, and conflicting values will be major barriers in creating a sustainable integrated strategic system in Asia. In short, don’t expect Asia-Pacific to become something akin to the European Union, at least in the immediate horizon. The regional balance-of-power will continue to persist and those not able to handle the Chinese advance will seek America’s protection.

Take one of the powerhouses in Asia: India. The latter has never been an official U.S. ally and will not be one in the near future. This primarily has to do with India’s national nightmare, which of course is the crippling legacy of colonialism. As the British Empire ceased to exist, Indian leadership was adamant that the U.S. would attempt to replace Britain as the new colonizing force, which did not happen. Add to this America’s support for Pakistan during the Soviet-Afghan War, and you’ll understand why New Delhi has traditionally favored Moscow as an alternative source of power.

But times are changing and so is India, as manifested by Narendra Modi’s foreign policy. Unlike previous prime ministers, Modi is not particularly interested in exposing the crimes of Western colonialists. He even signaled the final departure from India’s traditional Arab solidarity by visiting Israel in July of 2017. Historically, New Delhi had been reluctant to initiate any diplomatic relations with Israel for two reasons: the first being the policy of Third World solidarity in the Middle East which included supporting the Palestinians; and of course, the fear of upsetting India’s large Muslim population. In 1992, however, India established diplomatic relations with Israel, and in 2017 Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit the country. In a word, Modi seems to be embracing pragmatic realpolitik given the geopolitical situation with China and Pakistan.

Apart from the territorial dispute in the Himalayas, New Delhi is increasingly worried about China’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean, which is commonly known as the String of Pearls strategy. The idea is that China wants to establish a military and commercial network of sea lanes of communications stretching from mainland China to Africa. Beijing already has an overseas base in Djibouti and there are good reasons to believe that the number of bases will continue rising.

New Delhi realizes that it cannot contain China in the Indian Ocean without the help of the superb U.S. Navy. Therefore, the U.S.-India partnership is poised to deepen and the latest Malabar naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal is an evidence to this.

Japan is another Asian power that very much appreciates America’s naval presence. The country has unresolved territorial disputes with Russia over the Kuril Islands and views China’s advancement as a strategic threat. Hypothetically speaking, America’s total withdrawal from the region would instantly spark a new conflict between Tokyo and Beijing. In order to balance China, Japan would have to militarize, which could potentially include developing nuclear weapons. The idea of a nuclear Japan obviously wouldn’t fly either with China or Russia, and the immediate outcome would be a regional conflict. Apart from military cooperation, the U.S. unilaterally has overseen the reconstruction of Japan, which included fundamental changes in Japanese society and its economy as well as governmental and administrative agencies. After all, it was Shogun MacArthur who drafted Japan’s post-WWII constitution and helped to transform Japan into an enduring liberal democracy. One wouldn’t be wrong to assume that the U.S. and Japan now have the true ‘special relationship.’

One indicator of this was Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s instant trip to Washington days after Donald Trump was elected president to assure his American counterpart that Tokyo is still a viable ally despite talk of killing the TPP. Moreover, Abe arrived in Washington with an alternative to TPP known as the US-Japan Growth and Employment Initiative geared towards boosting Japanese expenditure on U.S. infrastructure and cooperation in areas such as artificial intelligence. Additionally, the U.S. is the number one choice for Japanese foreign direct investment totaling $370 billion in 2014 alone.

But it’s not the economic benefits that will keep Japan in America’s arms but the security threats that keep Tokyo on constant alert. The recent reckless actions of North Korea (NK) which oversaw the launch of a missile over Hokkaido Island violating Japan’s airspace, will further bring Washington and Tokyo closer in addressing the security threats in the region. Apart from aerial threats, Japan has pressing concerns over its territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands that are claimed by China and have witnessed the intrusion of Chinese ships before.

Along with the historical commitment to allies in the region, the U.S. has vital national interests. Asia Pacific is home to key sea lanes of communication which serve as an economic lifeline for the United States, considering the number of shipments that pass through this region. Any minor conflict in the South China Sea such as a contest over the Spratly Islands could easily imperil America’s economic interests. For the record, close to $5 trillion of world trade goes through the South China Sea. In case of a major threat the U.S. would be compelled to intervene to protect the Straits of Malacca and Lombok even if it required a temporary blockade.

Despite its growing assertiveness, China realizes that it cannot confront the U.S. Navy, which serves as a deterrent to any aggression in the region. What China needs now is a long and undisturbed period of economic growth, and any military confrontation could paralyze China’s economy. Hence, Beijing’s massive railroad construction to reduce the maritime dependence. Although it is quite impressive what China has achieved in terms of railroad extension, there is a big question mark hanging over its efficiency.

Yes, China’s economic statecraft is a powerful tool that can dramatically alter the regional status quo, and South Korea (ROK) is a vivid example. The country’s physical security is in the hands of American men and women in uniform stationed across South Korea. And make no mistake, if the threat from North Korea were neutralized once and for all and the American presence was no longer needed, South Korea would most likely get sucked into the Chinese economy and become the latter’s client state. Being an export-based economy, ROK is heavily dependent on China, which as of 2015 absorbed 26.1% of ROK’s goods and services, making Beijing its most important trading partner. Therefore, Seoul is quite cautious not to antagonize China and tries to maintain friendly relations with Beijing.

But in the light of NK’s aggression, Seoul too has been forced to risk its economic relations with China, given the continued deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. It should come as no surprise that Beijing responded by utilizing its economic leverage and indirectly hitting Korean firms operating in China. Among the targets was the giant Lotte Group that arranged its lands in ROK for the placement of THAAD. Nonetheless, Seoul was smart enough to prioritize the security matters and not to succumb to China’s economic provocations.

As mentioned, America’s ability to unilaterally control the events in the region will suffer a relative decline. But that doesn’t warrant a complete withdrawal given the economic factors involved as well as the network of alliances that Washington has built up during the past several decades. America should not be expected to bear the burden of maintaining order in the region alone. Therefore, Washington ought to strengthen the network of allies to foster cooperation among friendly nations and engage allies that share America’s strategic vision.

Erik Khzmalyan is a Senior Fellow at the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute and an MA Candidate in Statecraft and National Security Affairs at the Institute of World Politics. He tweets @erik_kmn

It has become conventional wisdom to prematurely claim that the days of American presence in Asia Pacific are numbered, and that the region will eventually be incorporated into Sino-centric system where, of course, Beijing will be ascendant. Proponents of this argument are quick to point out the halting of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Obama’s Pivot to Asia, which failed to come to fruition. It is true that America’s relative influence is declining and its ability to have an impact on internal developments among the region’s actors will be limited. But is America ready to exit the region, and are allies in the Pacific willing to live without her presence?

The answer is: hold your horses. America will remain in the region for quite a while.

For the sake of a fair argument, Beijing indeed has carried out rather successful economic policies to attract its smaller neighbors, including those who have for decades been under America’s umbrella. Among the most noteworthy achievements is the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) which opts for reducing the influence of institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) as well as accelerating Beijing’s wider economic ambitions. Furthermore, the collapse of the TPP has created a vacuum which will most likely be filled by a new proposed trade agreement: the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The purpose of the deal is to promote trade relations between ASEAN countries and six partner states: Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, and South Korea. Needless to say, China has been vehemently advocating for the materialization of the project.

But does China’s economic integration alone signify a fundamental change in regional geopolitics where American presence is seen as obsolete or unwelcome? Yes, if you only ask China. Most Asian countries have benefited greatly from an American liberal international order in which maintaining peace and guaranteeing the free flow of goods have been crucial. Additionally, unresolved territorial disputes, nationalism, and conflicting values will be major barriers in creating a sustainable integrated strategic system in Asia. In short, don’t expect Asia-Pacific to become something akin to the European Union, at least in the immediate horizon. The regional balance-of-power will continue to persist and those not able to handle the Chinese advance will seek America’s protection.

Take one of the powerhouses in Asia: India. The latter has never been an official U.S. ally and will not be one in the near future. This primarily has to do with India’s national nightmare, which of course is the crippling legacy of colonialism. As the British Empire ceased to exist, Indian leadership was adamant that the U.S. would attempt to replace Britain as the new colonizing force, which did not happen. Add to this America’s support for Pakistan during the Soviet-Afghan War, and you’ll understand why New Delhi has traditionally favored Moscow as an alternative source of power.

But times are changing and so is India, as manifested by Narendra Modi’s foreign policy. Unlike previous prime ministers, Modi is not particularly interested in exposing the crimes of Western colonialists. He even signaled the final departure from India’s traditional Arab solidarity by visiting Israel in July of 2017. Historically, New Delhi had been reluctant to initiate any diplomatic relations with Israel for two reasons: the first being the policy of Third World solidarity in the Middle East which included supporting the Palestinians; and of course, the fear of upsetting India’s large Muslim population. In 1992, however, India established diplomatic relations with Israel, and in 2017 Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit the country. In a word, Modi seems to be embracing pragmatic realpolitik given the geopolitical situation with China and Pakistan.

Apart from the territorial dispute in the Himalayas, New Delhi is increasingly worried about China’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean, which is commonly known as the String of Pearls strategy. The idea is that China wants to establish a military and commercial network of sea lanes of communications stretching from mainland China to Africa. Beijing already has an overseas base in Djibouti and there are good reasons to believe that the number of bases will continue rising.

New Delhi realizes that it cannot contain China in the Indian Ocean without the help of the superb U.S. Navy. Therefore, the U.S.-India partnership is poised to deepen and the latest Malabar naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal is an evidence to this.

Japan is another Asian power that very much appreciates America’s naval presence. The country has unresolved territorial disputes with Russia over the Kuril Islands and views China’s advancement as a strategic threat. Hypothetically speaking, America’s total withdrawal from the region would instantly spark a new conflict between Tokyo and Beijing. In order to balance China, Japan would have to militarize, which could potentially include developing nuclear weapons. The idea of a nuclear Japan obviously wouldn’t fly either with China or Russia, and the immediate outcome would be a regional conflict. Apart from military cooperation, the U.S. unilaterally has overseen the reconstruction of Japan, which included fundamental changes in Japanese society and its economy as well as governmental and administrative agencies. After all, it was Shogun MacArthur who drafted Japan’s post-WWII constitution and helped to transform Japan into an enduring liberal democracy. One wouldn’t be wrong to assume that the U.S. and Japan now have the true ‘special relationship.’

One indicator of this was Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s instant trip to Washington days after Donald Trump was elected president to assure his American counterpart that Tokyo is still a viable ally despite talk of killing the TPP. Moreover, Abe arrived in Washington with an alternative to TPP known as the US-Japan Growth and Employment Initiative geared towards boosting Japanese expenditure on U.S. infrastructure and cooperation in areas such as artificial intelligence. Additionally, the U.S. is the number one choice for Japanese foreign direct investment totaling $370 billion in 2014 alone.

But it’s not the economic benefits that will keep Japan in America’s arms but the security threats that keep Tokyo on constant alert. The recent reckless actions of North Korea (NK) which oversaw the launch of a missile over Hokkaido Island violating Japan’s airspace, will further bring Washington and Tokyo closer in addressing the security threats in the region. Apart from aerial threats, Japan has pressing concerns over its territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands that are claimed by China and have witnessed the intrusion of Chinese ships before.

Along with the historical commitment to allies in the region, the U.S. has vital national interests. Asia Pacific is home to key sea lanes of communication which serve as an economic lifeline for the United States, considering the number of shipments that pass through this region. Any minor conflict in the South China Sea such as a contest over the Spratly Islands could easily imperil America’s economic interests. For the record, close to $5 trillion of world trade goes through the South China Sea. In case of a major threat the U.S. would be compelled to intervene to protect the Straits of Malacca and Lombok even if it required a temporary blockade.

Despite its growing assertiveness, China realizes that it cannot confront the U.S. Navy, which serves as a deterrent to any aggression in the region. What China needs now is a long and undisturbed period of economic growth, and any military confrontation could paralyze China’s economy. Hence, Beijing’s massive railroad construction to reduce the maritime dependence. Although it is quite impressive what China has achieved in terms of railroad extension, there is a big question mark hanging over its efficiency.

Yes, China’s economic statecraft is a powerful tool that can dramatically alter the regional status quo, and South Korea (ROK) is a vivid example. The country’s physical security is in the hands of American men and women in uniform stationed across South Korea. And make no mistake, if the threat from North Korea were neutralized once and for all and the American presence was no longer needed, South Korea would most likely get sucked into the Chinese economy and become the latter’s client state. Being an export-based economy, ROK is heavily dependent on China, which as of 2015 absorbed 26.1% of ROK’s goods and services, making Beijing its most important trading partner. Therefore, Seoul is quite cautious not to antagonize China and tries to maintain friendly relations with Beijing.

But in the light of NK’s aggression, Seoul too has been forced to risk its economic relations with China, given the continued deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. It should come as no surprise that Beijing responded by utilizing its economic leverage and indirectly hitting Korean firms operating in China. Among the targets was the giant Lotte Group that arranged its lands in ROK for the placement of THAAD. Nonetheless, Seoul was smart enough to prioritize the security matters and not to succumb to China’s economic provocations.

As mentioned, America’s ability to unilaterally control the events in the region will suffer a relative decline. But that doesn’t warrant a complete withdrawal given the economic factors involved as well as the network of alliances that Washington has built up during the past several decades. America should not be expected to bear the burden of maintaining order in the region alone. Therefore, Washington ought to strengthen the network of allies to foster cooperation among friendly nations and engage allies that share America’s strategic vision.

Erik Khzmalyan is a Senior Fellow at the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute and an MA Candidate in Statecraft and National Security Affairs at the Institute of World Politics. He tweets @erik_kmn



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