Why the United States should ‘lead from behind’ in East Asia

Author: Jeong Lee, Pusan

In the United States, the much-dreaded budget cuts known as the sequester went into effect on 1 March 2013.

US President Barack Obama is welcomed to Thailand by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in November 2012 (Photo: AAP).

Despite Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s gloomy assessment that cuts to the defence budget will ‘harm military readiness and disrupt each and every investment program’, the sequester will neither cripple America’s geopolitical strategy nor its ability to project its hard power abroad.

But the Obama administration should still seriously rethink its ‘pivot’ strategy in Asia in light of the drastic budget cuts. The United States has a vital role to play in the region as a stabilising force, but America’s new pivot strategy must reflect geopolitical realities. The United States should focus on ‘leading from behind’ by prioritising cooperation with other regional powers and by exercising leadership in a more indirect manner.

The Pentagon has already readjusted its priorities through its recent military involvement in Africa. The Pentagon’s official position is that it is merely seeking to monitor terror threats in Northern Africa. Yet some analysts believe that the United States is trying to counter China’s trade and investment in Africa, which currently outstrips its own. If this is the case, such moves are unlikely to help America’s Asia pivot. This is partly because, according to Gen. David Rodriguez, the incoming commander of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), the United States already has trouble meeting its logistical needs in Africa. But more importantly, America’s covert attempts to contain China’s influence in Africa may backfire by provoking the Chinese into taking countermeasures. There are already some indications that Beijing has interpreted French intervention in Mali as a gateway for further Western intervention.

Thus, in order to achieve stability in East Asia and elsewhere around the globe, the United States should first seek to lead from behind by cooperating with China. Most importantly, the United States should pursue a trilateral dialogue with Beijing to ensure stability on the Korean Peninsula. This may provide insight into Chinese assessments of North Korean political stability, which will be particularly important in light of signs that Beijing may have shifted its policy on North Korea’s nuclear testing since its latest launch.

The United States should also consider formally recognising the DPRK as a sovereign state. Despite opposition from hardliners and the fact that the DPRK has proven to be anything but predictable, normalisation may help to avert a costly, fratricidal war between two Koreas. It would also ease South Korea’s economic burden by fostering trade with the North, and it would help to turn Kim Jong-un away from China by keeping him accountable to international norms. US basketballer Dennis Rodman’s visit to Pyongyang in late February showed that Kim Jong-un may respond positively to carrots.

The United States must exercise indirect leadership by bolstering its existing ties with Japan and South Korea. This will involve assisting South Korea to formulate its own geopolitical and military strategy, in addition to working closely with President Park Geun-hye to forge a unified policy approach to dealing with DPRK provocations. It is equally important that the United States work to defuse deep-seated tensions over both states’ competing territorial claims to the Dokdo/Takeshima islets. This would repair the uneasy alliance between two former enemies and help to prevent future naval rivalries in Northeast Asia. Both South Korea and Japan will continue to play vital roles in preserving stability in East Asia, and must therefore learn to set aside their enmity in the interests of regional stability and economic cooperation.

Last but not least, leading from behind in Asia means that the United States must be prepared to defend itself at home. To that end, it must bolster its missile defence system. The United States may be vulnerable to hostile aggressions from afar following the DPRK’s successful testing of its long-range rocket last December and Iran’s improved missile capabilities. Fortunately, notwithstanding the drastic reductions to its budget, the Pentagon assured defence contractors last August that missile defence would ‘still remain a priority’.

The sequester has made America’s ‘pivot’ strategy unsustainable. The United States must continue to exercise leadership in the region, but it must do so in ways that are less financially burdensome, while taking care to avoid aggravating China. For now, American ‘leadership from behind’ may be the best means of preserving stability in East Asia.

Jeong Lee is a freelance international security blogger living in Pusan. His writing has appeared on Americanlivewire.com, East Asia Forum, and Georgetown Journal of International Affairs. He is also a Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat‘s Asia-Pacific Desk.



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  • While probably many people would not dare to think the following point as a serious possibility, the likelihood that the US falls into the same trap that eventually caused the former USSR to collapse will increase as the US continues its attempt to militarily contain China into the future.
    One remarkably similar feature is the relative size of the populations. The US had a larger population and a stronger than the former USSR. China has much larger population than the US and the Chinese economy is rapidly approaching the size of the US’.
    The shares of military spending in the economy and in central government expenditure in the US are much higher than those of China’s, though China’s military expenditure is increasing much more rapidly than that of the US.
    It could be postulated that the US would have to increase the share its military spending relative to both its government expenditure and its economy in order to have a credible possibility to be able to contain China in the future, but that is unlikely to be sustainable at all for an extended period from now on.
    China, on the other hand, does not have to match the US militarily on a global scale but on the most important geographic locations relevant to China, so China can concentrate its military power as opposed to a global race.
    As a result, in the long run, as the Chinese economy will eclipse the US in absolute size, and it is hard to assume that the US will have the economic strength to continue its containment strategy.

    • Your point is well-noted.

      If you have read anything on the supposed “decline” of the American Empire, you will have heard of Tom Engelhardt of Tomdispatch.com. In his 2011 book, “The United States of Fear,” he, too, makes the Soviet analogy to make the point that if the United States does not disabuse itself of its supposed “invulnerability” and “limitless” imperial might that it will indubitably go down the Soviet path.

      Although you seem to make your point cogently, there is something you seem to misunderstand. That is, imperial might is more than just your military power (hard power), economic power (one aspect of soft power) and demographics. There are many things that make the United States attractive to foreigners besides the aforementioned elements. Things like multicultural environment that is tolerant of people and cultures of different, diverse backgrounds. Things like education and creative energy that allow America to harness latest inventions, and which are, in turn, parlayed into economic and military dominance.

      As we speak, China cannot be said to possess these elements. Even though it may appear that the ascendant Chinese economic and military might may be the very glue that may be keeping its people together, it could very well be its undoing. Note that various ethnic groups and religious groups harbor ill-will towards the Chinese Communist Party as the CCP strives to retain its iron grip on disparate dissident elements. Some have also argued that China’s economic growth may be stalling and that will have adverse ramifications for the rest of the world. Also, The Diplomat also ran a piece whereby it argued that by 2030, China may have to import 79% of its oil from abroad. (Read http://thediplomat.com/2013/03/24/the-fracking-revolution-comes-to-china/.) These things do not bode well for China’s imperial ambitions.

      My point is not to sound anti-Chinese. I am not. Only that all imperial powers are bound to go through its natural and historic cycle of rise, stagnation, decline and fall.

      • nobody

        It seems that the daughter of president Xi studies in the States, so yeah, many Chinese, even rich ones are interested in the USA as a place where they can study, work or expand a company

      • Again, you’re merely rehashing your own points. Quantitative advantages are important. Of that, there is no doubt.

        But so are qualitative ones. As the anonymous responder wrote here above, if the United States did not possess attractive “soft power,” why would the “daughter of president Xi stud[y] in the States,” and elites be “interested in the USA?”