I Come Bearing … Reassurance

Leave the gifts at home, Mr. President. Here are the five things America’s allies in Asia really need.


The stakes are high for President Barack Obama’s Asia trip. As I heard firsthand on my journey to Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea in January, the United States’ allies are nervous. They are closely watching events halfway around the world, in Syria, and now in Ukraine. Every U.S. move or utterance on those issues is seen through the prism of growing uncertainty in Asia as a rising China begins to flex its muscles, asserting territorial claims across a large swathe of the region.

In Asia, the United States faces challenges to our national security interests similar to those elsewhere in the world: Our allies are questioning whether a military strained by sequestration can continue to play its traditional role of guarantor of peace and security. But America’s allies also have to contend with China’s increasingly aggressive behavior, which threatens to impact the free flow of trade and people in a region vital to global commerce.

While much appreciation remains for the administration’s renewed focus on this vitally important region, our allies are looking to the president to back up the rhetoric with action. He will need to take a message of reassurance but also progress on key areas such as trade, tangible steps to strengthen and improve our alliances — while at the same time avoiding the pitfalls of historical disputes and assuaging concerns about his approach toward China.

Here are five things that the president should keep in mind as he visits Japan, Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines:

1. Reassure, Reassure, Reassure.

Given the security challenges facing our allies in Asia, they are watching with great concern the president’s reluctance to lead in the Middle East, most notably in Syria. Added to this in recent weeks has been Russia’s annexation of the sovereign territory of its neighbor Ukraine, an unsettling move for countries like the Philippines that face daily threats from Beijing about unresolved territorial disputes.

One lesson we should take from the current crisis in Ukraine is that when authoritarian regimes sense weakness and opportunity, they will exploit it. Consequently, we need to think about how to pressure China as a result of its actions in the South and East China Seas. U.S. policy in response to these provocations has unfortunately often played into China’s incrementalist approach, allowing Beijing to make provocative moves that over time accumulate into strategic gain. 

To reverse this trend, the president should go beyond his written statement that the Senkaku Islands are covered by the U.S.-Japan defense treaty. He should warn Beijing that if it does not cease its threatening actions against territory administered by Japan and the Philippines, the United States will side with our allies on the question of the ultimate sovereignty of their disputed territories.

In South Korea, which the president will visit on April 25-26, the president needs to take steps to reassure our allies regarding the growing threat of a provocation by the North Korean regime. South Korea has been a steadfast ally of the United States, recently approving a new agreement that increases its contributions toward the cost of U.S. forces deployed on the Korean Peninsula. In January, I was able to witness U.S. and South Korean soldiers standing side by side at the Demilitarized Zone, which separates the two sides of the peninsula — the "edge of freedom," as one U.S. soldier put it. We have too much to lose to allow ourselves to be drawn back into the trap of rewarding North Korean provocations with new outreach that fails to bear fruit. Appropriately responding to any North Korean actions will require close coordination between Seoul and Washington.

Another key element of a reassurance strategy is showing that we are matching our rhetoric with our resources. The damaging impact of sequestration has been temporarily postponed by December’s budget deal, but our allies are still concerned — and rightly so. In March, in an unscripted moment, Katrina McFarland, assistant secretary of defense for acquisition said that the U.S. "pivot" to Asia "can’t happen" because of sequestration. McFarland later retracted the statement, but that concern persists in the capitals the president will be visiting.

We need to ensure that if deterrence fails, the United States retains the clear and unrivaled ability to defeat any enemy, and win any war. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has spent a lot of time in the region, and announced a number of changes to U.S. posture in the region that are a step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done. One area that needs to be examined closely is the size of our carrier fleet and the long-term possibility of placing a second carrier in the region. This would ensure more of a U.S. presence than is currently possible, given carrier maintenance schedules and our ongoing requirements in the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf. 

But this is not just about having offensive military power in the region in the event of hostilities. It is also about our capability to assist in the region in the event of natural disasters. This was driven home to me while visiting the typhoon-damaged Tacloban region of the Philippines, where local residents described the powerful symbol of a U.S. carrier appearing just days after the storm to assist in the recovery efforts.

2. Don’t let historical disputes undermine cooperation.

While the president is visiting Japan and South Korea, some will likely try to draw him into the ongoing disputes between the two countries over historical issues. Despite the progress made recently in trilateral talks among Obama, President Park Geun-hye of South Korea and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan brokered by the United States, these controversial topics simmer beneath the surface.

The president should remind both Tokyo and Seoul that it is in their interest, as well as ours, for them to find a way to work together. He should avoid the temptation to publicly chastise either country. Such action is not helpful and encourages those on either side to elevate division over progress.

Instead, the president should embrace Tokyo’s effort to pursue a constitutional reinterpretation that will allow Japan’s Self-Defense Force to practice collective self-defense. Such a move would enhance their contributions to the alliance and, in the long run, also benefit South Korea in the event of a crisis with North Korea. Obama’s public endorsement of this effort is important for helping the Abe government rally public support for the move and reassuring Seoul that Abe’s policies are in the context of a broader alliance effort to deal with emerging challenges. Presidential support also serves as a useful counterpoint to Chinese efforts to use the disagreements between South Korea and Japan to drive a wedge between the United States’ closest allies in the region.

3. Show real leadership on trade.

I saw firsthand during my trip the impact of trade on our allies’ economies as well as our own. The U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, despite some issues with implementation, has been a great success and once the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is concluded and other interested nations are able to join, it will allow us
to further unite our economies, creating commerce and business opportunities for millions throughout North America, South America, and Asia.

Unfortunately, the economic component of the president’s Asia strategy has lagged behind diplomatic and security moves. The administration has been engaged in negotiations with 11 countries on the TPP, an agreement that has great potential both for the U.S. economy for regional diplomacy. It could put forth a path for other countries that are willing to reform their economies, and abide by the rule of law and international standards.

U.S.-Japanese talks on several remaining thorny trade issues are reportedly running into some stumbling blocks. Tokyo seems willing to take the necessary steps to overcome the differences, but is looking for a signal from the president that he is willing to exert the political capital necessary to get the deal done. Those involved in the TPP negotiations have watched the debates in Washington closely and are concerned that the administration has not invested the time and energy in persuading Congress of the importance of this deal — and has at times pandered to Democratic concerns about free markets.

This should not be a political issue. In fact, many Republicans are supportive both of the TPP and of granting Obama Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), which will make concluding the deal easier. What is needed is presidential leadership on this issue. It is time to get the deal done.

4. Strengthen and improve alliances.

In the Philippines, the president will reportedly announce a framework agreement that will allow a rotational U.S. presence in that country. This will be a huge boost to an ally that is increasingly under pressure from Chinese harassment in the South China Sea, and will also be an important symbol of U.S. commitment to the security of the Philippines.

In Malaysia, the president will meet with young leaders from the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a regional organization. ASEAN plays an important role in promoting regional cooperation, but Obama should be open to alternative groupings when necessary to further U.S. interests. Just as Japan, South Korea, and the United States have been cooperating recently on North Korea, we need flexible coalitions of countries in the region that can tackle common challenges.

We also need to think about moving away from the hub and spoke model, whereby the United States is at the center of every interaction, and instead about encouraging our allies in the region to develop stronger bilateral relationships and arrangements.

We also need to do a better job of incorporating Taiwan into our broader strategy for the region. Taiwan has been left behind by the "rebalance"; there has been far too little progress recently in strengthening ties between Washington and Taipei. It is important that we find ways, such as eventual participation in the TPP, to develop opportunities for Taiwan to connect more closely to the United States and to our allies in the region.

5. Speak frankly about China.

Even though China will not be on the president’s itinerary, it will be the elephant in the room. Obama should speak more frankly in public during his trip about the U.S.-China relationship. The administration’s rhetoric about China has added to the confusion and concern among our allies in the region about the direction of U.S. policy. Talk of a "new model of major power relations" has caused some to question whether Washington is more interested in negotiating over their heads with Beijing than in standing by our allies.

We need to be much more willing to state clearly what China is: a rising power with potential global ambitions. We should also be frank about how China treats its citizens. There is no freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, or freedom of religion in China. China also props up its neighbor, North Korea, aiding in the horrific human rights abuses that the U.N. Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights in North Korea recently called "crimes against humanity."

This does not mean we should not find ways to work together with China. We need China to contribute to the security of the global commons rather than simply benefit from it. We do not seek to contain China, but rather to ensure that its rise remains peaceful and that over time its people gain greater liberties than they currently possess.

But trying to act as if U.S.-China policy happens in a vacuum separate from our areas of disagreement and its hostile behavior toward our allies is a recipe for disaster, and poor alliance management.

* * *

Our challenge in Asia is only beginning. We need to utilize all elements of our national power, be they military, economic, or diplomatic, to make clear that U.S. policy toward Asia is more than just rhetoric and a few high-level visits.

What has been accomplished in parts of Asia over the last two or three decades has been an economic and political miracle. It has been a testament to the will of the region’s people and to the transformative power of freedom and free enterprise. As we discuss America’s future involvement in the region, we have to remember what is at stake. 

Do we want our children to inherit a world that looks more like South Korea, or more like the North? A world in the image of Japan, or of China? 

The good news is that things are trending in the right direction. But the United States cannot let up in its persistent advocacy and support for the people of Asia who still long to enjoy their most basic rights and freedoms. We cannot stop standing with our friends and standing up to those attempting to undermine the global order by intimidating their neighbors and threatening peace, stability, and global commerce. 

This is the message that the president should take to the region this week. If he does, it will be a message very well received.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola