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Clinton’s unfinished business

Clinton’s unfinished business

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have just completed a very successful trip to Asia. Their foray into Asia stands in stark contrast to the president’s own disastrous trip (see Leslie Gelb’s critique here), and the inappropriate "we are back" braggadocio displayed by his White House advisers (see Dan Twining). Despite the White House’s smack-talk, the President has now cancelled his return to Asia three times, to the great consternation of Asian leaders.

Here is what Clinton and Gates accomplished: They shored up the South Korea alliance, and in so doing, they reassured Japan. Mrs. Clinton deftly forged closer ties with Vietnam while at the same time pushing them to respect human rights. Mr. Gates lifted restrictions on cooperating with the Indonesian military, paving the way for a stronger defense relationship. And both spoke out strongly about the South China Sea, which China has provocatively claimed to be its territorial waters. Here is Clinton on the matter: "The United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea."

Clinton and Gates are practicing what one might call a distinctly American realism. The realism is manifest in the return to balancing China’s power in the region, something the president said he would avoid as anachronistic. The distinctly American approach is practicing balance of power politics without abandoning our principles. We want and need a better relationship with authoritarian Vietnam. But we need not ignore Hanoi’s poor human rights record. On Indonesia, the military undoubtedly committed abuses in the past. But Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is a democrat who has done a remarkable job consolidating his country’s democratic transition. There are sound strategic reasons to closely engage Indonesia, and Jakarta’s president is removing obstacles to a tighter partnership.

There is still much the Obama administration must do. It desperately needs to lead on trade arrangements in the region. Washington cannot continue to let its military investments in air and maritime forces needed for the Pacific recede (a practice begun under Presidents Bush and Clinton). It needs to put far more energy and creativity into the India relationship. It has to find a way to continue engaging Southeast Asia while isolating Burma and halting its drive for weapons of mass destruction. And it needs to find innovative ways to help Taiwan out of its international isolation.

But the Clinton and Gates trip may represent a new Asia policy tack — one that promises to reverse the President’s initial missteps and strengthen our position in the region.