Six challenges Obama faces in Asia in 2011, and six ways to overcome them

Six challenges Obama faces in Asia in 2011, and six ways to overcome them

President Obama had a good year in Asia in 2010. It featured a more realistic China policy, a breakthrough visit to India, the shelving of an irritating base dispute with Japan, a surge of U.S. forces in Afghanistan that is creating results, intensification of a successful drone campaign against terrorists in Pakistan, and closer cooperation with key Southeast Asian nations. But challenges loom: China’s growing assertiveness, mercantilistic trade policy, and development of anti-access capabilities that erode U.S. deterrence commitments in Asia; North Korean belligerence; Burmese repression and proliferation; and the continuing weakness of the Afghan and Pakistani states. How can President Obama counteract these trends in the new year while building on previous successes?

1.Implement a long-range strategy to sustain U.S. primacy in Asia in the face of China’s challenge.

This means diversifying U.S. military-access and basing rights beyond Japan and Korea, deepening missile defense collaboration with these and other countries (including Taiwan), building up naval power in the Pacific and Indian oceans, and investing in next-generation technologies to counteract asymmetric Chinese weapons systems. With sustained commitment and smart investments, the United States is well-positioned to sustain its military edge in Asia, in part because nearly all regional powers find it reassuring and want to enable rather than constrain it. The harder work may be at home: decisively investing in the domestic reforms that liberate the United States to shape a new century, rather than wallowing in growing indebtedness and domestic discord.

2. Invest in the rise of key countervailing Asian powers that can contribute public goods of stability and security.

This includes prodding Japan, with its enormous but latent military and technological capabilities, to act on its new defense guidelines to become a "normal country" that is a net security provider in Asia; investing further in India’s ascent to the top tier of global powers and partners; and working with Indonesia and Vietnam to develop the means to contribute to regional stability while maintaining their independence vis-à-vis their giant neighbor. It also means incorporating Russia into the Asian strategic equation in ways that reinforce common interests in sustaining the balance of power.

3. Unite the democracies.

Concern about China is accelerating the development of an array of minilateral groupings among regional democracies. These include U.S.-Japan-Australia, U.S.-Japan-Korea, and U.S.-Japan-India trilaterals as well as new security pacts between Japan and India, Japan and Australia, Australia and India, and India and South Korea. In the meantime, all these countries are working to forge closer strategic ties with Indonesia, a next-generation BRIC. An infrastructure of democratic security cooperation could help deter proliferation from problem states like North Korea and Burma, incentivize China’s peaceful rise, and secure increasingly contested maritime commons.

4. Lead the big economies into deeper interdependence to catalyze trans-Pacific prosperity.

An aggressive agenda of economic liberalization is as important a source of U.S. leadership in Asia as its military forces stationed there. A new free trade agreement with South Korea, finalization of a Bilateral Investment Treaty with India, India’s admission into APEC, and conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership would all be building blocks toward a Free Trade Area of the Indo-Pacific that would make the vast space from Miami to Mumbai the world’s economic center. Only the United States, with its equally deep ties to the European Union (still the world’s biggest economy), can muster the leadership to bring about such an outcome — putting us at the center of a new global web of prosperity.

5. Win in Afghanistan.

President Obama’s commitment, General Petraeus’ strategy, and the hard work of U.S. forces and civilians partnered with Afghans could lay the foundation for a new era of stability in Afghanistan that sidelines the Taliban — if Washington and its Western and Afghan partners have the will to sustain recent progress until it is irreversible. Construction of an Afghan state that can govern and secure itself, in which the insurgency is neutralized through a combination of military campaigns, improved governance, and political co-optation, would change Pakistan’s calculus about its Afghan interests in ways that could reinforce rather than undermine regional stability. The United States and its partners should see the effort through — not so we can stay there forever but so we can move on to bigger challenges (see above).

6. Don’t run away from our values — run on them.

China’s intense debate about political liberalization, endemic corruption, and the next stage of economic growth — which will hinge on innovation and ideas rather than unskilled manufacturing- demonstrates the vitality of what even the Chinese debate acknowledges as "universal values" of openness, accountability, transparency, and rule of law. Open societies from India to Indonesia embrace these values as their own. That is why it is so odd to hear some Americans envy China’s state capitalism, or to assume that India’s democratic politics mean it can never grow as fast as China. It may be that only open societies can sustain economic dynamism over time in ways not undermined by social inequality or political revolution. The United States should assume that its reformed model of democratic capitalism, appropriately regulated by trustworthy public institutions, is the model of the future — not of the past. That bodes well for our continued leadership in 21st century Asia.