The Asianist

Balanced and fact-based analysis of Asian affairs

Posts Tagged ‘us asia policy

Evaluating Obama’s Pacific Presidency

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When Hawaii−born U.S. President Barack Obama famously declared himself America’s first “Pacific President” in a speech in Tokyo two years ago, the audience was charmed by his references to green−tea ice cream, childhood visits to Japan and boyhood years in Indonesia.

They were probably less impressed by America’s Asia policy during his first year in office. Mr. Obama showed up to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) with virtually no trade policy, acquiesced to Beijing unnecessarily on several issues and had a rocky start with U.S. allies and friends like Japan, India and Taiwan. Weeks before America’s new president was about to leave for his first official Asia trip, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s patriarch and one of Asia’s leading strategic thinkers, warned that the United States risked losing global leadership if it did not remain engaged in Asia to balance a rising China.

Since then, Mr. Obama has tried to make amends by buttressing ties with countries generally aligned with the United States instead of trying to change the interests of those who are not. He has backed Southeast Asian countries against Chinese bullying in the South China Sea, enhanced America’s checkered commitment to regional multilateral forums and deepened relations with allies and strategic partners like Indonesia, South Korea and Vietnam. Meanwhile, flickers of hope have appeared in U.S. engagement efforts with North Korea and Myanmar. In recent months, his administration has indicated that despite defense cuts and economic challenges at home, the United States remains committed to lead in the Asia−Pacific.

Mr. Obama made more waves in his latest voyage across the Pacific. Hosting the APEC summit in Hawaii, he pushed his regional trade agreement, the Trans−Pacific Partnership, which advances a platinum Free Trade Agreement standard that addresses critical commercial rules and regulations. In Australia, he secured greater U.S. access to Australian bases, providing a staging point for the American military in the Indian Ocean and a sanctuary beyond the striking range of China’s growing arsenal of long−range missiles.

Equally important was what Mr. Obama did not do. He did not fan Chinese fears of containment and Southeast Asian fears of superpower rivalry by suggesting that these overtures were aimed at Beijing. In fact, he went out of his way to say directly that “the notion that we’re looking to exclude China is mistaken,” and that Beijing was an important part of setting principles for all actors to follow in the region, even if it would have to realign its policies to pursue future common goals. That struck a good balance between advancing a U.S. vision in Asia and leaving room for conditional Chinese involvement. Chinese officials, of course, still questioned whether American initiatives were “appropriate,” forgetting the fact that it was Beijing’s own missteps that had opened the door to a stronger U.S. presence in the region.

He also did not attempt to dominate the agenda at America’s first East Asian Summit (EAS) as some countries had feared. Instead, he backed other Asian nations’ insistence on a multilateral resolution of conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea after they had all spoken at a smaller EAS session on Saturday. Though Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was put on the defensive, he addressed the concerns in a constructive way that was a far cry from Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi’s notorious tantrum at the ASEAN Regional Forum in 2010. That was a relief to Asian countries, who wanted to make their worries heard without incurring Beijing’s wrath.

Mr. Obama still has a year in office before presidential elections next year, during which much can happen. But as he returns from his weeklong swing around the Pacific Rim, he certainly looks more the part of a Pacific President than he did two years ago.

This article was originally published in the Tufts Daily.

My Piece on the Future of the U.S.-Japan Alliance

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Much of the attention over the last two days has been on the huge setback suffered by Japan’s ruling party in Sunday’s midterm elections.

Yet this is only the most recent manifestation of the chronic instability characterizing Japanese politics in recent times, with Japan having five prime ministers in just the past five years. Other trends, like the increasing power of local governments over the central government, efforts to place foreign policy in the hands of politicians instead of experienced bureaucrats, and Tokyo’s demographic troubles, will not only make Japanese domestic politics more complex, but make its foreign policy more difficult to manage in the future.

What does all this mean for the future of the U.S.-Japan alliance, a vital relationship for both nations as well as for Asia more generally? Despite commemorating its 50th anniversary last month, the alliance had come under strain in recent months, particularly under the leadership of former Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama. Here are some excerpts of the long-term recommendations I advocated for the alliance  in a recent piece for World Politics Review:

These challenges are by no means inevitable or insurmountable, and some of them will sort themselves out as Japan evolves. For all its strains, uncertainty about China, North Korea and transnational threats will probably continue to drive cooperation between Washington and Tokyo in the near future. Yet even if Japanese politics remain in a state of flux, there are some tangible steps that the United States and Japan can take now in order to navigate through the challenges ahead.

Much of the focus should be on overcoming the perception that the alliance is “structurally strong but operationally weak,” as Yoichi Funabashi, the editor-in-chief of Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun, put it at a recent Center for a New American Security conference. Japan currently ranks 149th in the world in terms of military expenditures as a percentage of GDP, despite repeated North Korean provocations and China’s blistering military modernization. Even if the country’s consensus 1 percent ceiling prevents dramatic increases in defense spending, Tokyo can maximize scarce resources focusing on procurement reform, and ease political constraints by passing fresh defense legislation that gives it more latitude in deploying its Self-Defense Forces. Meanwhile, the United States should lead efforts to conduct an overall bilateral threat assessment and strengthen discussions on extended deterrence, in order to reaffirm the importance of the alliance and to reassure Japan about its security concerns.

Yet while traditional security gets much of the press, it is only one part of a complex and deep bilateral relationship. More focus must be placed in other spheres like development cooperation, climate change and human security, where Japan can play a sustained and significant leadership role. More discussion is also needed about how both countries can help shape the emerging regional architecture in Asia, both bilaterally as well as with India, Australia and key ASEAN countries. Finally, equal attention needs to be given to revitalizing bilateral economic cooperation, including moving towards an eventual bilateral free-trade agreement, as Japan hands Richard Armitage and Joseph Nye have counseled (.pdf).

You can read the full piece here.

Addressing Perceptions of U.S. Decline in Asia

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U.S. President Barack Obama delivers an Asia policy speech in Tokyo (2009).

What can the United States do to address the perception of its waning power in Asia? The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) had a distinguished panel of Asia experts last month — Richard Armitage, Michael Green and Ernest Bower — to discuss this issue. The lengthy transcript was released earlier this month, and I have distilled their important insights into various categories below.

Before delving into specifics though, let me say that this perception of U.S. decline is a contested one. There are some who see a steady erosion of U.S. influence in the region. But there are also other indications — including several polls — which show that nearly all Asian nations surveyed believe U.S. soft power has actually increased the most relative to other countries over the past decade.

Nevertheless, these are some of the key prescriptions these experts suggested during the course of the proceedings:

Trade policy:  The administration needs a strong trade policy in order to succeed in Asia. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a good start, but progress must be made on roping more countries into the TPP and getting the free trade agreement with South Korea finalized.

ARMITAGE: If you’re going to play in Asia, you better have a trade policy. If you don’t have a trade policy, you haven’t got openers, and until we get that squared away in this administration, it’s going to be more and more difficult for us to take a meaningful role in the lives of our Asian friends.

BOWER: We need to have a trade policy. The TPP is a fair start but we’ve got to go beyond that and be much more aggressive with our trade policy. I think passing the KORUS this year is absolutely fundamental to our credibility in Asia, and then working to bring other ASEAN members into the TPP, if that’s going to be our structure, is very important.

Diplomacy: The United States must energize its diplomacy and diplomats in Asia and illustrate is willingness to be part of the region’s developing security architecture. Both Mr. Bower and Mr. Armitage were amazed by the quality of Chinese diplomacy in the region relative to that of the United States.

ARMITAGE: I have been astonished by the alacrity, the speed, the agility, the dexterity of Chinese diplomats in Asia. And we’re still doing business the old way and they’re out running around taking pages out of our old book. No longer are they promoted for party purity or seniority; they’re promoted for ability, and they’re doing a hell of a fine job for their nation, and we have to do the same. We’ve got to really put a priority on our diplomats.

BOWER: I would echo the secretary’s comments…I don’t know where this new class of diplomats came from, but they’ve done a great job. They’re leading with their ears in Southeast Asia. They’re out working the channels…America needs to be part of the regional security architecture that’s being formed in Southeast Asia right now, and we’ve got to be very clear about our interests there.

Naval Power: With China becoming more assertive in dealing with territorial disputes at sea, the United States ought to send a clear message about its strong naval power in the region to reassure its allies.

ARMITAGE: We’re going to have to assure that everyone realizes that we realize that this is primarily a naval service theater, and although soft power is respected in most parts of the world, hard power still has a place in Asia, and unless we demonstrate that we realize that this is a naval service theater and use our assets and position our assets accordingly, then it’s going to add to the perception that our power is somewhat on the wane.

GREEN: I’m most worried about naval, to be honest. The QDR says we should have 300 and I think 13 combatant vessels. At the current – as I understand it; Rich would know better – at the current building rate we’re aiming, in 10, 20 years we’ll have 200-something, 210. So that’s the piece of the three – we can do trade. If we have the political will we can do it. We can see progress in the debate of ideas in Asia. Naval power is the one where there is a sort of physical and budgetary limitation that’s going to force us to think pretty hard about allied capacity, priorities. You can see, even in the Navy – the Department of the Navy, the new maritime strategy says we’re going to focus on Southwest Asia and East Asia. So those are the kind of strategic choices we’re going to have to make.

China: As I’ve written before, the Obama administration initially struck a far too conciliatory note in its relations with China. While U.S.-China cooperation on a variety of issues is both necessary and desirable, Washington must also stay true to its ideals.

ARMITAGE: My own view is we got off on the wrong foot in dealing with China. To give China a break on human rights, to give China a break on human freedoms, is going to feed the perception that China is inevitably the coming power and we’re a little fearful of standing up for those things we have traditionally stood up for. So if we’re going to play this game and make a point to all the nations of Asia, we’re going to have to make sure we protect our ideals across the board in our discussions with China.

Japan: After resolving the Futenma basing dispute, the US and Japan should move on to jointly addressing a set of broader challenges, including the rise of China and climate change.

ARMITAGE: You may have noticed a 10-ship flotilla of China, including two submarines, being very active in the Miyako Straits for the first time in that size. They’re humiliating Japan right now. They’re making the point they can go where they want and do what they want. They’ve done the same thing to Indonesia and Malaysia, and unless we can engage our Japanese friends in a discussion of these issues and wither Chinese blue-water capabilities, and to what end, then we’ll fall farther and farther behind.

GREEN: We need, I think at some point, to transition to a broader strategic dialogue about what we do about the rise of China, as Rich suggested, about overseas development assistance where together the U.S. and Japan, with other new OECD DAC member states like Korea really should be shaping the rules of how you do good foreign aid at a time when China is pumping tons of money and undermining the traditional approaches of overseas development assistance…In climate change, Japan is the most energy efficient country in the world, and our discussion to date has been about capping greenhouse gas emissions. And Prime Minister Hatoyama’s ambitious, frankly unrealistic targets don’t do it. If you’re talking about numerical promises, it’s about China and India. But if you’re talking about technological solutions, you can’t get there without Japan. So we need to think about how we frame cooperation and Japan needs to think about what real comparative advantage it brings to these challenges, and it brings a lot, much better if that’s built on a security relationship and a basing arrangement that is enduring, that shows the alliance is going to continue playing the fundamental role it plays in Asian security.

Taiwan: As I’ve said before, the US needs to continue its commitment to Taiwan’s defense as enshrined in the Taiwan Relations Act, even as China and Taiwan continue to enhance economic relations. Cross-strait rapprochement can only proceed in a balanced and equitable way with a strong Taiwan capable of defending itself.

GREEN: You saw a lot of press about retaliation which didn’t materialize from Beijing, but you also saw a very clear signal that the Chinese side would be really unhappy about so-called sophisticated arms sales, which means F-16s. So you won’t be disappointed because I think later in the year Taiwan will be back in the news and this tough issue – and, by the way, I think we should go ahead with that sale because the delta, the gap in air capabilities is just growing at an alarming rate, and to dissuade Beijing from considering force as an option, I think we need to provide the necessary equipment to Taiwan. But I’m not in the government so what I care doesn’t matter. It’s going to come up. I think you’re going to see Taiwan back in the press quite a bit towards the end of the year, I would bet.

India: There is a strong basis for developing the U.S.-India relationship, there are several bureaucratic and strategic hurdles that need to be overcome.

ARMITAGE: The question they have – and they’ve been putting it to all of us, I’m sure, in various ways now – is whether this administration and the United States views India through a balance-of-power lens or rather just a functional lens of climate change and environment and things of that nature, given the fact that from their point of view, India looks 360 degrees – Nepal, Burma, Ski Lanka, Pakistan, Tibet – and sees China.

There is a wild card. You notice the Indians and the Pakistanis are speaking again at high levels – it’s a good thing – but every day Indians, Pakistanis and Americans live with the fear that the Kashmir group, LeT, is liable to do another big strike on Mumbai or Delhi or somewhere and then we’ll be off to the races. My personal view is that’s a ticking time bomb. So while the relationship is slowly edging its way to a better place and you don’t hear as often the cry from the Pakistani military that Kashmir is in our blood, and you don’t hear the same cries from India, we’re all hanging on whatever LET does, and that’s not a good position to be in.

GREEN: I would argue, in the U.S.-India relationship is that there is no senior official – meaning undersecretary above – who owns this relationship and is dedicated to it the way Nick Burns and others were when this transformation of the relationship happened a few years back, and we’re suffering for that.

Vietnam: There is significant room for developing this emerging relationship across a broad swathe of issues.

BOWER: The current issue is the South China Sea, the one that really makes them – you know, keeps the Vietnamese up at night and, you know, that’s also an American interest and it’s also a Southeast Asian interest.I think we should do it in a broad way. I think we should emphasize the trade relationship, the security relationship. People-to-people ties is a great opportunity with Vietnam and it’s one that I think we have the vehicles to do this – the Vietnam Education Fund and some others. We should really emphasize that. And, lo and behold, the Vietnamese also have a lot of common interests with us on transnational issues. You know, Prime Minister Dung really cares about climate change, and the Mekong is a big issue, you know, and Hillary Clinton at the State Department has recognized that. And I think one of the best things we’ve done in terms of engagement in Southeast Asia is this Mekong Initiative that Secretary Clinton has kicked off. And that’s a good core opportunity for U.S.-Vietnam engagement.

Indonesia: There needs to be more courage on Washington’s part in order to solidify a partnership with this important nation, particularly in the area of mil-to-mil relations.

BOWER: It’s clear that this administration sees Indonesia as the equivalent of what India was to the Bush administration. It’s the big country – it should be one of the BRIC countries, really – fourth-largest country in the world, a big country that you could get right. And I think we’ve got to go ahead and… break some glass a little bit on the Indonesia relationship…I think it’s time to be a little more confident in American policy in Indonesia, to be honest with you. I will use, as an example, our military – mil-to-mil policy. We have been mincing around having the tail wag the dog on our Indonesia relationship for over a decade over the East Timor and the Aceh issues, and we have got to normalize our mil-to-mil relationship with Indonesia, and I think somebody has got to go up and look Sen. Leahy straight in the eye. know he’s got the appropriations lever on the State Department but we should really have a White House-driven strategy to go up there and say, for national security purposes, this is a relationship that’s really important to us, and we can get it right.


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