Zakaria: Losing Another War ... in Asia

If you want to know which way the breeze is blowing in Asia, check out a bookstore in Hanoi. The two I went to while visiting there last week were stocked with the usual stuff—the writings of Ho Chi Minh and General Giap—and many signs of the new Vietnam, which meant books on business and management plus a seemingly legal Vietnamese translation of Hillary Clinton's memoirs. Prominently displayed along with all these wares were the collected speeches of Chinese leaders Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.

The Vietnamese have no particular love for China. One official there, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the relationship, said to me, "We are clear-eyed. China has occupied Vietnam for 1,000 years. It has invaded us 13 times since then. But China is a huge presence, our biggest exporter." And everyone I spoke to in Hanoi agreed that the Chinese were handling them with great dexterity. Before arriving in Vietnam I had been in Tokyo, during Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's state visit, and I heard a similar refrain from the Japanese. Wen finessed the many points of tension between the two countries and instead accentuated the positive—their booming economic ties.

Talk of China's "soft power" has grown over the last year. But what I saw last week was not evidence of soft power in the sense Harvard professor Joseph Nye meant when he coined the term—the attractiveness of a country and its values. Few people in Asia are actively pining for "the Chinese Dream" because it's not really clear what that is—and to the extent that there is one it sounds suspiciously like the American Dream. Really, it's China's hard power that is on the rise. Beijing has become remarkably adept at using its political and economic muscle in a patient, low-key and highly effective manner.

China's diplomacy emphasizes its core strengths—a long-term perspective, a nonpreachy attitude and strategic decision-making that isn't bogged down by internal opposition or bureaucratic paralysis. Over the last decade, for example, China has greatly improved its historically tense relations with Southeast Asia. It's taken a more accommodating political line, provided generous aid packages (often far outstripping those provided by the United States) and moved speedily on a free-trade deal with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Japan wanted to cut a similar deal but has dithered, racked by power struggles between political and bureaucratic factions in Tokyo. The United States can't even begin such a conversation with ASEAN because we will not talk to Burma. One result: this summer China plans to hold military exercises with some of these countries, most of which have been U.S. allies for decades.

And yet no one is comfortable with an Asia dominated by China. Singapore's shrewd prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, who will be in Washington this week, urges the United States to be far more actively engaged. "You have many friends in this region," he says. "But the attitude of many Asian nations is that China will be here for 2,000 years. America is here today but may go away. And if you stop paying attention to us, we have only one suitor and only one option."

The Bush administration's basic policies in Asia have been intelligent. Washington has maintained good and productive relations with China while also strengthening ties to Japan, India, Australia, Singapore and Vietnam. But the relationship is plagued by two problems. First, the administration has been obsessed with Iraq, and so everything else, including Asia, gets too little sustained and strategic attention. Second, America is still beleaguered by the total collapse of its image abroad, which makes it difficult for countries like Indonesia and Thailand to take measures that are seen as pro-American.

When I asked Prime Minister Lee how to change this dynamic, he reminded me that nearly half of Southeast Asia's population is Muslim and said, "The single most important thing that the U.S. could do to shift its image in the region would be to take a more active role on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and in a balanced way. The issue is more important for Southeast Asia's Muslims than even Iraq." Singapore's strategic elite, with close ties to the United States and Israel, aren't trying to score ideological points. They don't offer the usual stinging criticism of America's Iraq policy, for example. When I asked Lee about it, his concern was simple: "If you lose standing [because of] Iraq, it's bad for us."

The real problem with our Asia policy is not the Bush administration but the U.S. political system. Congress is in a narrow-minded and protectionist mood, unlikely to see the need for trade agreements, foreign aid and far greater engagement with a crucial country like Vietnam. Minor issues, ideological obsessions and small but tenacious domestic lobbies hold back sustained strategic movement in foreign policy. There is little time for this. Singapore's senior statesman, Lee Kuan Yew, believes that the United States will be able to bounce back from its current troubles. But, he says, "by the time you get around to focusing on the region, you will find a very different Asia."

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