Here’s How the U.S. Can Retain Leadership in Asia

Here’s How the U.S. Can Retain Leadership in Asia

Secretary of State Rex Tilerson appears to have clarified the puzzling statements on the South China Sea that he made at his confirmation hearing. This is encouraging. In a written response, Tilerson explained that the blockade he suggested, to prevent China from accessing the artificial islands it constructed, would only be necessary “if a contingency occurs.” Secretary of Defense James Mattis, in Asia last week, also turned down the temperature on the issue. “At this time, we do not see any need for dramatic military move,” he said.

Developing its South China Sea strategy is one of the most urgent and challenging tasks facing the new Trump administration, and it is wise not to jump into an immediate confrontation with Beijing. A successful policy will require a robust interagency conversation — one that the administration may not yet be in a position to have. Such a conversation would involve key strategic, economic, diplomatic, and military questions about American leadership in Asia. Among them: the tension between confronting China (and Russia) in areas of disagreement and cooperating wherever possible on critical issues; the need to cultivate close allies such as Australia, Japan, and South Korea to support shared aims; the importance of the unity and credibility of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for regional stability, as well as how to bolster U.S. bilateral relationships with the ten Southeast Asian member states; and the balance between offering the economic strategic engagement that Asia seeks from the United States with the country’s role as security guarantor.

After interagency debate and careful risk-benefit evaluations by professionals, there is likely to be room for the new administration to ratchet up U.S. military activity to defend U.S. interests — including freedom of navigation and overflight, the free flow of lawful commerce, peace and stability, and respect for international law — in the South China Sea. But any new U.S. military action needs to be embedded in a coherent, forward-looking strategic vision for the region and to be unveiled alongside a carefully crafted diplomatic plan that explains that vision. Sudden moves will further rattle U.S. allies, antagonize Beijing unnecessarily, and feed the false Chinese narrative that the U.S. is the primary cause of tension and militarization in the South China Sea, and most everywhere else.

The new administration’s vision should recognize that rules and international law play a critical role in ensuring prosperity and peace in the region. While the new administration does not seem, overall, to be enamored of the rule of law, it ought to consider using this approach in Asia. The United States has benefitted greatly from the current system, which supports freedom of navigation and open markets. Moreover, a focus on rules also ensures the diplomatic support needed for a U.S. policy to be sustainable. ASEAN aspires to become a “rules-based” community, and U.S. allies have similarly adopted rules-based policy. China’s actions in the South China Sea have been so galling because China’s policies are based on the dictum of “might makes right” and ignore the constraints of international law.

For that reason, the United States should be clear that any U.S. operations, freedom of navigation or otherwise, are to be conducted in accordance with, and in service of, international law. Relatedly, even though China, and perhaps even some Philippine officials, want to forget about the arbitral ruling in July of 2016 that clarified, in the Philippines favor, a host of questions about the maritime entitlements of the disputed features in the South China Sea, the United States should continue to remind all that the award is binding, while not taking sides on the complex underlying territorial claims. The United States should support ASEAN as it continues its 15-year negotiations with China over a “code of conduct,” but expect no meaningful progress. ASEAN sees this as an important channel through which to engage China, and we must accept that the nations of Southeast Asia want simultaneously positive relationships with China, India, Japan, Russia, the United States, and others.

As a group, however, ASEAN does and should uphold its own principles, including respect for international law. To help ASEAN stand up for itself, the United States should continue to support vocally ASEAN unity and centrality. In its 50th year, ASEAN has helped keep the peace in Southeast Asia. To strengthen its role, among other measures, we should continue to help the ASEAN nations develop their own abilities to know what is happening in their waters, and cooperate with them on issues of mutual concern like illegal fishing, marine degradation, and piracy. Indeed, one of the least publicized tragedies of China’s reclamation projects is the terrible, essentially irreversible destruction of the region’s precious coral reefs, exacerbating an already alarming reduction in biodiversity and valuable fisheries.

Finally, the United States will need to develop a major strategic economic initiative for Asia (if the Trans-Pacific Partnership is not to be reconsidered), such as a reinvigorated U.S.-ASEAN Connect that responds to ASEAN’s desire for greater economic unity. Otherwise, the United States will end up ceding leadership in Asia, even if the new administration’s security policy is flawless. That would be real loss, because American leadership in Asia has brought significant benefits to the United States over the past many decades while also greatly benefitting the region. It has been, as the Chinese are fond of saying, “win-win” in the best sense.

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