The Asianist

Balanced and fact-based analysis of Asian affairs

Posts Tagged ‘US pivot

ASEAN-India Relations and US Strategy in the Asia-Pacific

leave a comment »

Last week, as the 3rd US-India Strategic Dialogue was going on, I co-wrote an article for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC with Ernie Bower looking at ASEAN-India relations as both sides commemorate two decades of their official partnership.

The purpose of the article was two-fold: first, highlighting the importance of India’s role in the Asia-Pacific and US interests in the region, and, second, noting both the opportunities and limits to potential cooperation between India and ASEAN (and the US as well).

We propose some areas where both ASEAN and India can work together, such as building infrastructure, improving people-to-people ties and private sector collaboration. The idea is to get from India’s “Look East” policy which dates back to the early 1990s to “acting East”, as several US officials have urged New Delhi to do.

But we are also not naïve about how factors like India’s domestic politics and its identity may constrain its ability to work with ASEAN and the United States and also disappoint those who expect New Delhi to play a dominant role in the region.

You can read the full thing here.  I’ve gotten some feedback about the article, but I always welcome more and look forward to your thoughts.

Picture:  One of the winners of the ASEAN and SAARC drawing competition for 2011. From UNISDR Flickr Account using a Creative Commons License:

US Pivots Further Away From The Word Pivot

leave a comment »

All eyes were on US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at this weekend’s Shangri-La Dialogue. Panetta was expected to announce more specifics on the Obama administration’s greater focus on Asia, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined last October in a Foreign Policy article which said Washington “stands at a pivot point”.

Since that article, nearly every single conference or event I’ve attended on Asia, whether in the US or in the region, has started with some sort of complaint about the word ‘pivot’. One former senior US official said that the term ‘pivot’, which means a point on the end of which something rests and turns, can turn either way and suggests that the US may one day pivot away from Asia. Another Asian scholar opined that it suggested that America was somehow not actively involved previously in the region.

These criticisms had one thing in common: the term ‘pivot’ did not accurately convey the continuity of US engagement in the Asia-Pacific and the bipartisanship that underpinned this longstanding commitment. And I agreed with them.

The administration has since backpedaled and increasingly dropped the word when describing its new focus on Asia, using a couple of different terms including “refocus” and “rebalancing”. But a clear example of this shift was the title of Panetta’s speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue this year: “The US Rebalance Towards the Asia-Pacific”. No mention of the word pivot there or in the speech itself.

“Rebalancing” may not sound as good or grab as many headlines, but it more accurately reflects what is going on. The increasing focus on Asia reflects rebalancing in several ways — a change in the balance of US concentration from the Middle East to Asia after the ebbing of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a change in the balance of its forces within Asia from a Northeast Asia-focus to a broader reach emphasizing more flexible deployments, rotations, and operations, and a change in the balance in the tools of diplomacy used, placing more weight on non-military means of power like multilateralism.

So, on balance (pun intended), this shift in word choice is a good thing. Words matter in international relations, and this is a case where this was clearly demonstrated.

Picture: US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks at the Shangri-La Dialogue 2012. Picture from Secretary of Defense feed on Flickr.

Advancing US-ASEAN Relations in 2012

leave a comment »

If the future of world politics lies in Asia, as Hillary Clinton wrote last October, then the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will be critical players in shaping America’s Pacific Century.

The U.S. already recognizes this region of more than 600 million people as a core U.S. interest. It straddles strategically important sea lanes, it is collectively the largest destination of U.S. investment in Asia and it represents America’s fourth largest overseas market. While the United States has increased their engagement with ASEAN considerably over the past few years, Washington can do much more to further boost the relationship in the near future.

Recent American administrations have made an even more concerted effort to strengthen this relationship. Beginning under the second term of former president George W. Bush and continuing into the Obama administration, the United States has, among other things, appointed the first ambassador to ASEAN, acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), attended its first East Asia Summit, forged strategic partnerships with Vietnam and Indonesia, deepened military ties with the Philippines, engaged a reforming Burma, and unveiled several initiatives to assist the less developed countries of Southeast Asia. As the U.S. officially pivots its strategic focus to Pacific Asia, 2012 presents an opportunity to boost U.S.-ASEAN relations even further.

First, Washington must sustain the momentum in U.S.-ASEAN relations. This is no easy task. Foreign policy may drop off the priority list as the White House focuses on re-election, limiting the administration’s capacity to conclude sensitive agreements. Bitter partisanship and financial austerity could also serve as further constraints. Clinton and several Asia specialists on Obama’s foreign policy team are leaving government this year, which compounds the problem of following through with fresh initiatives. Mixed signals from Washington will only increase regional uncertainty with profound consequences for U.S. partnerships and the Asia-Pacific security environment more generally.

Second, the United States will need to manage its relationship with China nimbly. Southeast Asian states like the flexibility of maintaining relations with a range of big powers and are particularly sensitive to tensions between those powers that could undermine regional security and prosperity. Having to choose between Washington and Beijing in a confrontation is an especially nightmarish scenario for ASEAN countries, since several of them enjoy strong trade relationships with both but still rely on the United States for their security. During his visit to Washington earlier this year, Singapore’s Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam repeatedly warned that any U.S. attempt to contain China will only alienate Southeast Asian countries; even anti-China rhetoric in media circles, he said, “can create a new and unintended reality for the region.” So the Obama administration must strike a tricky balance between a U.S. presence that secures Southeast Asia, particularly on issues such as the South China Sea, but also avoids rattling Beijing.

Third, Washington should pay equal attention to non-security aspects of U.S.-ASEAN relations. In particular, stronger and more sustained U.S. leadership in trade and investment is needed. The U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which involves nine countries including the U.S., Brunei, Singapore and Vietnam, offers much promise. However, experts doubt the TPP will bring much economic benefit unless one other major economy joins. Japan, an applicant to join, is particularly attractive as the world’s third largest economy. The U.S. executive and legislative branches can also do more to promote new business opportunities in Southeast Asia. In the people-to-people realm, the Obama administration should increase U.S.-ASEAN educational exchanges and streamline inefficient visa security review programs as a high-level U.S.-ASEAN Strategy Commission recommended last year.

Fourth, the U.S. must support ASEAN in its efforts at greater regional integration. The chief concern for the U.S. in this respect will be encouraging the reform process under way in Burma. Washington must gradually coax the regime – one of the world’s most isolated and repressive – back into the international fold and help prepare it for assuming the ASEAN chairmanship in 2014. Furthermore, to help ASEAN reach its ambitious goal of regional economic integration by 2015, the U.S. can indicate its commitment to a U.S.-ASEAN free trade agreement, provide support for the new ASEAN Infrastructure Fund (AIF), and make progress on technical assistance initiatives directed at the less developed ASEAN states in mainland Southeast Asia. The Obama administration must also ensure it keeps up its attendance record in U.S.-ASEAN related summits despite a full plate of other policy issues.

U.S.-ASEAN relations have grown closer and more complex over the last few years at a rapid pace, to the credit of both sides. Washington must now do its part to sustain and nurture an increasingly mature partnership that will be critical to the realization of America’s Pacific Century.

This article was originally published on the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs website here.


Will China Contain Itself?

leave a comment »

At a key conference on US-Singapore relations in Washington, DC which I attended yesterday, Singapore’s foreign minister K Shanmugam urged the United States to resist the temptation to ‘contain’ China both in rhetoric and reality.

I emphatize with Mr. Shanmugam’s remarks. Southeast Asian countries, which are surrounded by great powers, live in an almost persistent fear of having to choose between one power or another, instead of engaging all of them to maximize their interests. This sense of vulnerability is arguably even more acute for a small country like Singapore. And a re-rising China, for its part, does smell a US containment strategy designed to thwart its growing regional ambitions and preserve American dominance in Asia. That suggests that a great degree of attention needs to be devoted in order to manage misperceptions and mistrust, both publicly and privately.

But it takes two hands to clap. Yes, American policymakers should assuage Chinese concerns that the Washington is trying to prevent it from re-rising. One of the main lessons of the Cold War is that acts that seem on one side to be harmless may be seen by the other as provocative, and ‘facts’ can be interpreted very differently once they are filtered through different prisms. Regardless of differences in interests, engaging others in a strategic way is one way of potentially bridging this divide.

In this regard, officials within the Obama administration (and former officials too) have been extremely mindful of Chinese fears and have gone out of their way both publicly and privately (sometimes even more than they should) to dismiss notions of containment, avoid seeing things from an exclusively zero-sum perspective, and reassure China. In fact, the main thrust of the Obama administration’s China policy early on, as I’ve pointed out earlier, revolved around ‘strategic reassurance’.

But China should also understand that the United States is, and will continue to be, the dominant global power for some time to come, with strong interests in Asia that it has no intention of abdicating. That means not overreacting to every US move in the region – whether it is stationing troops in Darwin or the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – as some sort of strategy designed to contain China.

It also means explaining to the public the more complex reality of mutual accommodation needed for China’s peaceful coexistence with the world: in order for everyone, including the US, to accept the re-rise of China as a world power with its own interests, Beijing will have to play by the rules of the existing international order and act like a responsible stakeholder.

If not, Beijing, so fearful of US containment, may end up containing itself much like the Soviet Union did during the Cold War. Moscow was ultimately a victim of its own fears, which led it to overmilitarize and repress, alienating its allies (including Mao’s China) and ultimately resulting in its own collapse. China is still learning to cope with its own growing strength in the world, and its diplomacy has seen both startling successes (after the Asian financial crisis, for example) and unwieldy missteps (its rhetoric on the South China Sea in recent years). But if Washington needs to learn to share the world with a new potential competitor, then Beijing equally needs to understand that seeing everything from a competitive lens inhibits cooperation. Otherwise, soon the greatest thing China will have to fear, to paraphrase FDR, will be fear itself, and the grave consequences that result from it.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 94 other followers