America from afar — (IX) Asia

Tarek Osman
Tuesday 21 May 2024

There are two major considerations regarding America’s positioning in Asia, both having to do with its view of China, writes Tarek Osman


As the previous article in this series showed, the American view of China has evolved from that of a country controlled by a communist regime selectively adopting capitalist dynamics and tools towards that of a civilisation bent on regaining its dominant political and cultural influence in North and East Asia as the first step on its ascent towards further sway and greater power.

This new view gives rise to two considerations regarding America’s positioning in Asia.

The first is that America now sees North and East Asia as theatres of operations. The underlying assumption here is that were China to attempt to secure territories in its immediate neighbourhood (in the East and South China Seas), East and North Asia would become theatres of military operations for the Chinese army against the countries currently in possession of these territories.

This dynamic would entail several scenarios, and in none of them would America be compelled to engage militarily with China. However, in each of them it would need to calculate the level of arms, intelligence, and logistical support it would provide to these countries. In so doing, its assessment, as well as China’s calculations, would be enriched by a close study of the war in Ukraine. Although there are major differences between Ukraine and East and North Asia, the dynamics of possible direct and indirect confrontations between nuclear powers are quite similar.

The second consideration is that America will need to decide in the immediate future on the nature of the capabilities it wants its allies in East and North Asia to have, not just militarily, but also technologically and economically. This will affect the nature of the investments America will make in the countries of this part of the world. It will also influence the nature of the technological and economic dependency of these countries on the US versus the forms of self-sufficiency that America will likely want these countries to develop vis-à-vis China.

A part of this dynamic has already been unfolding in the type and scale of the infrastructure investments that have been rolled out in East Asia, whether by institutions belonging to the US-led Bretton Woods global financial system or by rivals in China’s nascent financial orbit, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.  

The underlying point is that once China begins its expansion in its immediate neighbourhood in North and East Asia, America must decide on the shape of the military deterrence and political resistance to Chinese expansionism that it envisages its allies should take. Following that, it must convince its allies of this and then undertake operations with them that would result in these deterrence and resistance capabilities being implemented.

America has several allies in Asia. But India, Japan, and Australia carry particular importance in its strategic assessment of the continent.  

America’s prioritisation of India stems from its demographic weight, military capabilities, and important cultural role in East Asia. In the American calculus, India is the only country in the whole of Asia that has the civilisational gravitas and wealth to offer a compelling vision of the future to the rest of the region that could compete with China’s.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s assertive leadership and ambitious vision for India’s positioning on the global scene also resonate with America’s hopes of India playing that role.  

America does not expect India to engage in any directly political, let alone military, confrontation with China. But as India’s power increases and its projection of that power extends throughout most of East and Southeast Asia, India will likely dilute Chinese political and cultural expansionism.

Japan has a different role to play in America’s thinking. America understands that Japan is culturally unique and emotionally detached and that its interest in competing with Chinese expansionism in North and East Asia is very limited, as is its ability to do so.

However, Japan brings two valuable assets to the American-led Western camp. The first is that Japan has proven itself to be the most reliable American ally in Asia in terms of providing an extremely strategically important base for tens of thousands of American troops and a vast amount of military equipment. Although there have been Japanese demands over the past decade for a reduction in the American military presence on its territory, these demands have stemmed from social concerns, rather than from a novel calculation of Japan’s strategic position in Asian politics.

The second is that Japan is one of the world’s most advanced technological and industrial powerhouses. Even if its economy has been shrinking relative to some European countries, primarily Germany, Japan still commands the knowledge and technological prowess to continue to be a key research and development centre for the industries that will shape human life in the foreseeable future.

Australia has a unique place in the American psyche. Like America, Australia traces its foundational culture and political history to its Anglo-Saxon heritage. Although Australian society has grown highly diverse over the past half century, the country still remains unquestionably a Western nation.

Moreover, Australia commands a valuable geographic position. It sits in the South Pacific overlooking the area China must traverse if it is to expand beyond the South and East China Seas. Militarily, it is a member of AUKUS, a group that also includes the UK and US. Equally importantly, it is also a member of the Five Eyes, an exclusive intelligence club led by the US that also includes the UK, Canada, and New Zealand.

However, whereas America’s relationships with India, Japan, and Australia are grounded in mutual interests and apprehensions about China’s rise as a superpower, it faces three concerns in its dealings with them.

First, these allies are at the forefront of any Chinese expansionism. None of them face any serious prospect of Chinese military action, but all of them are potentially subject to political or economic pressures from Beijing, particularly since China is a key trading partner for all of them. This is why the three countries, in different ways and degrees, are balancing their siding with America in its global positioning vis-à-vis China with a working relationship with China.

Second, India, Japan, and Australia have sophisticated strategic decision-making and foresight capabilities. They see trends in American politics and society that raise concerns about consistency in America’s global positioning. This has driven them to build scenarios and options in their own strategic decision making that lessen their commitment relative to the levels that America wants them to exhibit in its nascent confrontation with China.  

Third, irrespective of the myriad demographic, economic, and political challenges currently facing China, it is almost certain that the country will become a political, military, and economic superpower over the coming two decades. All the Asian nations, including these three American allies, have internalised that reality and placed it at the heart of their political calculations.

These concerns complicate America’s calculus, not only in its interactions with India, Japan, and Australia, but also with Asia in general.

But the complications facing American foreign policy transcend Asia. As the next article in this series will show, old questions that the country faced when it began its expansionism in the Middle East eight decades ago are now returning, this time accompanied by challenges it has not previously experienced in its dealings with the region.


The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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