Yesterday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates concluded his week-long trip to North Asia. Although the issues he handled in the three capitals he visited were markedly different, he approached all of them in a similarly low-key approach. In Beijing, he shied away from confronting Chinese leaders on the issues he came to talk about, such as their nontransparent military buildup. In Seoul, he avoided saying anything that might have influenced the presidential election to be held next month and even adopted a more conciliatory approach toward North Korea than his dovish hosts. In Tokyo, he used the mildest words possible to influence the various political parties that are in the midst of an intense internal debate on the nation’s security posture. He managed to not upset anyone in the region. But did he accomplish anything?
Gates partisans can say that he avoided the controversy that followed his predecessor everywhere he went in Asia and that he even undid some of the damage of the Rumsfeld years, especially in South Korea. This positive assessment is correct. Yet the test of American defense policy in East Asia is not merely assuaging hurt feelings at this particular moment; it is establishing an enduring security architecture that both protects the interests of the United States and its allies in the region and encourages the creation of free markets and the institutions of representative governance. Gates has gone about these crucial tasks by downplaying the threat of resurgent authoritarianism and employing virtually every bromide and anodyne statement formulated since the end of the Cold War.
“The major challenges facing the region—such as North Korea and nuclear proliferation—cannot be overcome by one, or even two countries, no matter how wealthy and powerful,” the defense secretary said as he addressed students yesterday at Tokyo’s Sophia University. “They require multiple nations of shared interests to come together to deal with a number of key challenges—areas where each partner can bring its unique capabilities to bear for the common good.”
Unfortunately, North Asia is full of zero-sum contests among competitors who do not share Gates’s notions of common good. There are, for example, border disputes aplenty—China and Japan, for instance, maintain competing land and sea claims. Japan and South Korea are squabbling over a set of islands in the sea that separates them. Pyongyang and Seoul dispute waters off their western coast. Even South Korea and China have a latent border dispute. Then there are other pressing concerns. Chinese military vessels regularly violate Japanese waters with impunity. North Korea not only threatens to proliferate the most destructive weapons on earth, its government is engaged in various forms of criminal behavior, sometimes with Chinese support.
Even when these three nations share objectives, there is no agreement on tactics and strategies. North Asia is volatile, and unlike the Middle East, potential adversaries maintain large militaries and have the present capability to inflict real harm. None of the Chinese, Koreans, or Japanese holds any of the others in high regard, and the first two groups bear historical grudges while the third is developing one.
None of this will be solved with clichés that the West developed in the heady days after the fall of the Soviet Union. American leadership, realistic and strong, is required. And judging from Gates’s performance earlier this week, it is in limited supply.