Just how committed should the United States be in the Far East? Everybody knows that the Obama administration has announced a "pivot" to Asia this year, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just reiterated the U.S. position that territorial disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved "without coercion, without intimidation, without threats and certainly without the use of force."
At one level there's nothing all that new here. The United States has long sought to prevent any single power from dominating either Europe or Asia, because such a power would then be in a better position to threaten U.S. interests elsewhere. That motive explained U.S opposition to Japanese expansion in the 1930s and the formation of a Washington-centered, anti-Soviet alliance network in Asia during the Cold War. Today, it means keeping a wary eye on a rising China and strengthening security ties with a number of different Asian partners.
But this effort today faces the classic "Goldilocks problem." The U.S. commitment in Asia needs to be "just right"; not too hot and not too cold. If it is "too hot" (meaning that the U.S. is too assertive and too confrontational), then hardliners in Beijing will be empowered and security competition between Washington and Beijing will intensify even more. If U.S. leaders seem to be picking unnecessary quarrels that might jeopardize profitable economic relations -- as the Romney campaign suggests it might -- then Washington is likely to be seen not as the solution but as the problem.
But equally important, an overly energetic U.S. policy will encourage its regional allies to misbehave in a number of ways. First, if the U.S. does too much to reassure its allies that it is ready to help them, they will free-ride and let Uncle Sam bear most of the burden of containing China. Second, if America's regional allies are too confident that Washington will protect them no matter what, they will continue to indulge assorted bilateral squabbles and devote insufficient attention to ironing out lingering historical enmities. (Case in point: the continued territorial dispute between South Korea and Japan, and the domestic uproar in South Korea that derailed a useful intelligence cooperation agreement with Tokyo).
But if U.S. policy is "too cold" -- that is, if the United States seems distracted by other problems, or insufficiently attuned to regional concerns, then some of its Asian partners may start to consider other options. Assuming that China continues to grow economically (and continues to build a more capable military), they may eventually conclude that trying to stand up to it won't be possible.
This dilemma may also explain why countries like Vietnam and the Philippines have been so assertive in challenging China's territorial ambitions in the South China Sea. They may be thinking that they have to get Uncle Sam fully committed now, while the United States is still richer and stronger than China, in the hope that the U.S. will take action to slow China's rise and use its influence to get these territorial issues resolved on terms that other littoral countries can live with. If they believe the balance of power will shift against them (and the U.S.) in the future, then they have an incentive to raise the temperature now.
The big lesson to take from this discussion is that managing security relations in the Far East is going to be very tricky for many years to come. We have all the ingredients for trouble: shifting balances of power, territorial disputes, lingering historical resentments, and a large number of interested parties (each with their own interests and concerns). Like I said, getting U.S. policy "just right" is not going to be easy.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.