The United States’ strategic policies toward Europe and the regions of Asia—East, South, Southeast, and Central—have often reflected the prevailing cultural ethnocentrism of most Americans, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds.  For example, Europe and Asia are routinely defined as separate “continents,” even though they are obviously parts of the same land mass.  Given American concerns about the uncertainties associated with the rise of China as a competitor, Russia’s increased geopolitical assertiveness, and the European Union’s struggle to develop a pan-national identity, there are growing reasons for the United States to pay careful attention to the balance of power among the different parts of what really is a Eurasian continent.  While most Americans are inclined to play their European cards in this strategic game (as they should), a strong argument can be made that the United States should pay more attention to the Asian subregions of the Eurasian continent in order to increase our ability to foster a better balance of power among them.  This will, in turn, enhance the United States’ position in global affairs.

Since the late 19th century, U.S. foreign and defense policies in the Asia-Pacific region have been dominated by American concerns about regional stability and rivalries.  The United States was involved in several major wars—notably, the Spanish-American War (1898) and the Philippine-American War (1899-1902); the Pacific theater of World War II from Pearl Harbor to the atomic-bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the Korean War, from 1950 to its armistice in 1953, followed by decades of armed deterrence; and the Vietnam War.  As important as all of these wars were, both when waged and in terms of their legacy for U.S. policy in the Asia-Pacific region, overall, the U.S. role in the region was shaped by the ability of regional states to cope with one another and with external pressures from hegemonic Western powers.  These pressures ranged from formal European empires exploiting their colonies to Soviet communists claiming to spread anti-imperial Marxist harmony—and Americans coping with both of these over time in the name of guiding the spread of liberty, democracy, and capitalism.

U.S. policies toward Asia—as well as the policies of the European Union’s member states and of Russia toward Asia—have had to contend with the problems caused by territorial frictions.  Three places in Asia continuously cope with the problems associated with the division of their formerly united ethnic region.  Two of them remain major contentious issues: Korea’s division into the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK); and the two states that are formally identified as China—the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan.  The third is the former state of the Indian subcontinent that separated into two major states after the British Empire withdrew in 1947—India and Pakistan (East and West)—and into three states after the two sides of Pakistan waged war, yielding Pakistan and Bangladesh (East Pakistan) in 1971.  Today, there is little expectation that the Indian subcontinent will unify as one nation-state.  India and Pakistan remain deadlocked over who owns Kashmir.

There is much expectation concerning the peaceful reunification of Korea.  This is not to suggest that there is no longer serious concern about the possibility of renewed warfare between the two Koreas, which would likely result in North conquering and absorbing South.  Nor have worries disappeared about a North Korean implosion or explosion scenario leading to a weak and vulnerable united Korea.  Both Koreas share these worries and desire the means to negotiate a resolution of their problems.  If such a resolution becomes more plausible over time, it is likely that the PRC and Russia will try to play a constructive role.  Even Japan, hampered by her imperial legacy in Korea and by concerns about what a unified and strong Korea might contemplate doing vis-à-vis Japan and Japanese relations with Korea’s other neighbors, is pragmatically adjusting to the possibility that a unified Korea may be on the horizon.

Although Washington could and should be doing far more than it is presently to support Korean efforts to reunify, U.S. policy is quietly adjusting to the possibility that the two Koreas may be able to work out their differences.  This approach was underscored by a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal (July 9) outlining U.S. efforts to encourage the two Koreas to prepare for a formal end of the Korean War to replace the long-standing armistice.  The United States has adapted to these circumstances, in part, because the potential for China becoming a de facto broker for Korean negotiations is serious—despite Beijing’s concerns that a unified Korea could cause problems for China by seeking to reclaim territory in far northeastern China across the Yalu River where an ancient Korean kingdom—Koguryo—had its roots.  The more that issue gains traction, the more reason China has to play a constructive role with the two Koreas so that they will become grateful for China’s assistance and obligated not to cause post-unification problems for China.

For Beijing to help Seoul and Pyongyang resolve their differences while the PRC and ROC remain divided would be so awkward that it could conceivably yield one of two undesirable scenarios.  In order to avoid embarrassment, Beijing might attempt to stymie the inter-Korean diplomatic processes.  Alternatively, it could take forceful actions against Taiwan designed either to compel the ROC to accept absorption into the PRC (perhaps utilizing the paradigm developed to bring Hong Kong and Macao into the PRC) or to get the Taiwanese business community to put political pressure on ROC leaders in Taipei to accept the pragmatic virtues of merging the two dynamic economies.  Such a reunified China would be better positioned to facilitate Korea’s reunification, but the interim period could be troubling for Korea.

Although a sizeable sector of Taiwan’s politicians are resistant to the possibility of Chinese reunification under Beijing’s guidance, and some are adamant in their pursuit of Taiwanese independence, such economic pragmatism could yield what analyst Allen Cheng (Asiaweek, July 6, 2001) labeled “The United States of China.”  That Chinese leaders in both Beijing and Taipei would find such a polity desirable is questionable, because of the obvious difficulties of creating a federal organization comprising only two states—states that are very different in size and population.  Were the PRC to permit several of its non-Han Chinese and its non-Mandarin-speaking provinces to become either autonomous or quasi-independent, there might be a case for a federated or confederated China capable of persuading Taiwan to join.  Given the PRC’s growing wealth and power, that scenario is virtually impossible for the foreseeable future.

In this context, and bearing in mind how little the United States has done to promote inter-Korean reconciliation and reunification, it is not surprising that the United States has done even less in terms of being an advocate or facilitator for Chinese reunification.  Despite Washington’s formal adoption of the “one China” paradigm when it normalized U.S.-PRC relations and eliminated its formal diplomatic recognition of the ROC, our residual defense commitment to the ROC through the Taiwan Relations Act and our extensive economic and social ties to Taiwan clearly put us in an awkward buffer position.  Our allies in Asia—especially Japan—are hypercognizant of our difficult position, which only exacerbates Sino-U.S. tensions.

In short, the United States is in a difficult position to cope with China as she tips the balance of power within Asia and between the Asian and European areas of Eurasia.  Our handling of South Asian rivalries has not been as difficult, but U.S. efforts to cultivate a level of rapport with both India and Pakistan—using economic ties with India and security ties with Pakistan—have a mixed record.  Washington also has to cope with two other major players in Asian affairs.  The European Union and its member states are actively engaged with the major economic and political players in all four regions of Asia; so, too, is Russia—especially when it comes to border states or states that formerly were integral to the Soviet Union.

If Washington continues to pursue its existing policies toward these regions, it may or may not succeed—depending upon how the key players perceive U.S. objectives and how well the United States fares in the “War on Terror.”  Those variables will be influenced by the American public’s political responses to the track record our leaders in Washington—in both major parties—establish.

The evolution of the European Economic Community (EEC), the European Community (EC), and the European Union (EU), from 1951 to the present, could serve as a model for each of the Asian regions—or, preferably, all of them combined.  Since there already are several free-trade agreements within Asia, these could readily become the foundation for an “Asian Economic Community.”  The fact that the United States is cultivating free-trade ties in Asia—for example, in Singapore and South Korea—does not mean that a spectrum of Asian countries could not follow Europe’s example.  Both the United States and the European Union should encourage such innovation.

The United States has reacted negatively to Asian efforts to generate dialogue among subregional or pan-regional groups, when such initiatives exclude countries outside of the groups’ territorial boundaries.  For example, in December 2005, on the heels of the East Asian Summit held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to which outsiders were not invited, Washington chafed, fearing that such a conference might decrease our extensive involvement in Asia-Pacific regional economic, political, and cultural entities.  Yet summits such as this are necessary for the cultivation of what amounts to an Asian Community.  They could become the Asian versions of the EEC and EC, en route to the European Union—an Asian Economic Community (AEC), an Asian Community (AC), and an Asian Union.

In pursuing such a policy, the United States should play only a reactive supporting role.  The advantages to the United States could be enormous, as the evolution of an Asian Union could yield an Asia in which the larger players—China, India, and Japan—would have to strike a balance with one another and with a blended cluster of smaller developed and developing countries.  The equilibrium fostered by such a balance would prevent any one or two of the countries from behaving in a hegemonic manner.  Those who fear the prospects of a hegemonic Greater China, Japan reviving her militaristic traditions, or religious extremism by Muslims or Hindus would have little reason to worry that a successful transition to an Asian Union could either spawn or tolerate such outcomes.

The United States would also stand to benefit from the new balance of power in Eurasia that would be fostered by the interaction between the European Union and an Asian Union.  This would also minimize—if not eliminate—the chances that Russia would be able to reassert herself in former Soviet areas of Central Asia.  With the European Union to her west and an Asian Union to her south, Russia would find her ambitions curbed.  If current circumstances persist, either union could entice Russia to join one of them—or both could cause rival interest groups in western and eastern Russia to split the Russian Federation, yielding two Russian states.  Clearly, the United States should not push that disruptive agenda, but, were it to occur in the future, it would enhance the balance-of-power goals that the United States is pursuing.

All of these broader issues are well beyond the immediate reach of American policymakers, but the United States can—and should—do much more than she is presently doing to help the Koreans and Chinese make progress on their reconciliation and reunification agendas.  At a minimum, the United States should offer more verbal and symbolic support.  Preferably, Washington should actively facilitate the inter-Korean and inter-Chinese processes and encourage other international players to do the same.  Such efforts improve our relations with Korea and China and would help set the stage for more extensive reconciliation on a multilateral level throughout the Asian portions of Eurasia, subtly creating inducements for a harmonious community throughout the greater region.