Contrary to popular opinion, the United States has long been a Pacific potentate. Ever since the 19th century, when American settlers journeyed from their East Coast enclaves and into the great American West, the United States was destined to become a dominant force not only in the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, but the Pacific Ocean as well. Years of cross-cultural ties, trade deals, and military alliances — as well as wars — have cemented America’s position as a Pacific power. The United States will need to emphasize these facts as it ramps up its Trade War against China.
As the Trade War intensifies, Beijing will do — and say — anything it must to convince the world (specifically, its Asian neighbors) that its position is the legitimate one and the United States’ is not. Part of its claim will be that China is an actual Asian power whereas the United States is merely a poseur; another foreign, Western empire intent on colonizing and subjugating as much of Asia as it can. By reinforcing the claim that the United States is a Pacific power, Washington will be able to rebuff Beijing’s lies and solidify its Asian alliances.
America and Its Asian Immigrants
More importantly, there is a long history of mass immigration from the Asia-Pacific into the United States. Chinese immigrants helped to build the transcontinental railroad that permanently linked the American East Coast to its West Coast. After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was passed in the United States, American industrialists began seeking out Japanese workers to replace their lost Chinese workers, prompting another explosion of immigrants from the Asia-Pacific.
During this era, Japan was undergoing its Meiji Restoration, which culminated with Japan becoming the advanced imperial state that it was by the start of the Second World War. The political changes in Japan prompted some of its citizens to emigrate abroad — notably to the United States. The Japanese who emigrated to the United States not only became important industrial workers, but many of them were also superior farmers. Western American states, such as Hawaii, California, and Arizona, still enjoy the fruits (and vegetables) of the sophisticated irrigation methods that Japanese immigrants brought with them into the United States.
Today, Asian-Americans comprise nearly six percent of the U.S. population. According to the most recent Census Bureau report, there are roughly 3.79 million Chinese-Americans, 3.41 million Filipino-Americans, 3.18 Indian-Americans, 1.73 Vietnamese-Americans, 1.7 million Korean-Americans, and 1.3 million Japanese. Asian-Americans are among the most productive American citizens today as well (a fact that has apparently incensed Ivy League institutions, since many of these institutions have been caught discriminating against Asian-American students perceived to be too smart or “privileged”). In fact, the Asian-American population is among one of the fastest-growing, most important subgroups in the United States today.
The various ethnicities and cultural inclinations of the Asian-American groups listed above have made an indelible mark on the wider American culture. They have made unique contributions — and continue to do so — and are highly influential for the socio-political makeup of the United States. As with so many other cultural subgroups in the United States, the Asian-American immigrants maintain close ties with their homelands and, because of these ties, the United States has deep cultural ties to the lands where these Asian-Americans emigrated from.
American Involvement in Asian Power Politics
More importantly, the United States has long been involved in the dicey power politics of the Asia-Pacific. For better or worse, the United States annexed Hawaii and then took the Philippines from the ailing Spanish Empire during the Spanish-American War. From that moment on, the United States was granted an open door, if you will, into the politics of Asia. Americans became accustomed to receiving Asian goods while Asian sellers became dependent on American consumers. This is not just a recent phenomenon. It has gone on since the mid-19th century.
Ultimately, the United States waged four major conflicts in the Asia-Pacific. The first was the Philippine insurgency in 1904, the next conflict was the Pacific Theater of the Second World War, after that the Korean War, and then the Vietnam War. With each conflict, the American position in the region was intensified and better defined.
When the Cold War ended, globalization took off and the region became a hotbed of global economic activity. To this day, the United States does more trade along transpacific routes than it does along the transatlantic routes, upending the historical norm. As the Asia-Pacific became the center of global commerce, China’s rise was assured. The stronger and wealthier China has become, it the more hostile it has become to American interests and the regional order that the United States established after its decisive victory over the Japanese in the Second World War.
Beijing continually admonishes its citizens to “Never Forget National Humiliation.” A century and a half ago, China was colonized by the various European empires and subjugated to their will. China, a once-mighty empire in its own right, was soon disrespected and humiliated by empires ranging from Britain to Germany … they were even colonized by their hated neighbors, the Japanese. Today’s Chinese leaders have long vowed to never allow for such humiliation to recur. Interestingly enough, Beijing lumps the United States in with these European colonizers.
But what is so often missed is that in 1899, the United States attempted to protect Chinese territorial integrity and sovereignty by crafting the Open Door Policy (which Beijing’s present leaders believe was an underhanded attempt by the Americans to gain colonial control over China). Created by U.S. Secretary of State John Hay in 1899, the Open Door Policy was a statement of principles that all foreign empires involved in trade in China committed themselves to. Yes, Washington wanted to open a new market to its goods. No, Washington was not interested in territorial control in the way that the European colonial empires were.
All America wanted was free, fair, and reciprocal trade with the Chinese. Unfortunately, the United States at that time was not strong enough to force the greedy Europeans to treat China fairly. The Open Door Policy was the best chance to have a modicum of freedom and sovereignty for China in the mad scramble on the part of the world’s great empires to gain spheres of influence in the “Middle Kingdom.”
America Is a Pacific Power
On top of its massive Asian-American population as well as its overwhelming economic relationships with the various states of the Asia-Pacific, Washington has a long list of important security alliances with a host of Asian states. Whether Beijing likes it or not, these smaller countries will not simply allow themselves to be subsumed by the return of the Chinese Empire. Historically, countries such as Vietnam and Korea, for example, have been subordinated to Beijing’s will. More gallingly, these independent and sovereign states were treated as tributary states — mere vassals — to the superior Chinese Empire. While these Asian states may not seek outright conflict with China today, they do desire to maintain a strong alliance with the United States, a country they view as a vital strategic balancer against China.
What’s more, Beijing is grossly overplaying its hand. It has managed to attract many key players in the region to sign on to its One-Belt-One-Road Initiative, which is China’s attempt to link as much of Eurasia and Africa together through Chinese-dominated maritime and land-based trading routes as possible. This is partly because China is such a large market in close geographic proximity to these smaller Asian (and African) states. But, it is also because the United States has forgotten to use geo-economic statecraft to woo potential allies over to its side.
Many of these smaller countries that have signed on have done so not out of fealty to Beijing, but rather because China has thrown so much money at the governments of these smaller states, that they’d be fools not to accept. Few Asian states enjoy doing business with the Chinese, who are viewed as haughty, aggressive, and rude. Yet, the United States cannot decide whether it seeks to truly “pivot” to Asia or if it simply wants to hector Beijing while sitting on the regional sidelines.
The United States is a Pacific power, just like China, Japan, and all of the others. In fact, it is the preeminent power in the Asia-Pacific. It should embrace its Pacific heritage and ensure that its interests are respected as China attempts to complete its historic rise to glory. Beijing insists that they have a right to reclaim “what was theirs” before the Westerners laid their empire low. The United States was not one of the powers that helped to destroy China. Also, unlike the Europeans, the United States does have a major maritime border with the region and has long had an outsized role in Asian affairs. Therefore, Washington has a right to ensure its historic standing in the region is respected as well. If China cannot countenance this fact, then Washington must do what it can to make it understand this reality.
Brandon J. Weichert can be reached via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.