Foreign Policy

By Stephen M. Walt

I'm recently back from two weeks lecturing in Australia, as a guest of the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, with side visits to the National Security College at Australian National University in Canberra and the "In the Zone" conference at the University of Western Australia in Perth. I spent most of my time discussing China's rise, the U.S. "pivot" (oops "rebalancing"), and the implications for alliance relations in Asia. My visit coincided with U.S. President Barack Obama's recent Asian tour, so there was considerable interest in where U.S. policy was headed and what this would mean for the region.

Three features were especially apparent during my visit. First, there is considerable support for an active U.S. role in the region and only the mildest hints of the anti-Americanism that you sometimes hear in the Middle East, Latin America, or even in Europe. This is especially true among Australians -- for various historical reasons -- but also true of the other Asians I met in different venues.

Second, people in the region want to know if the United States is really committed to an enhanced security role in Asia. But their ambivalence was sometimes hard to miss: Although they continue to want U.S. protection, they don't want the United States to do anything risky or provocative, and certainly nothing that would force them to choose between their security ties with the United States and their economic dealings with China.

Third, and most important as far as I'm concerned, the Asian states who are supposedly worried about China's rise don't seem willing to do very much to balance against it. Instead, they seem to be mostly interested in getting Washington do the heavy lifting, while they continue to enjoy profitable economic ties with Beijing and keep their own defense burdens low.

To me, this is the Big Question that will shape U.S. policy in Asia for many years to come. Assuming China continues to rise economically and militarily, and continues to press territorial claims of various sorts, how much effort should Washington exert if its Asian allies aren't willing to do very much themselves?

As I told various audiences in Australia, the United States is serious about the so-called pivot to Asia, because it is consistent with long-standing principles of U.S. grand strategy. Since becoming a great power around 1900, the United States has sought to be the only great power in the Western hemisphere and to prevent any other country from achieving a similar position of hegemony in its own region. The United States entered World War I to prevent Germany hegemony in Europe, and entered World War II to stop another German attempt at hegemony and to keep Japan from establishing a dominant position in Asia. Similarly, the Cold War strategy of containment aimed to prevent the USSR from dominating Europe or Asia (or the Persian Gulf) for much the same reason.

The underlying rationale behind this policy is straightforward: As long as Eurasia is divided among many major powers, these states tend to worry most about each other and cannot concentrate their capabilities or their attention on the United States. Nor can they do much to interfere in the Western hemisphere. This situation maximizes U.S. security and makes it possible for the United States to intervene in far-flung regions without having to worry very much about defending its own soil.

It follows that Asian concerns about U.S. credibility are overblown. What the United States does or doesn't do in Ukraine, Syria, or South Sudan says nothing about its commitment to maintaining the status quo in Asia, because these other issues are of lesser importance to the long-term balance of power. Indeed, the U.S. position in Asia will be stronger if it does not get distracted by secondary issues, or get drawn into costly quagmires in areas of little strategic importance.

When our Asian friends ask what Uncle Sam is going to do for them, therefore, U.S. officials should toss the question right back at them: What are they going to do for us, and for themselves? After all, preventing Chinese domination ought to be even more important to them than it is to us. To repeat, the real question is not whether the United States is still committed in Asia, but how much our Asian allies are willing to help.Just last week, the ASEAN nations refused to take a position on China's recent deployment of an oil drilling rig in contested waters in the South China Sea, a move that provoked a naval confrontation with Vietnam. Vietnam raised the issue at the ASEAN summit in Myanmar, but the conference merely expressed "concern" about the issue and did not even mention China by name. (A previous ASEAN summit two years ago was similarly deadlocked and could not even issue a final communiqué).

Or consider Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to revise the Japanese constitution and improve Japan's military capabilities, but defense spending will still be hard-pressed to exceed 1 percent of GDP. And even though Obama reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Japan and said the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands fell within the purview of the U.S.-Japan security treaty, Tokyo refused to make any concessions in the stalled negotiations for the administration's signature Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact. Moreover, Japan and South Korea continue to snipe at each other in various counterproductive ways, which suggests that either they aren't as worried about China as they pretend, or they are so confident that Uncle Sam will back them that they won't take concrete steps to put the past behind them once and for all.

Similarly, Obama reached a new defense pact with the Philippines during his visit there, but the main upshot of the deal is to make it easier for the United States to come defend another ally. To be sure, Manila is no match for a rising China on its own, but they could do a much better job with the resources they do have. But as Richard Jacobson observed last summer, "Even now, with the ‘immediate' and ‘credible' threat of Chinese aggression, there appears to be little public appetite for a significantly stronger military." For the record: The Philippines spends about 1.2 percent of GDP on defense.

What about India? The United States has pursued a new "strategic partnership" with India, but the payoffs to date have been disappointing, in part because the Indian economy has yet to match China's recent performance. The country seems to be mired in deep domestic wrangling, and flirting with a rightwing Hindu resurgence that could fuel internal conflict and complicate U.S. efforts to build a broader Asian coalition.

Even Australia, where pro-American sentiment is especially strong, is torn between long-range concerns about China's rise and the short-term desire to maximize economic gains. Australia has gone more than two decades without a recession, a boom fueled by massive exports of iron ore and other natural resources to China's expanding economy. Prime Minister Tony Abbott pledged to bring Australia's defense spending up to 2 percent of GDP during the last election campaign, but the government is presently facing a budget shortfall and implementing various austerity measures, and nobody I met there believes that this 2 percent figure will be reached.

When one looks broadly at Asia, in short, we see a situation where the United States is expected to do most of the heavy lifting while its various allies -- i.e., the states that would be most directly affected by a more powerful and assertive China -- continue to saunter along spending 1-2 percent of GDP on defense.

At one level, this is not surprising. The theory of collective goods tells us that the stronger powers in an alliance will usually bear a disproportionate share of the collective burden. Why? Because if it is in the strongest power's self-interest to have an effective alliance, it will step up and provide the wherewithal even its allies do not, thereby allowing weaker members to free-ride. Weak allies can exacerbate this tendency by constantly fretting in public about U.S. credibility and demanding constant reassurance, complaints that hardliners back in Washington can seize upon to explain why Uncle Sucker needs to do more.

But there are limits. Americans will be loath to spend billions and run significant geopolitical risks on behalf of distant allies who don't seem willing to do very much to help themselves, and who aren't willing to make concessions or adjustments on other issues like TPP. Just wait till Rand Paul figures this out, and makes burden sharing a key part of his campaign speech. And so the Big Question remains: How much cooperation will Washington demand from the Asian allies it is committed to protect, and what will it do if they remain reluctant to provide it?

One final thought. A number of people in Australia took issue with my analysis, and argued that China's leaders would be preoccupied with vexing internal challenges and unlikely to make a serious effort to alter the Asian status quo anytime soon. There's much to be said for this point of view, and it is worth remembering that China's own strategic position is not enviable, with 14 neighbors (four with nuclear weapons), several serious territorial disputes, a potential failed state across the border with North Korea, and growing dependence on external markets and resources. So maybe there's no real reason for concern, and everyone can just concentrate on getting rich.

Sadly, this view is probably too rosy. China's internal challenges may slow its efforts to establish a dominant position in Asia, but they are unlikely to derail such goals forever. And as I've said before, creating and leading an effective balancing coalition in Asia is going to be a demanding task, especially if America's Asian allies have to be cajoled into making a serious effort. Unfortunately, nothing I heard Down Under led me to change my mind about how serious a challenge this will be.

This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy.