Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, Volume I, Foundations of Foreign Policy, 1969–1972
3. Article by Richard M. Nixon 1
ASIA AFTER VIET NAM
The war in Viet Nam has for so long dominated our field of vision that it has distorted our picture of Asia. A small country on the rim of the continent has filled the screen of our minds; but it does not fill the map. Sometimes dramatically, but more often quietly, the rest of Asia has been undergoing a profound, an exciting and on balance an extraordinarily promising transformation. One key to this transformation is the emergence of Asian regionalism; another is the development of a number of the Asian economies; another is gathering disaffection with all the old isms that have so long imprisoned so many minds and so many governments. By and large the non-communist Asian governments are looking for solutions that work, rather than solutions that fit a preconceived set of doctrines and dogmas.
Most of them also recognize a common danger, and see its source as Peking. Taken together, these developments present an extraordinary set of opportunities for a U.S. policy which must begin to look beyond Viet Nam. In looking toward the future, however, we should not ignore the vital role Viet Nam has played in making these developments possible. Whatever one may think of the “domino” theory, it is beyond question that without the American commitment in Viet Nam Asia would be a far different place today.
The U.S. presence has provided tangible and highly visible proof that communism is not necessarily the wave of Asia’s future. This was a vital factor in the turnaround in Indonesia, where a tendency toward fatalism is a national characteristic. It provided a shield behind which the anti-communist forces found the courage and the capacity to stage their counter-coup and, at the final moment, to rescue their country from the Chinese orbit. And, with its 100 million people, and its 3,000-mile [Page 11] arc of islands containing the region’s richest hoard of natural resources, Indonesia constitutes by far the greatest prize in the Southeast Asian area.
Beyond this, Viet Nam has diverted Peking from such other potential targets as India, Thailand and Malaysia. It has bought vitally needed time for governments that were weak or unstable or leaning toward Peking as a hedge against the future—time has imposed severe strains on the United States, not only militarily and economically but socially and politically as well. Bitter dissension has torn the fabric of American intellectual life, and whatever the outcome of the war the tear may be a long time mending. If another friendly country should be faced with an externally supported communist insurrection—whether in Asia, or in Africa or even Latin America—there is serious question whether the American public or the American Congress would now support a unilateral American intervention, even at the request of the host government. This makes it vitally in their own interest that the nations in the path of China’s ambitions move quickly to establish an indigenous Asian framework for their own future security.
In doing so, they need to fashion arrangements able to deal both with old-style wars and with new—with traditional wars, in which armies cross over national boundaries, and with the so-called “wars of national liberation,” in which they burrow under national boundaries.
I am not arguing that the day is past when the United States would respond militarily to communist threats in the less stable parts of the world, or that a unilateral response to a unilateral request for help is out of the question. But other nations must recognize that the role of the United States as world policeman is likely to be limited in the future. To ensure that a U.S. response will be forthcoming if needed, machinery must be created that is capable of meeting two conditions: (a) a collective effort by the nations of the region to contain the threat by themselves; and, if that effort fails, (b) a collective request to the United States for assistance. This is important not only from the respective national standpoints, but also from the standpoint of avoiding nuclear collision.
Nations not possessing great power can indulge in the luxury of criticism of others; those possessing it have the responsibility of decision. Faced with a clear challenge, the decision not to use one’s power must be as deliberate as the decision to use it. The consequences can be fully as far-reaching and fully as irrevocable.
If another world war is to be prevented, every step possible must be taken to avert direct confrontations between the nuclear powers. To achieve this, it is essential to minimize the number of occasions on which the great powers have to decide whether or not to commit their forces. These choices cannot be eliminated, but they can be reduced by [Page 12] the development of regional defense pacts, in which nations undertake, among themselves, to attempt to contain aggression in their own areas.
If the initial response to a threatened aggression, of whichever type—whether across the border or under it—can be made by lesser powers in the immediate area and thus within the path of aggression, one of two things can be achieved: either they can in fact contain it by themselves, in which case the United States is spared involvement and thus the world is spared the consequences of great-power action; or, if they cannot, the ultimate choice can be presented to the United States in clear-cut terms, by nations which would automatically become allies in whatever response might prove necessary. To put it another way, the regional pact becomes a buffer separating the distant great power from the immediate threat. Only if the buffer proves insufficient does the great power become involved, and then in terms that make victory more attainable and the enterprise more palatable.
This is particularly important when the threat takes the form of an externally supported guerrilla action, as we have faced in Viet Nam, as is even now being mounted in Thailand, and as could be launched in any of a half-dozen other spots in the Chinese shadow. Viet Nam has shown how difficult it is to make clear the distinction between this and an ordinary factional civil war, and how subject the assisting power is to charges of having intervened in an internal matter. Viet Nam’s neighbors know that the war there is not internal, but our own allies in Europe have difficulty grasping the fact.
The fragmenting of the communist world has lent credence to the frequently heard argument that a communist advance by proxy, as we have seen attempted in Viet Nam, is of only peripheral importance; that with the weakening of rigid central control of the communist world, local fights between communist and non-communist factions are a local matter. This ignores, however, the fact that with the decentralization of communist control has come an appropriately tailored shift in communist tactics. National communism poses a different kind of threat than did the old-style international communism, but by being subtler it is in some ways more dangerous.
SEATO was useful and appropriate to its time, but it was Western in origin and drew its strength from the United States and Europe. It has weakened to the point at which it is little more than an institutional embodiment of an American commitment, and a somewhat anachronistic relic of the days when France and Britain were active members. Asia today needs its own security undertakings, reflecting the new realities of Asian independence and Asian needs.
Thus far, despite a pattern of rapidly increasing cooperation in cultural and economic affairs, the Asian nations have been unwilling [Page 13] to form a military grouping designed to forestall the Chinese threat, even though several have bilateral arrangements with the United States. But an appropriate foundation-stone exists on which to build: the Asian and Pacific Council. ASPAC held its first ministerial-level meeting in Seoul in June 1966, and its second in Bangkok in July 1967. It has carefully limited itself to strengthening regional cooperation in economic, cultural and social matters, and its members have voiced strong feelings that, as Japan’s Foreign Minister Takeo Miki put it at the Bangkok meeting, it should not be made “a body to promote anti-communist campaigns.”
Despite ASPAC’s present cultural and economic orientation, however, the solidifying awareness of China’s threat should make it possible—if the need for a regional alliance is put in sufficiently compelling terms—to develop it into an alliance actively dedicated to concerting whatever efforts might be necessary to maintain the security of the region. And ASPAC is peculiarly well situated to play such a role. Its members (South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, South Viet Nam, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand, with Laos as an observer) all are acutely conscious of the Chinese threat. All except Malaysia have military ties with the United States. It has the distinct advantage of including Australia and New Zealand, which share the danger and would be able to contribute substantially to its strength, without an unbalancing great-power presence.
I do not mean to minimize the difficulties of winning acceptance of such a concept. In Japan, public opinion still lags behind official awareness of military needs. The avowedly neutralist nations under China’s cloud would be reluctant, at present, to join any such grouping. But looking further down the road we can project either an erosion of their neutralism or the formation of their own loose association or associations, which might be tied into a militarily oriented ASPAC on an interlocking or cooperative basis. One can hope that even India might finally be persuaded to give its support, having itself been the target of overt Chinese aggression, and still cherishing as it does a desire to play a substantial role beyond its own borders.
Military security has to rest, ultimately, on economic and political stability. One of the effects of the rapidity of change in the world today is that there can no longer be static stability; there can only be dynamic stability. A nation or society that fails to keep pace with change is in danger of flying apart. It is important that we recognize this, but equally [Page 14] important that in trying to maintain a dynamic stability we remember that the stability is as important as the dynamism.
If a given set of ends is deemed desirable, then from the standpoint of those dedicated to peace and an essential stability in world order the desideratum is to reach those ends by evolutionary rather than revolutionary means. Looking at the pattern of change in non-communist Asia, we find that the professed aims of the revolutionaries are in fact being achieved by an evolutionary process. This offers a dramatic opportunity to draw the distinction between the fact of a revolutionary result and the process of revolutionary change. The Asian nations are showing that evolutionary change can be as exciting as revolutionary change. Having revolutionized the aims of their societies, they are showing what can be achieved within a framework of dynamic stability.
The “people,” in the broadest sense, have become an entity to be served rather than used. In much of Asia, this change represents a revolution of no less magnitude than the revolution that created the industrial West, or that in the years following World War II transformed empires into new and struggling nations. It is precisely the promise of this reversal that has been at the heart of communist rhetoric, and at the heart of the popular and intellectual appeal which that rhetoric achieved.
Not all the governments of non-communist Asia fit the Western ideal of parliamentary democracy—far from it. But Americans must recognize that a highly sophisticated, highly advanced political system, which required many centuries to develop in the West, may not be best for other nations which have far different traditions and are still in an earlier stage of development. What matters is that these governments are consciously, deliberately and programmatically developing in the direction of greater liberty, greater abundance, broader choice and increased popular involvement in the processes of government.
Poverty that was accepted for centuries as the norm is accepted no longer. In a sense it could be said that a new chapter is being written in the winning of the West: in this case, a winning of the promise of Western technology and Western organization by the nations of the East. The cultural clash has had its cost and produced its strains, but out of it is coming a modernization of ancient civilizations that promises to leap the centuries.
The process produces transitional anomalies—such as the Indian woman squatting in the mud, forming cow-dung patties with her hands and laying them out to dry, while a transistor radio in her lap plays music from a Delhi station. It takes a long time to bring visions of the future to the far villages—but time is needed to make those visions credible, and make them achievable. Too wide a gap between reality and expectation always produces an explosive situation, and the fact [Page 15] that what the leaders know is possible is unknown to the great mass of the peasantry helps buy time to make the possible achievable. But the important thing is that the leaders do know what is possible, and by and large they are determined to make it happen.
Whether that process is going to proceed at a pace fast enough to keep one step ahead of the pressure of rising expectations is one of the great questions and challenges of the years ahead. But there is solid ground for hope. The successful Asian nations have been writing extraordinary records. To call their performance an economic miracle would be something of a semantic imprecision; it would also be a disservice. Precisely because the origins and ingredients of that success are not miraculous, it offers hope to those which have not yet turned the corner.
India still is a staggering giant, Burma flirts with economic chaos, and the Philippines, caught in a conflict of cultures and in search of an identity, lives in a precarious economic and social balance. But the most exciting trends in economic development today are being recorded by those Asian nations that have accepted the keys of progress and used them. Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, Korea, Singapore and Malaysia all have been recording sustained economic growth rates of 7 percent a year or more; Japan has sustained a remarkable average of 9 percent a year since 1950, and an average 16.7 percent per year increase in exports over the same period. Thailand shifted into a period of rapid growth in 1958 and has averaged 7 percent a year since. South Korea, despite the unflattering estimates of its people’s abilities by the average G.I. during the Korean War, is shooting ahead at a growth rate that has averaged 8 percent a year since 1963, with an average 42 percent a year increase in its exports.
These rapidly advancing countries vary widely in their social traditions and political systems, but their methods of economic management have certain traits in common: a prime reliance on private enterprise and on the pricing mechanisms of the market as the chief determinant of business decisions; a pacing of monetary expansion to match growth in output; receptivity to private capital investment, both domestic and foreign, including such incentives as tax advantages and quick government clearance of proposed projects; imaginative national programs for dealing with social problems; and, not least, a generally restrained posture in government planning, with the government’s role suggestive rather than coercive. These nations have, in short, discovered and applied the lessons of America’s own economic success.
Any discussion of Asia’s future must ultimately focus on the respective roles of four giants: India, the world’s most populous non-communist [Page 16] nation; Japan, Asia’s principal industrial and economic power; China, the world’s most populous nation and Asia’s most immediate threat; and the United States, the greatest Pacific power. (Although the U.S.S.R. occupies much of the land map of Asia, its principal focus is toward the West and its vast Asian lands are an appendage of European Russia.)
India is both challenging and frustrating: challenging because of its promise, frustrating because of its performance. It suffers from escalating overpopulation, from too much emphasis on industrialization and not enough on agriculture, and from too doctrinaire a reliance on government enterprise instead of private enterprise. Many are deeply pessimistic about its future. One has to remember, however, that in the past five years India has fought two wars and faced two catastrophic droughts. On both the population and the agricultural fronts, India’s present leaders at least are trying. And the essential factor, from the standpoint of U.S. policy, is that a nation of nearly half a billion people is seeking ways to wrench itself forward without a sacrifice of basic freedoms; in exceedingly difficult circumstances, the ideal of evolutionary change is being tested. For the most populous representative democracy in the world to fail, while Communist China—surmounting its troubles—succeeded, would be a disaster of worldwide proportions. Thus the United States must do two things: (1) continue its aid and support for Indian economic objectives; and (2) do its best to persuade the Indian Government to shift its means and adjust its institutions so that those objectives can be more quickly and more effectively secured, drawing from the lessons not only of the United States but also of India’s more successful neighbors, including Pakistan.
Japan has been edging cautiously and discreetly toward a wider leadership role, acutely conscious at every step that bitter memories of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere might rise to haunt her if she pressed too hard or too eagerly. But what would not have been possible ten, or even five, years ago is becoming possible today. Half the people now living in Asia have been born since World War II, and the new generation has neither the old guilts (in the case of the Japanese themselves) nor the old fears born of conquest.
The natural momentum of Japan’s growth, the industry of her people and the advanced state of her society must inevitably propel Japan into a more conspicuous position of leadership. Japan’s industrial complex, expanding by 14 percent annually since 1950, already is comparable to that of West Germany or the United Kingdom. Japan’s gross national product ($95 billion) is substantially greater than that of mainland China, with seven times the population. Japan is expected soon to rank as the world’s third-strongest economic power, trailing only the [Page 17] United States and the Soviet Union. Along with this dramatic economic surge, Japan will surely want to play a greater role both diplomatically and militarily in maintaining the balance in Asia. As the Prime Minister of one neighboring country put it: “The Japanese are a great people, and no great people will accept as their destiny making better transistor radios and teaching the underdeveloped how to grow better rice.”
This greater role will entail, among other things, a modification of the present terms of the Japanese Constitution, which specifically provides that “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” (Japan’s 275,000 men presently under arms are called “Self-Defense Forces.”) Twenty years ago it was considered unthinkable that Japan should acquire even a conventional military capability. Five years ago, while some Japanese thought about it, they did not talk about it. Today a substantial majority of Japanese still oppose the idea, but it is openly discussed and debated. Looking toward the future, one must recognize that it simply is not realistic to expect a nation moving into the first rank of major powers to be totally dependent for its own security on another nation, however close the ties. Japan’s whole society has been restructured since World War II. While there still are traces of fanaticism, its politics at least conform to the democratic ideal. Not to trust Japan today with its own armed forces and with responsibility for its own defense would be to place its people and its government under a disability which, whatever its roots in painful recent history, ill accords with the role Japan must play in helping secure the common safety of non-communist Asia.
Any American policy toward Asia must come urgently to grips with the reality of China. This does not mean, as many would simplistically have it, rushing to grant recognition to Peking, to admit it to the United Nations and to ply it with offers of trade—all of which would serve to confirm its rulers in their present course. It does mean recognizing the present and potential danger from Communist China, and taking measures designed to meet that danger. It also means distinguishing carefully between long-range and short-range policies, and fashioning short-range programs so as to advance our long-range goals.
Taking the long view, we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors. There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation. But we could go disastrously wrong if, in pursuing this long-range goal, we failed in the short range to read the lessons of history.[Page 18]
The world cannot be safe until China changes. Thus our aim, to the extent that we can influence events, should be to induce change. The way to do this is to persuade China that it must change: that it cannot satisfy its imperial ambitions, and that its own national interest requires a turning away from foreign adventuring and a turning inward toward the solution of its own domestic problems.
If the challenge posed by the Soviet Union after World War II was not precisely similar, it was sufficiently so to offer a valid precedent and a valuable lesson. Moscow finally changed when it, too, found that change was necessary. This was essentially a change of the head, not of the heart. Internal evolution played a role, to be sure, but the key factor was that the West was able to create conditions—notably in the shoring up of European defenses, the rapid restoration of European economies and the cementing of the Atlantic Alliance—that forced Moscow to look to the wisdom of reaching some measure of accommodation with the West. We are still far from reaching a full détente, but at least substantial progress has been made.
During the next decade the West faces two prospects which, together, could create a crisis of the first order: (1) that the Soviets may reach nuclear parity with the United States; and (2) that China, within three to five years, will have a significant deliverable nuclear capability—and that this same China will be outside any nonproliferation treaty that might be signed, free, if it chooses, to scatter its weapons among “liberation” forces anywhere in the world.
This heightens the urgency of building buffers that can keep the major nuclear powers apart in the case of “wars of national liberation,” supported by Moscow or Peking but fought by proxy. It also requires that we now assign to the strengthening of non-communist Asia a priority comparable to that which we gave to the strengthening of Western Europe after World War II.
Some counsel conceding to China a “sphere of influence” embracing much of the Asian mainland and extending even to the island nations beyond; others urge that we eliminate the threat by preemptive war. Clearly, neither of these courses would be acceptable to the United States or to its Asian allies. Others argue that we should seek an anti-Chinese alliance with European powers, even including the Soviet Union. Quite apart from the obvious problems involved in Soviet participation, such a course would inevitably carry connotations of Europe vs. Asia, white vs. non-white, which could have catastrophic repercussions throughout the rest of the non-white world in general and Asia in particular. If our long-range aim is to pull China back in to the family of nations, we must avoid the impression that the great powers or the European powers are “ganging up;” the response should clearly be one [Page 19] of active defense rather than potential offense, and must be untainted with any suspicion of racism.
For the United States to go it alone in containing China would not only place an unconscionable burden on our own country, but also would heighten the chances of nuclear war while undercutting the independent development of the nations of Asia. The primary restraint on China’s Asian ambitions should be exercised by the Asian nations in the path of those ambitions, backed by the ultimate power of the United States. This is sound strategically, sound psychologically and sound in terms of the dynamics of Asian development. Only as the nations of non-communist Asia become so strong—economically, politically and militarily—that they no longer furnish tempting targets for Chinese aggression, will the leaders in Peking be persuaded to turn their energies inward rather than outward. And that will be the time when the dialogue with mainland China can begin.
For the short run, then, this means a policy of firm restraint, of no reward, of a creative counterpressure designed to persuade Peking that its interests can be served only by accepting the basic rules of international civility. For the long run, it means pulling China back into the world community—but as a great and progressing nation, not as the epicenter of world revolution.
“Containment without isolation” is a good phrase and a sound concept, as far as it goes. But it covers only half the problem. Along with it, we need a positive policy of pressure and persuasion, of dynamic detoxification, a marshaling of Asian forces both to keep the peace and to help draw off the poison from the Thoughts of Mao.
Dealing with Red China is something like trying to cope with the more explosive ghetto elements in our own country. In each case a potentially destructive force has to be curbed; in each case an outlaw element has to be brought within the law; in each case dialogues have to be opened; in each case aggression has to be restrained while education proceeds; and, not least, in neither case can we afford to let those now self-exiled from society stay exiled forever. We have to proceed with both an urgency born of necessity and a patience born of realism, moving step by calculated step toward the final goal.
And finally, the role of the United States.
Weary with war, disheartened with allies, disillusioned with aid, dismayed at domestic crises, many Americans are heeding the call of the new isolationism. And they are not alone; there is a tendency in the whole Western world to turn inward, to become parochial and isolationist—dangerously so. But there can be neither peace nor security a [Page 20] generation hence unless we recognize now the massiveness of the forces at work in Asia, where more than half the world’s people live and where the greatest explosive potential is lodged.
Out of the wreckage of two world wars we forged a concept of an Atlantic community, within which a ravaged Europe was rebuilt and the westward advance of the Soviets contained. If tensions now strain that community, these are themselves a byproduct of success. But history has its rhythms, and now the focus of both crisis and change is shifting. Without turning our backs on Europe, we have now to reach out westward to the East, and to fashion the sinews of a Pacific community.
This has to be a community in the fullest sense: a community of purpose, of understanding and of mutual assistance, in which military defenses are coordinated while economies are strengthened; a community embracing a concert of Asian strengths as a counterforce to the designs of China; one in which Japan will play an increasing role, as befits its commanding position as a world economic power; and one in which U.S. leadership is exercised with restraint, with respect for our partners and with a sophisticated discretion that ensures a genuinely Asian idiom and Asian origin for whatever new Asian institutions are developed.
In a design for Asia’s future, there is no room for heavy-handed American pressures; there is need for subtle encouragement of the kind of Asian initiatives that help bring the design to reality. The distinction may seem superficial, but in fact it is central both to the kind of Asia we want and to the effectiveness of the means of achieving it. The central pattern of the future in U.S.-Asian relations must be American support for Asian initiatives.
The industrial revolution has shown that mass abundance is possible, and as the United States moves into the post-industrial world—the age of computers and cybernetics—we have to find ways to engineer an escape from privation for those now living in mass poverty. There can be no security, whatever our nuclear stockpiles, in a world of boiling resentment and magnified envy. The oceans provide no sanctuary for the rich, no barrier behind which we can hide our abundance.
The struggle for influence in the Third World is a three-way race among Moscow, Peking and the West. The West has offered both idealism and example, but the idealism has often been unconvincing and the example non-idiomatic. However, an industrialized Japan demonstrates the economically possible in Asian terms, while an advancing Asia tied into a Pacific community offers a bridge to the underdeveloped elsewhere. During this final third of the twentieth century, the great race will be between man and change: the race to control change, [Page 21] rather than be controlled by it. In this race we cannot afford to wait for others to act, and then merely react. And the race in Asia is already under way.
- Source: Foreign Affairs, Vol. 46, No. 1, October 1967, pp. 113-125. Reprinted by permission of Foreign Affairs, 2002. Copyright 1967 by the Council on Foreign Relations, Inc.↩
- There are no sections marked I or II.↩