On Aug. 2, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with counterparts from Japan and South Korea. He is working to mitigate the escalating conflict between the two nations. President Donald Trump continues imposing tariffs on China. Anti-Beijing protests grow in Hong Kong. Territorial disputes are serious throughout the region.
The importance of Asia also continues to grow. Since 1985, total U.S. exports to Asia have been greater than to Europe. That differential steadily increases.
In military terms, Japan and South Korea are vital U.S. allies. The nuclear threat from North Korea only reinforces those ties. Political rhetoric can overshadow vital ties.
The American propensity to focus on immediate developments can distort and distract from the importance of our historical engagements. President Millard Fillmore opened Japan to the outside world in 1854 with a letter of friendship. Commodore Matthew Perry delivered the missive with a heavily armed naval flotilla. Fillmore, not a great president, nonetheless is arguably our “first” in Pacific terms.
President Theodore Roosevelt has the greatest claim to be our first Pacific commander in chief. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for the enormous accomplishment of ending the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. At the time, Roosevelt declared that as the 20th century unfolded, Asia for the United States would in some respects become more important than Europe. In this realm, as in others, history has vindicated TR.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower experienced Asia in useful and challenging ways as aide to imperious General Douglas MacArthur, field marshal of the Philippines. He used his White House Farewell Address to warn of the “military-industrial complex.” Ike noted of the four major 20th century wars - two World Wars and the Korean War along with the Russo-Japanese War, three took place in Asia, in whole or in part.
The 21st century is relatively more peaceful and promising - so far, permitting government leaders to focus more on economic concerns and less on armed conflict. In 2017, APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) held a summit in Da Nang, Vietnam, a coastal city, earlier a major base for U.S. military forces
Both China and Japan have enormous economies but remain overall less influential than is the U.S. All share impressive success in economic development. Stories about China “owning” the U.S. distort a reality in which both national economies are increasingly integrated and mutually dependent. Much of China’s trade surplus is earned by American and European multinational corporations, whose employees and stockholders as well as customers in turn benefit.
A quarter century ago, the same scare stories featured Japan, but for two decades that nation has been struggling with long-term recession punctuated by sporadic, fitful growth. No one argues anymore that Japan is about to replace the U.S.
South Korea is both an extremely close military ally and a successful political democracy. The current government of President Moon Jae In should be encouraged to assume leadership in diplomatic efforts toward North Korea.
President Harry S. Truman, in 1950, supported the United Nations’ defense of South Korea. That nation returned the favor, providing enormously effective combat troops to support the U.S. in the Vietnam War. Military cooperation remains close. The U.S. wisely encourages policy coordination with Japan and South Korea regarding North Korea.
The end of the Cold War opened a more flexible strategic environment in Asia, and globally, in which commercial markets are now central. That is one advantage for the U.S., among many.
Arthur I. Cyr is a Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (Macmillan/Palgrave and NYU Press). Contact email@example.com.