America's Play for Pacific Prosperity

By Walter Russell Mead

While the world has been obsessing over America's decline and its supposedly foolish interventions in the Middle East, the United States has quietly established a bipartisan Asia policy that may well be as influential on that continent as the Marshall Plan and NATO were in Europe.

At its core, the policy encourages Asian powers to get rich by participating in the most open trading system in the history of the world. In exchange for commitments to abide by that system's rules, countries such as India, Vietnam, Indonesia and China would have the opportunity to industrialize and to help shape the future of the global economy.

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To some, this might appear like reckless philanthropy. Why should the U.S. facilitate the rise of powers that might one day become dangerous rivals? There are two underlying calculations.

The first is that countries busy getting rich are unlikely to seek to overturn an international system that facilitates their prosperity. This was the case with both Germany and Japan after World War II, and the U.S. hopes the same will be true for India and China.

The second calculation is that as countries deepen their participation in the global system, they become increasingly dependent on it. Hitler and Tojo learned the hard way what it meant to fight major wars without secure access to the resources and capital required.

The more China trades in world markets, then, the more hostages it places in American hands. China's domestic economy, overseas investments, energy resources and raw material supplies-and, therefore, its political stability-all depend on its continued access to the world's sea lanes.

Moreover, the U.S. faces something different in Asia than the "inexorable rise of China" described by so many analysts. Consider a historical analogy. Germany in 1910 was a single rising power in a neighborhood of decline populated by France, Austria-Hungary, Russia and the Ottoman Empire. That was an inherently unstable balance of power. In Asia today, China is not a single rising power in a continent of decline.

Japan may not be going from strength to strength, but India, Vietnam, South Korea and many of their neighbors are industrializing and growing rapidly thanks to their participation in the global system. U.S. policy in Asia is built on the understanding that investing in this new balance of power can reduce any challenge a stronger China might otherwise pose.

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Mr. Mead is a professor of foreign affairs and humanities at Bard College and editor-at-large of the American Interest.This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal and has been reprinted with the author's permission.

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