With the Chinese government aggressively militarizing the South China Sea and U.S. President Donald Trump scuttling the Trans-Pacific Partnership, there appears no clear answer to Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative. In fact, U.S. foreign policy thinkers are casting about for a strategy in Asia. What is to be done? Victor Cha’s Power Play and Michael Auslin’s End of the Asian Century recommends that the United States “double-down,” an expression Cha uses repeatedly, on its time-tested strategy of containing Chinese power in Asia.
Power Play explores why Washington chose the “hub and spokes” security system for post-1945 Asia, whereby America (the hub) forged “tightly held and exclusive, one-to-one bilateral partnerships” with its regional allies (the spokes). Cha, a political scientist, former member of George W. Bush’s National Security Council, and (at the time of this writing) soon-to-be U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, argues that “bilateral control is more effective and efficient.” The multilateralism that characterized the U.S.-Europe relationship would have “diluted” American influence in Asia, “putting decisions to committees rather than by fiat.” Indeed, Cha contends, Washington’s “distrust and suspicions of smaller allies entrapping” America in a “larger war” was of an entirely different “scale” in Asia than in Europe. Taiwan’s Chiang Kai-shek obsessed about retaking mainland China; South Korea’s Syngman Rhee wanted to unify forcefully the peninsula. Both men labored to escalate their respective conflicts as if propelling their American ally toward locking horns with the USSR, China, or both. Additionally, Chiang and Rhee sought to combine their efforts and leverage their ties with the United States to accomplish their goals.
Cha argues that U.S. leaders found such behavior by their allies intolerable. But instead of distancing the United States from men like Chiang and Rhee, U.S. leaders chose the “power play” strategy. Washington substantially increased its bilateral commitments to Taiwan and South Korea to make them more reliant on the United States. By “doubling down,” Cha argues, America became the “central economic and military hub among a group of disconnected states in Asia,” controlling an alliance framework that “much resembled an informal empire.” Deploying a wide range of instruments (e.g., the United States retained operational control of South Korean forces), the informal American empire could easily coerce its “intransigent” allies to dial back their provocative tendencies, “chaining Chiang” to Taiwan and placing “Rhee-straint” upon South Korea, and dispelling any collaboration between Taipei and Seoul. Control, Cha intimates, was everything to Washington. America used the same strategy vis-à-vis Japan with the “subtlety of a billy club,” Cha writes, even though Japan’s postwar leaders did not entertain the kind of expansionist designs that fired Chiang’s and Rhee’s minds. U.S. leaders reasoned that to fend off communist influence in Japan and rebuild its former enemy into an engine for Asia’s economic growth, American administrators of occupied Japan must have “absolute control” over the nation’s “postwar disposition.” The argument, on its face, seems compelling.