The United States Needs to
Think Through What, Exactly, “We Are Back” Means
By Zhong Sheng
The United States is afraid that it will miss the Asian development express train and lose its leadership in regional affairs.
Translated By Howard Segal
17 October 2011
Edited by Rica Asuncion-Reed
China - Xinhua - Original Article (Chinese)
In the most recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton published an article titled “America’s Pacific Century,” clearly stating that America’s strategic focus will shift to Asia in the future.
In the essay, Clinton writes: “The future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the center of the action. ... One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment — diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise — in the Asia-Pacific region.”
Clinton’s statement doesn’t say anything new. Two summers ago, she once shouted while in Thailand: “The United States is back!” The United States is paying more attention to the Asia-Pacific region than in the past, especially its participation in military affairs. America’s “return” will deeply embed it in the political, economic and security issues in Asia.
“The United States is back” is a famous quote by Douglas MacArthur.* This American general, who had lost at the hands of the Japanese army during the Pacific War, proclaimed the success of the American counteroffensive with these words when it reclaimed the Philippine Islands. More than sixty years have since passed; and today’s Asia is completely different because America has not lost at the hands of anyone in Asia or lost anything at all. The United States has made huge gains from Asian development in the past two to three decades. Of course, Asian countries have also gained many benefits from cooperation with the United States.
The United States has never left Asia, so how can it “return?” These past few years, the United States saw the rapid development of Asian countries and the gradual formation of a new pattern of cooperation. The United States is afraid that it will miss the Asian development express train and lose its leadership in regional affairs. The aims of the “return” are to gain even more benefits from regional development while also consolidating its dominant position. Clinton is frank about this point: The United States is willing to continue to be engaged and play a leadership role.
America’s “Return” Will Face Challenges in at Least Two Areas
The first is to learn how to get along with China. The United States’ “return to Asia” will heighten arguments in the Sino-U.S. conflict. More than a few Western scholars believe that the United States reaffirming its leadership role in regional affairs is a move directed against China, because only China’s rise can challenge American hegemony. Individual Asian countries also hope to draw support from the United States, especially its military strength, to form a so-called strategic balance against China. If Washington takes this line of thinking and delineates it as the foundation of its strategy to “return to Asia,” then Sino-U.S. relations face the risk of a zero-sum game. The United States would not profit from Asian development, and would find it difficult to play a positive role in regional security issues.
Second, you have to be more than ambitious to play a leadership role. After all, America’s position in Asia depends upon actual involvement. This involvement can only be to promote regional economic development and constructive power in various cooperative fields. In the end, strengthening its military presence to display its own irreplaceable value will be the old road that leads to nowhere. Several Asian scholars are already concerned: Once America plays a leadership role and is powerless to change things, will it ask for more protection money? Will it use dishonorable means to stir up trouble?
As far as Asia is concerned, development is the general trend and desire of the people. Asian countries in the course of development are only getting closer, not farther apart. The Asian stage is wide, and what America’s “return to Asia” lacks is not space to operate. The most pressing concern for the United States is to clarify what “we are back" actually means — and aims to achieve.
*Editor’s note: This quote, while accurately translated, could not be verified. The author may have been referring to MacArthur’s statement when he waded ashore at Leyte in 1944: “I have returned.” This fulfilled MacArthur’s infamous promise “I shall return,” in 1942 when was evacuated from the Philippines and given a new command in Australia, while American and Philippine forces continued to fight the Japanese.
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