What Has Asia Done for Uncle Sam Lately?

Why Washington should demand more from its Asian allies when it comes to China.

I'm recently back from two weeks lecturing in Australia, as a guest of the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, with side visits to the National Security College at Australian National University in Canberra and the "In the Zone" conference at the University of Western Australia in Perth. I spent most of my time discussing China's rise, the U.S. "pivot" (oops "rebalancing"), and the implications for alliance relations in Asia. My visit coincided with U.S. President Barack Obama's recent Asian tour, so there was considerable interest in where U.S. policy was headed and what this would mean for the region.

Three features were especially apparent during my visit. First, there is considerable support for an active U.S. role in the region and only the mildest hints of the anti-Americanism that you sometimes hear in the Middle East, Latin America, or even in Europe. This is especially true among Australians -- for various historical reasons -- but also true of the other Asians I met in different venues.    

Second, people in the region want to know if the United States is really committed to an enhanced security role in Asia. But their ambivalence was sometimes hard to miss: Although they continue to want U.S. protection, they don't want the United States to do anything risky or provocative, and certainly nothing that would force them to choose between their security ties with the United States and their economic dealings with China.

Third, and most important as far as I'm concerned, the Asian states who are supposedly worried about China's rise don't seem willing to do very much to balance against it. Instead, they seem to be mostly interested in getting Washington do the heavy lifting, while they continue to enjoy profitable economic ties with Beijing and keep their own defense burdens low.

To me, this is the Big Question that will shape U.S. policy in Asia for many years to come. Assuming China continues to rise economically and militarily, and continues to press territorial claims of various sorts, how much effort should Washington exert if its Asian allies aren't willing to do very much themselves?

As I told various audiences in Australia, the United States is serious about the so-called pivot to Asia, because it is consistent with long-standing principles of U.S. grand strategy. Since becoming a great power around 1900, the United States has sought to be the only great power in the Western hemisphere and to prevent any other country from achieving a similar position of hegemony in its own region. The United States entered World War I to prevent Germany hegemony in Europe, and entered World War II to stop another German attempt at hegemony and to keep Japan from establishing a dominant position in Asia. Similarly, the Cold War strategy of containment aimed to prevent the USSR from dominating Europe or Asia (or the Persian Gulf) for much the same reason.

The underlying rationale behind this policy is straightforward: As long as Eurasia is divided among many major powers, these states tend to worry most about each other and cannot concentrate their capabilities or their attention on the United States. Nor can they do much to interfere in the Western hemisphere. This situation maximizes U.S. security and makes it possible for the United States to intervene in far-flung regions without having to worry very much about defending its own soil.  

It follows that Asian concerns about U.S. credibility are overblown. What the United States does or doesn't do in Ukraine, Syria, or South Sudan says nothing about its commitment to maintaining the status quo in Asia, because these other issues are of lesser importance to the long-term balance of power. Indeed, the U.S. position in Asia will be stronger if it does not get distracted by secondary issues, or get drawn into costly quagmires in areas of little strategic importance.

When our Asian friends ask what Uncle Sam is going to do for them, therefore, U.S. officials should toss the question right back at them: What are they going to do for us, and for themselves? After all, preventing Chinese domination ought to be even more important to them than it is to us. To repeat, the real question is not whether the United States is still committed in Asia, but how much our Asian allies are willing to help.

Just last week, the ASEAN nations refused to take a position on China's recent deployment of an oil drilling rig in contested waters in the South China Sea, a move that provoked a naval confrontation with Vietnam. Vietnam raised the issue at the ASEAN summit in Myanmar, but the conference merely expressed "concern" about the issue and did not even mention China by name. (A previous ASEAN summit two years ago was similarly deadlocked and could not even issue a final communiqué).

Or consider Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to revise the Japanese constitution and improve Japan's military capabilities, but defense spending will still be hard-pressed to exceed 1 percent of GDP. And even though Obama reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Japan and said the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands fell within the purview of the U.S.-Japan security treaty, Tokyo refused to make any concessions in the stalled negotiations for the administration's signature Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact. Moreover, Japan and South Korea continue to snipe at each other in various counterproductive ways, which suggests that either they aren't as worried about China as they pretend, or they are so confident that Uncle Sam will back them that they won't take concrete steps to put the past behind them once and for all.

Similarly, Obama reached a new defense pact with the Philippines during his visit there, but the main upshot of the deal is to make it easier for the United States to come defend another ally. To be sure, Manila is no match for a rising China on its own, but they could do a much better job with the resources they do have. But as Richard Jacobson observed last summer, "Even now, with the ‘immediate' and ‘credible' threat of Chinese aggression, there appears to be little public appetite for a significantly stronger military." For the record: The Philippines spends about 1.2 percent of GDP on defense.

What about India? The United States has pursued a new "strategic partnership" with India, but the payoffs to date have been disappointing, in part because the Indian economy has yet to match China's recent performance. The country seems to be mired in deep domestic wrangling, and flirting with a rightwing Hindu resurgence that could fuel internal conflict and complicate U.S. efforts to build a broader Asian coalition.

Even Australia, where pro-American sentiment is especially strong, is torn between long-range concerns about China's rise and the short-term desire to maximize economic gains. Australia has gone more than two decades without a recession, a boom fueled by massive exports of iron ore and other natural resources to China's expanding economy. Prime Minister Tony Abbott pledged to bring Australia's defense spending up to 2 percent of GDP during the last election campaign, but the government is presently facing a budget shortfall and implementing various austerity measures, and nobody I met there believes that this 2 percent figure will be reached.

When one looks broadly at Asia, in short, we see a situation where the United States is expected to do most of the heavy lifting while its various allies -- i.e., the states that would be most directly affected by a more powerful and assertive China -- continue to saunter along spending 1-2 percent of GDP on defense.

At one level, this is not surprising. The theory of collective goods tells us that the stronger powers in an alliance will usually bear a disproportionate share of the collective burden. Why? Because if it is in the strongest power's self-interest to have an effective alliance, it will step up and provide the wherewithal even its allies do not, thereby allowing weaker members to free-ride. Weak allies can exacerbate this tendency by constantly fretting in public about U.S. credibility and demanding constant reassurance, complaints that hardliners back in Washington can seize upon to explain why Uncle Sucker needs to do more.

But there are limits. Americans will be loath to spend billions and run significant geopolitical risks on behalf of distant allies who don't seem willing to do very much to help themselves, and who aren't willing to make concessions or adjustments on other issues like TPP. Just wait till Rand Paul figures this out, and makes burden sharing a key part of his campaign speech. And so the Big Question remains: How much cooperation will Washington demand from the Asian allies it is committed to protect, and what will it do if they remain reluctant to provide it? 

One final thought. A number of people in Australia took issue with my analysis, and argued that China's leaders would be preoccupied with vexing internal challenges and unlikely to make a serious effort to alter the Asian status quo anytime soon. There's much to be said for this point of view, and it is worth remembering that China's own strategic position is not enviable, with 14 neighbors (four with nuclear weapons), several serious territorial disputes, a potential failed state across the border with North Korea, and growing dependence on external markets and resources. So maybe there's no real reason for concern, and everyone can just concentrate on getting rich.

Sadly, this view is probably too rosy. China's internal challenges may slow its efforts to establish a dominant position in Asia, but they are unlikely to derail such goals forever. And as I've said before, creating and leading an effective balancing coalition in Asia is going to be a demanding task, especially if America's Asian allies have to be cajoled into making a serious effort. Unfortunately, nothing I heard Down Under led me to change my mind about how serious a challenge this will be.



Is the ICC Investigating Crimes by U.S. Forces in Afghanistan?

A warm relationship between the Obama administration and the International Criminal Court is in danger over new inquiries about U.S. detainee abuse.

Last spring, U.S. officials got a rude surprise from the Netherlands. It came in the form of a letter from Fatou Bensouda, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The subject was Afghanistan, and the letter described evidence that U.S. personnel had abused more than two dozen detainees held in that country, mostly between 2003 and 2006. The prosecutor invited the U.S. government to provide information to the court about those cases and its broader detention practices in Afghanistan.

The correspondence from The Hague set off alarm bells in Washington. With thousands of troops deployed in Afghanistan, neither Washington nor its leading NATO allies have had any desire to see the court involved there. A few diplomats from NATO states discouraged the prosecutor from pursuing a full investigation, but most simply hoped that the court inquiry wouldn't move forward. U.S. officials had good reason for confidence that it would not.

One former U.S. official who spoke about Afghanistan with the then-prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, in 2009 and 2010 got the impression that the court's inquiry was a "box-checking exercise" -- designed in part to show that an institution often criticized for its exclusive focus on Africa was at least interested in situations outside the continent.

The 2013 letter represented the first concrete indication the court was scrutinizing possible American transgressions on Afghan soil. State Department, Defense Department, and White House officials hurriedly conferred about how to respond. Within weeks, three U.S. officials were on a plane to The Hague. At ICC headquarters, they met with the deputy prosecutor, veteran Canadian prosecutor James Stewart, and several of his senior staff. Individuals familiar with the meeting recall that the U.S. delegation urged the court not to publish the allegations, even in preliminary form. They warned that the world would see any ICC mention of possible American war crimes as evidence of guilt, even if the court never brought a formal case. (ICC officials would not comment on the meeting other than to note that they routinely have confidential meetings with states about potential investigations.)

Several months after that meeting, the prosecutor's office released a public update on its preliminary investigation in Afghanistan. It focused heavily on crimes by anti-government forces in Afghanistan. All the specific cases that the court had spoken about with U.S. officials were absent, and the report did not even mention the United States by name. But the prosecutor's spare language makes clear that her office remains quite interested in U.S. conduct in Afghanistan and whether it has done enough to ensure accountability for abuses. For their part, U.S. officials have been eager to keep the ongoing dialogue with the court quiet. (National Security Council spokesperson Laura Lucas Magnuson wrote in an email: "We are aware that the ICC's Office of the Prosecutor is conducting a preliminary examination of the situation in Afghanistan and that they have reported on it publicly. We have no further comment on those activities." State Department officials did not respond to requests for comment.)

It's not surprising that the United States is being tight-lipped. The prosecutor's probe in Afghanistan is awkward for the Obama administration, which has steadily improved relations with a court that conservatives have long warned is a threat to American interests. In 2011, the United States voted for a Security Council referral of the conflict in Libya to the ICC, the first time Washington had done so (in 2005, the Bush administration abstained on a Security Council referral of Sudan to the court). Last year, the United States helped facilitate the transfer to The Hague of a Congolese warlord who had sought shelter in a U.S. embassy. And just last week, FP's Colum Lynch reported that the United States is now prepared to vote for a referral of Syrian crimes to the ICC.

The good public vibrations between Washington and The Hague have been the product of court activity that has mostly (although certainly not always) aligned with the administration's larger goals, without unnerving the superpower. I argued in a recent book that the court's first decade has featured an accommodation between the court and the powerful countries, including the United States, that have been most anxious about its powers. Since the court began operating in July 2002, it has mostly steered clear of investigations that would entangle it directly with the most powerful states. It hasn't touched the Russia-Georgia conflict or the situation in Palestine. Until recently, Afghanistan appeared to be in the same category of politically sensitive cases the court would prefer to leave alone.

The prosecutor's office appears to be most interested in whether the abuses that U.S. forces committed in Iraq and at other detention facilities occurred in Afghanistan as well. (Because Afghanistan is already an ICC member, the court has broad juridiction to investigate crimes committed on Afghan territory -- even those by foreign nationals.) Prominent human rights organizations have argued that a pattern of abusive practices -- and impunity for abuses that did occur -- migrated from Guantanamo and Iraq to Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch senior researcher Patricia Grossman told me that there are a "large number of cases of U.S. involvement in detainee abuse and homicide [in Afghanistan] -- many of which went uninvestigated, unprosecuted, or unpunished."

The ICC does not appear to be satisfied yet with what it has heard from Washington. In her November 2013 report, the prosecutor suggested that she continues to explore whether a U.S. policy of detainee abuse existed. She wrote that her office continues to pursue "information to determine whether there is any reasonable basis to believe any such alleged acts, which could amount to torture or humiliating and degrading treatment, may have been committed as part of a policy." That question is extraordinarily sensitive for the United States. A finding that there was a U.S. government "policy" of facilitating or condoning abuse could implicate not just commanders who were on the ground but, in theory, more senior officials.

For all the heartburn the ICC probe is causing in Washington, the chances that the court will ever prosecute U.S. soldiers or officials remain slim. If the United States can show that it has genuinely investigated the relevant cases on its own, it can argue that the ICC's "complementarity" doctrine -- which says that national courts should prosecute relevant crimes whenever possible -- precludes court action. Even if the United States can't demonstrate that it has investigated the specific cases the ICC is interested in, there's another important barrier to ICC action. The court is designed to consider the most serious crimes, and its charter encourages the prosecutor to investigate and prosecute war crimes when they've been committed on a large scale. Even if the allegations against the United States are well founded, it's debatable whether they cross that threshold.

It could be that the prosecutor's office is hoping to replicate the experience it had with the British government over allegations against its forces in Iraq. Because Britain joined the ICC in 2002, the court could examine allegations against its forces even while U.S. behavior in Iraq was beyond its reach. (The United States signed the Rome Statute establishing the court at the tail end of the Clinton administration, but the Bush administration "unsigned" it soon after taking office.) Between 2004 and early 2006, the prosecutor examined several instances of alleged detainee abuse by British troops in southern Iraq but ultimately decided not to launch a full investigation. In a letter closing that inquiry, the prosecutor noted that the number of possible crimes by British forces was tiny compared to many other situations around the world. The prosecutor's decision was a deft compromise: it signaled a willingness to look at the behavior of even powerful states without creating a direct confrontation.

But the relatively painless British experience of ICC scrutiny is less comforting to the United States than it might have been just a few days ago. Activists have recently urged the court to consider new evidence about British abuses in Iraq, and the prosecutor's office this week announced that it would reopen its preliminary inquiry. While flatly rejecting the allegations, Britain's attorney general reiterated his country's strong support for the ICC and pledged cooperation.

Britain's stiff upper lip in the face of ICC scrutiny is unlikely to prevail in Washington, particularly among the committed court skeptics on Capitol Hill. Unlike the British, most U.S. politicians have not digested the theoretical possibility that an international court could prosecute troops and officials. In 2002, Congress overwhelmingly approved legislation that forbade several forms of U.S. support to the court and empowered the president to use "all means necessary" to free any Americans held by the court (Hillary Clinton joined most Democrats in supporting the measure). The recent thaw in U.S.-ICC relations has been possible in large part because the possibility of a direct clash between The Hague and Washington seemed remote. But the tense recent exchanges over Afghanistan are a reminder that the court and the sovereignty-conscious superpower may not always get along as well as they have recently.