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Obama’s Asia policy: a time for reflection

Obama’s Asia policy: a time for reflection

The Obama administration had a relatively good year in Asia (relative, that is, to its disastrous first year), but it still must follow up and break bad habits, as my colleague and former State Department official Randy Schriver likes to say. They stood up to China’s bullying in the South China Sea, declaring that freedom of navigation and the peaceful resolution of disputes are American "core interests." They finally signed the most significant free trade agreement since NAFTA, with South Korea. When President Obama went to India he removed barriers to high-technology exports and pressed for more business-to-business ties. In Indonesia, he signed a number of agreements that should help both trade and defense relations. The administration accepted an invitation to the East Asia Summit, which is very important to Southeast Asians and will make it easier to forge lasting bonds in the region.

Now for the critique. The administration seems ready to go wobbly on North Korea, and in the process China. It has shifted from supporting whatever tough measures President Lee Myung-bak wanted to take to nudging him back to the failed six-party talks and congratulating China for its diplomacy in getting North Korea to signal agreement to talk. This is the worst of the bad habits in Asia we must break. The North did not just test a missile this time; they twice killed South Koreans in cold blood last year. No president can allow his people to be killed without responding. We seem not to understand that. The first task for the U.S. and South Korea is to re-establish deterrence, which could well mean proportionate retaliation against the North.

Instead, we are falling back on the same old failed patterns. The North commits an act of aggression and eventually China urges their ally back to the table. Washington then falls over itself complimenting China for its diplomatic skill. This will not get the North to denuclearize or stop its aggression. And it is dangerous. North Korea can continue to commit acts of war with impunity while China simply looks the other way. It will only lead to more attacks on South Korea and is more likely to lead to conflict — South Korea will eventually have to strike back. Instead, we should thank China very much for its efforts, cut Beijing out of any future talks we wish to have with North Korea, re-establish deterrence, and implement a number of coercive measures against the North to rebuild our negotiating leverage. Not only would direct talks backed up by coercion put us in a more powerful position with North Korea, if carefully orchestrated with our allies, but China might fear being excluded from future arrangements on the peninsula and pressure its friends in Pyongyang to abide by international rules.

On India and Indonesia, two countries with great potential to be enduring multidimensional partners, Obama needs powerful officials in his administration to break through bureaucratic barriers and turn the initial policy changes into lasting partnerships. Indonesia badly wants U.S. investment for both economic and strategic reasons. They do not want to be too heavily reliant on China. But Obama did not take a single business leader with him to Jakarta, as far as I am aware. Jakarta also needs evidence that the United States is a reliable security partner. Indonesia is a democracy made up of 17,000 islands, some sitting astride key shipping routes and sea lanes, and over 200 million people of different ethnicities and religions. Indonesian security needs are manifold. We need to show real progress in our security partnership through arms sales, training, and more military exchanges.

Regarding India, without an American diplomatic powerhouse in charge of the relationship it can easily wither away, suffocated by bureaucratic inertia. Someone needs to do to India what Kissinger did with China, not only negotiate the initial breakthrough but also build all the relationships and institutions that will sustain it. Why for example is there no National Committee on U.S.-Indian relations? Certainly a powerful U.S. official can help create institutions that will constantly keep the relationship moving forward.

Finally there is the vision thing. The administration does not really have one, at least one readily discernable to observers. While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in particular has shown remarkable energy in traveling around the Pacific and meeting with her counterparts, what ties it all together? How do we make our relations with ASEAN, APEC, the EAS, and our bilateral alliances work in a coherent way? We must go back to the principles that Secretary James Baker laid out when APEC was first created — free markets, democratic politics, and strong alliances. Whatever we do in Asia, we must further these basic principles. China is putting tremendous pressure on the liberal order that was created and sustained after World War II. Washington must have an answer; it must not only tell China to play by the rules that all of its consequential neighbors accept — it must define and defend those rules once again. Once we define and defend the principles we believe are necessary to govern our interaction with Asia, the institutional details will fall into place.