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Why Obama Needs To Lean In On This Asia Trip

Why Obama Needs To Lean In On This Asia Trip

Reassuring anxious allies that there will be no "Asian Crimea" will be the purpose of President Barack Obama’s trip across the Pacific starting April 23. No Asian nation wants to forfeit its independence to a new Middle Kingdom, just as no European nation wants to be part of a new Russian empire. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a wake-up call that we live in a dangerous world of great power revanchism and territorial conflict — trends that are even more acute in Asia. Rather than "pivot" to any region, the president must make clear that the United States will not make strategic choices that leave its allies at the mercy of regional predators.

Worried Asians are not alone in their anxiety over Washington’s commitment to deter great power adventurism. In the Middle East, U.S. allies are pursuing independent strategies to guard against Iranian hegemony and Islamic extremism following a perceived U.S. retreat from the region. Russia’s military occupation of Ukrainian territory challenges the American commitment to a Europe whole and free. Meanwhile, in Asia — where there is no overarching alliance like NATO to restrain revisionist powers — anxious allies wonder how far U.S. security guarantees will stretch before they break.

Where America’s friends fear a vacuum of power, competitors see room to push out. China is aggressively modernizing the world’s largest military and deploying weapons expressly designed to strike U.S. forces. Beijing is using gunboat diplomacy to carve out a sphere of influence over Japanese islands in the East China Sea and some of the world’s most strategic waterways in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, the U.S. defense budget is on course to be cut by a cool trillion dollars — just as a quarter century of great-power peace is eroding.

Some fine speeches have been given by President Obama and his officials on U.S.-Asia strategy since announcing a strategic "pivot" to the region in 2011. But as retired Japanese diplomat Yukio Okamoto told Reuters, "We do not see any actual sign" of the policy’s implementation. A new report on the rebalance by the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee makes the point: "Sweeping speeches and policy pronouncements unsupported by hard deliverables create a large gap between expectations and reality."

President Obama will hear some good news in Asia. Leading economies want a Trans-Pacific Partnership that will catalyze American trade and investment. Japan wants to play a greater role upholding peace and security and is finally developing the strategy and resources to do so. Indians are electing a new government whose overwhelming mandate will be to restore economic growth to Chinese levels, strengthening the southern anchor of the Asian balance of power. Southeast Asian nations, including unlikely suspects Vietnam and Myanmar, are edging closer to the United States. Europe is pursuing trade agreements with Asian democracies and engaging with Asian institutions following a dawning understanding that simply selling things to China is not a regional strategy.

Beyond these promising developments lies the resurgence of American power. The energy revolution is transforming the strategic map of the world, as leading economies line up to contract for U.S. oil and gas. The emergence of an American energy superpower means the country’s competitiveness is surging even as countries like China, the world’s biggest energy consumer and oil importer, look on with envy. Russian President Vladimir Putin has called China and Russia "natural allies," united in their authoritarian politics and resentment of U.S. leadership. But Russian absolutism may not survive a fall in energy prices that hollows out a government budget dependent on them to stay afloat.

For all the talk of the rise of the rest, the U.S. lead in advanced technologies, from robotics to 3-D printing, has actually grown over the past decade. America’s demographic drivers will propel economic growth as societies in China, Russia, and elsewhere age dramatically. The U.S. economy remains the prime mover of global markets and will continue to do so even if surpassed in size (though not sophistication) by China. The dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency has been reinforced, not undermined, by global financial turmoil. And the U.S. lead in advanced military capabilities, including drone warfare, and offensive cyber operations, will surprise American adversaries in any conflict.

Perhaps the truest test of power is whether it is welcomed or feared by others. In Asia as in Europe, many countries welcome the forward projection of American forces. How many feel the same way about Chinese or Russian military might? Consent for U.S. leadership remains the "secret sauce" of American primacy across the Atlantic and Pacific — regions which together produce some 80 percent of global GDP. America may not always be loved. But most Asians, like most Europeans, would agree that a future order led by some other nation — or a future disorder led by no nation — would be worse.

On his trip through China’s neighborhood, President Obama therefore has no need to kowtow. In Asia as in Europe, the President must instead "lean in." Efforts by Russia and China to revise land and sea borders by force are a timely reminder of how useful other countries will continue to find the friendship of a distant, democratic superpower.

A version of this article appeared in the Nikkei Asian Review.