In Does American Need a Foreign Policy, Henry Kissinger suggests that America’s best role in Asia is similar to the UK’s role in europe.
A hostile Asian bloc combining the most populous nations of the world and vast resources with some of the most industrious peoples would be incompatible with the American national interest. For this reason, America must retain a presence in Asia, and its geopolitical objective must remain to prevent Asia’s coalescence into an unfriendly bloc (which is most likely to happen under the tutelage of one of its major powers). Americas relationship to Asia is thus comparable with that of Britain toward the content of Europe for four centuries. Winston Churchill described that situation eloquently:
For four hundred years the foreign policy of England has been to oppose the stronger, most aggressive, most dominating Power on the Continent… These four centuries of consistent purpose amid so many chances of names and facts, of circumstances and conditions, must rank as one of the most remarkable episodes which the records of any race, nation, state, or people can show. Moreover, on all occasions England took the more difficult course. Faced by Philip II of Spain, against Louis XIV under William III and Marlborough, against Napoleon, against Wiliam II of Germany, it would have been easy and must have been very tempting to join the stronger and share the fruits of his conquest. However, we always took the harder course, joined with the less strong Powers, made a combination among them, and thus defeated and frustrated the continental military tyrant whoever he was, whatever nation led. Thus we preserved the liberties of Europe, protected the growth of its vivacious and varied society… It is a law of public policy which we are following and not a mere expedient dictated by accidental circumstances, or likes and dislikes, or any other sentiment.
In the twenty-first century, an analogous objective for the United States in Asia poses a more complex challenge. The European balance of power was sustained by nation states of substantially homogeneous ethnic composition (with the exception of Russia); many of the major Asian states (China, Russia, India, Indonesia) are continental in size and multiethnic in composition. The European equilibrium was seamless in the sense that all major states were part of it – that is, the interplay of their alliances constituted the balance of power; thus a crisis over Serbia in the Balkans escalated into the First World War. The Asian balance of power is more differentiated and therefore more complex.
In Europe, two world wars and the insufficient scale of the European nation-state in the face of global challenges have made the nineteenth-century balance of power irrelevant. The nations of Europe no longer treat one another as strategic threats; threats from outside Europe have been dealt with by the alliance with the United States.
By contrast, the nations of Asia have never acknowledged a common danger, having quite differing views about what threatens their security. Some have historically feared Russia; others worry mostly about China; still others are concerned about a resurgent Japan; some in Southeast Asia consider Vietnam the principal danger. India and Pakistan are each obsessed with the threat of the other.
To be sure, it is in the American national interest to resist the effort of any power to dominate Asia – and, in the extreme, the United States should be prepared to do so without allies. But a wise American policy would strive to prevent such an outcome. It would nurture cooperative relations with all of the significant nations of Asia to keep open the possibility of joint action should circumstances require it. But it would also seek to convey to China that opposition to hegemony is coupled with a preference for a constructive relationship and that America will facilitate and not obstruct China’s participation in a stable international order. Confrontation with China should be the ultimate recourse, not the strategic choice.