The American Interest

An Uncertain Asian Pivot

Nicholas Spykman died 70 years ago, more than two years before Japan’s defeat, but his analysis of America’s role in the world, and the challenges she will face in the Far East, sounds almost prophetic today.  The Dutch-born Yale professor caused a scandal when he wrote in 1942—only months after Pearl Harbor—that America’s chief regional rival after the war would be China, rather than Japan.  He took Japan’s eventual defeat for granted and argued that, after the war, the United States would need to protect Japan, help her recover, and turn her into a junior partner in order to establish a balance of power capable of containing a resurgent China.

Spykman’s assessment was strictly geopolitical.  He did not foresee communist victory in the Chinese civil war, and the character of the regime in Beijing was immaterial to his conclusion that China’s power potential—many times greater than that of Japan—would sooner or later translate into the new Middle Kingdom’s bid for hegemony in the “Asiatic Mediterranean,” as he called the South China Sea.  “When China becomes strong,” he wrote, “her present economic penetration in that region will undoubtedly take political overtones.”  In order to prevent the rise of a regional hegemon, Spykman argued, the United States should adopt the role of an off-shore balancer at both...

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