'Indispensable' America, Meet 'Greater' China - and Japan

Don't forget Tokyo as Beijing poises to overtake superpower what's-its-name

The reemergence of China as a great power is a major issue in contemporary international relations. Long a restive giant, China is recovering from its proverbial "century of shame" - a bitter legacy of the imperial era. Politically, economically, and militarily, China is poised to be a full-fledged superpower, one that could displace the US from the front of the pack in the next century. American foreign policy officials are struggling to cope with the diverse challenges posed by China's reawakening. That task is enormously complicated by the ways "greater China" interacts with "greater Japan." US officials need to deal with both more creatively than they do now.

Greater China implies both stature and size. China is both a real-world geopolitical entity and an abstract cultural realm. Chinese civilization includes the People's Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, nearby enclaves of ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia, and a far-flung diaspora of "overseas Chinese." All those groups in close proximity to the PRC are what is normally meant by greater China.

Collectively their numbers magnify the PRC's already daunting population. As important, if not more important, are the qualitative assets the nearby Chinese add to the PRC's potential. These include economic, technological, cultural, and geopolitical elements they bring to the ethnic coalition. As the PRC develops its ability to absorb other Chinese into China, the collectivity becomes even more impressive.

Sinocentric order

There is a widespread expectation that China is again coming out of a low ebb in its recurring dynastic cycles. This suggests that China is moving toward a traditional assertion of a Sinocentric regional order in which its neighbors acknowledge its clout by showing due deference and acquiescing to its leadership. The post-cold-war reordering of the Asian balance of power displays many signs of an acceptance of China's "natural" role from Korea to Thailand. The more greater China comes to the fore, the more likely the reassertion of tradition.

An obstacle to China's reemergence is the US's sense of its own roles and responsibilities in Asia, left over from the cold war. The military alliances with Japan and South Korea, economic presence in the Asia-Pacific region, and vision of the United States as what President Clinton described (in his second inaugural speech) as the "indispensable" nation in world affairs - all these impede China's agenda.

American self-perceptions of indispensability are virtually identical to China's self-identity as the "Middle Kingdom" or "Central Country." Not that Americans seek to contain China as so many Chinese suspect, but the US and Chinese visions of their natural roles in world affairs are in conflict. There cannot simultaneously be two indispensable/central countries. US leaders do not take kindly to Chinese aspirations to lead. This resistance is accentuated by mutual perceptions of superpower hubris and arrogance.

This situation is serious and could yield to eventual confrontation. A complicating factor is a less obvious challenge to both China and the United States - namely the gradual emergence of a "greater Japan." Back in the pre-World War II period, imperial Japan envisioned a "Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere." That notion had national connotations in terms of its spread of Tokyo's direct control over its neighbors. As a blueprint for Japan's foreign policy it was shelved long ago. However, an echo of it lingers today in the form of postwar Japan's corporate network of suppliers and production sites that is firmly established throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

A de facto "greater Japan" already exists, consisting of Japan itself and its corporate connections throughout Southeast Asia, Taiwan, Korea, South Asia, and - pointedly - China and the Americas, including the United States.

Oblique maneuvers

Even as the US and China engage in diplomatic, strategic, and economic maneuvers to influence the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region, American and Chinese leaders pay inadequate attention to the real power of Japan to shape the future of the same region. This oblique form of geopolitical and geoeconomic power is especially salient today because of the US's and China's dependence on Japan financially and technologically. Their bases of power are vulnerable to Japanese manipulation and influence. Compared with greater China, the linkages that provide Tokyo with its power can be construed as an even greater Japan.

So, as Washington and Beijing are preoccupied with each other's agenda in Asia, and the region dwells on the potentials of greater China to assert itself, it would be wise to pay much closer attention to the contemporary transnational reality that is greater Japan. Tokyo does not aspire to an overt form of hegemonism or leadership. In fact, it spurns both as too risky and costly. But that does not mean Tokyo avoids the exercise of its power. Japan's international power is, like so many other attributes of Japanese society, subtle and indirect. But it is all too real, and Washington - in particular - should be more sophisticated in managing the balance of power in Asia lest it play into the hands of either Beijing or Tokyo, rather than pursue US national interests.

As the Clinton administration's second-term foreign policy team reassesses its regional agendas, a prudent, cautious approach toward both of Asia's great powers would best serve US interests.

* Edward A. Olsen is professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. The views expressed here are his own.

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