Amitav Acharya is one of the sharpest and best-informed analysts on Southeast and East Asia out there. We had the pleasure of including an article by him in our Regional Integration in Asia feature issue last year. He’s written a typically thoughtful op-ed on Southeast Asia’s U.S.-China dilemma that I recommend as a companion piece to Hillary Clinton’s article in Foreign Policy last week.
Anyone following the region will be familiar with the broad strokes of what Acharya’s dealing with: Southeast and East Asia need to hitch their economic wagons to China’s rise, but they can’t feel comfortable doing so without the security guarantees provided by the U.S. But there’s a very subtle difference in how he describes what the region wants and how observers in Washington approach the issue. And it shows how tricky a balance the U.S. has to strike to get this right.
Essentially this balance boils down to providing the reassurance of a long-term U.S. commitment to the region — as articulated in Clinton’s article — without demanding a public and binary choice between the U.S. and China. Of course, decisions made in Beijing will also impact whether such a public choice is forced upon the region, which accounts for the widespread enthusiasm there for joint military exercises with U.S. forces these days. But ultimately, the U.S. role as conceived by the region is not to prevent a greater role for China, but to defang it. The key to making that message palatable in Washington given the current anxieties over U.S. decline is to emphasize the mutual benefits such an arrangement insures. Otherwise, the risk is that it will be perceived as yet another philanthropic venture destined to assist the rise of our next great rival.