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Debating the Pacific Century

In the November issue of Foreign Policy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argues that it's time for the United States to move on from its costly wars in the Middle East, and make a strategic "pivot" to Asia. FP asked four smart observers to take the measure of Clinton's plans for engagement in the Far East.


Daniel Twining: Is the Obama administration willing to back up Clinton’s talk with action?

Minxin Pei: A nice picture, but do the pieces fit together?

David Rothkopf: Obama and Clinton’s most significant foreign-policy accomplishment

Richard McGregor: A deceptively ambitious — and expensive — plan

It may have been a first for U.S. diplomacy: The leaders of the world’s two most successful surviving communist parties met in Beijing this week, and, in some respects, Washington can claim credit for bringing them together.

Hu Jintao, who heads China’s ruling Communist Party, hosted his Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Phu Trong, for official talks in the Chinese capital, with the two sides agreeing to work together to solve their bitter territorial dispute in the South China Sea. With China breathing fire on the issue in the last 18 months, Vietnam pressed Washington to get involved, which in turn helped give Hanoi a platform from which to restart a dialogue with Beijing.

China’s assertiveness has been a gift to the United States in Asia, something that is evident in the bullish tone of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s article in the current issue of Foreign Policy. The United States was often spurned by regional leaders in the 1990s, until the 1997 Asian financial crisis took the wind out of their sails. In the first decade of the 21st century, America was preoccupied with Iraq and Afghanistan, while Asia was mesmerized by China’s rise.

In the last two years, however, the United States has been welcomed back into the region with open arms, as numerous countries hedge against a rising China. And if Clinton is to be taken at her word, the Obama administration is looking east again, with expansive plans in mind. One of America’s most important tasks over the next decade, she writes, will be to "lock in a substantially increased investment — diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise — in the Asia-Pacific." It is an extraordinary statement at a time of domestic introspection and defense cuts in Washington.

The first building blocks of renewed engagement in Asia are already in place. Defense ties with Singapore have been deepened. When U.S. President Barack Obama visits Australia in November, he will be announcing a new program of ship visits and basing in the north of the country. That same month, the president will be in Bali for his first East Asian Summit and in Hawaii for the annual heads-of-state meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. All this, of course, is a prelude to the main game: whether the United States and China can work out a modus vivendi between themselves in the Asia-Pacific.

There is much that China will not like in Clinton’s article. As Minxin Pei notes in an analysis in the Diplomat, "the Clinton statement will be seen in Beijing simply as another declaration that the United States is determined to remain as Asia-Pacific’s pre-eminent power.… The strategic message to every country in the region, particularly China, is crystal clear: don’t count us out and don’t even think about pushing us out."

But can the United States afford to make a substantially greater commitment to Asia at a time of ballooning deficits? And what incentives does China have to accede to U.S. power at a time when it finally has the firepower to accumulate its own? Pax Americana has served Asia well since the end of World War II. Whether it can manage to bring China under its umbrella is the greatest challenge it has faced in the past half-century.

Richard McGregor is Washington bureau chief of the Financial Times and author of The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers.

Daniel Twining: Is the Obama administration willing to back up Clinton’s talk with action?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton deserves credit for laying out a comprehensive vision for U.S. engagement in the coming Indo-Pacific century. She and her Asia team, led by Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, have been energetic in traveling to the region and laying down markers in support of U.S. alliances with Japan, South Korea, and Australia; strategic cooperation with India, including through an important new U.S.-India-Japan trilateral cooperation; a deeper relationship with Indonesia; freedom of navigation in the South China Sea; and engagement with the Pacific island nations. This activism is a reminder that Asia policy has a bipartisan base in Washington — and that the United States never "left" Asia during the George W. Bush years. Indeed, Bush’s historic opening to India in particular helped create a more favorable strategic environment for Barack Obama’s regional engagement.

The harder question is whether the Obama administration is committed to maintaining a favorable balance of power in the Asia-Pacific — without which Clinton’s many laudable objectives will be impossible to meet. Obama’s own proposed budget would cut American defense spending by $1 trillion over the coming decade. Meanwhile, China is developing sophisticated weapons expressly designed to exclude the U.S. military from the Asian littoral. It is difficult to understand how the United States can ramp up its security commitments and presence in Asia — for which there is bipartisan support in Washington and widespread regional consent — even as its commander in chief proposes hollowing out the country’s armed forces.

It is also striking that Clinton’s vision for Asia focuses more on one country than on any other. That country is not America’s closest ally in the region, Japan. It is not the democracy of 1.3 billion Indians, whose strategic community identifies a convergence of interests with the United States in maintaining equilibrium in Asia, defeating terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and maintaining maritime security. It is, more than any other country, China — a rising peer competitor — that Clinton seems intent on reassuring. The administration’s recent refusal to sell Taiwan advanced combat aircraft appears in line with this assessment.

This approach seems to get things backward; rather, it would seem that the burden is on China to reassure America. After all, the United States and its allies have been generating security in Asia for 60 years — including for China since its economic liberalization in 1978. By contrast, China’s rapid military modernization and external assertiveness today generate acute insecurity in the eyes of its many neighbors, eroding the stability that has underwritten Asia’s economic miracle.

Clinton correctly notes that American economic leadership in Asia is critical. Measured by trade in goods and services plus investment flows, it is the United States — not China — that remains nearly all Asian countries’ economic partner of choice. Yet until last week, the Obama administration had refused to send to Congress a free trade agreement with South Korea that had sat on the president’s desk since his inauguration. The United States has downgraded its economic dialogue with Japan and continues to slow-roll a bilateral investment treaty with India. Technical-level negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership are no substitute for a robust strategy of economic leadership in the Indo-Pacific.

Former Obama Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg was fond of telling Asian elites that U.S.-China relations were like Anglo-American relations a century ago — and that like Britain then, the United States today was preparing to peacefully cede leadership in international affairs to a rising China. This message went down very badly across Asia. As the late Indian international affairs scholar K. Subrahmanyam put it, Asians (including Indians) are quite happy to live under American preeminence — and refuse to countenance its replacement by Chinese hegemony.

It will be costly and challenging for the United States to maintain Pacific primacy in light of the China challenge. Good speeches help, but actions matter more.

Daniel Twining is senior fellow for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a former member of the U.S. State Department’s policy planning staff.

Minxin Pei: A nice picture, but do the pieces fit together?

As a clear and comprehensive elaboration of American policy toward the Asia-Pacific, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s essay, "America’s Pacific Century," may seem overdue. But it could not come at a more opportune time for Washington. A combination of factors, some fortuitous and others not, has enabled the United States to re-establish its preeminence in the Asia-Pacific in the last two years after years of benign neglect during the Bush administration. To be sure, Barack Obama’s administration has already begun to reap the fruits of its diplomatic re-engagement with the region. High-level visits by American diplomats, in particular Clinton’s numerous trips to the region, have greatly improved the optics through which countries in the Asia-Pacific view the United States. The assertiveness displayed by China in recent territorial disputes has also alienated its neighbors and pushed them closer to Washington.

Under such circumstances, a comprehensive policy statement that reaffirms the United States’ commitment to the region will greatly reassure its allies and communicate America’s strategic clarity to its competitors, principally China. In terms of substance, the Clinton statement breaks no new ground. The so-called "six key lines of action" — as Clinton describes them, "strengthening bilateral security alliances; deepening our working relationships with emerging powers, including with China; engaging with regional multilateral institutions; expanding trade and investment; forging a broad-based military presence; and advancing democracy and human rights" — are well-known. Reaffirming them or spelling them out in newer phrases does not change their substance or American policy.

But serious puzzles remain regarding America’s policy toward the Asia-Pacific. The most important is perhaps Washington’s long-term strategic objective. What long-term goals is the United States trying to accomplish with the six lines? Maintaining American preeminence forever? Preventing the emergence of a local hegemon?

Another puzzle is how the six lines of action fit together; they are not always compatible with each other and, in fact, are often in conflict. For example, deepening engagement with China definitely conflicts with maintaining a substantial forward deployment of the U.S. military (which Beijing views as a threat to its security), the promotion of human rights and democracy (which China dislikes intensely), and the maintenance of bilateral security alliances (which China sees as a relic of the Cold War).

The final puzzle is whether Washington has the resources to carry out its policies effectively in the region. Obviously, the United States’ fiscal woes will greatly reduce its ability to fund its foreign-policy initiatives. But with the American political establishment becoming more inward-looking, the political capital need for bold foreign-policy initiatives is in short supply as well. Take, for example, the proposal for the "Trans-Pacific Partnership," an ambitious plan to establish a free trade zone in the region. Countries allegedly included in this proposal may be excited, but the trouble is that nobody in Washington seems to know what TPP stands for. To make its proposal credible, the Obama administration needs to do a lot more than talking.

Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

David Rothkopf: Obama and Clinton’s most significant foreign-policy accomplishment

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s "America’s Pacific Century" describes in thoughtful and comprehensive terms the foreign-policy initiative most likely to later be viewed as the most successful and significant of the Barack Obama-Clinton foreign-policy era. In all likelihood, Clinton will not remain as secretary beyond the end of next year, and it therefore seems quite likely that her joint legacy with the president will be dominated by the systematic, well-executed, often below-the-radar "pivot" she describes in her article.

Although the conflicts in the Middle East and Central Asia have consumed the lion’s share of the bandwidth and resources of this administration and the last, as Clinton notes, America’s attention is shifting. This is due in part to the reason she cites: the drawdown of U.S. assets in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it is also due to the fact that the United States is moving away from a worldview that makes the "war on terror" the top priority it was for George W. Bush’s administration. And additionally, it is due to the fact that increasingly even those issues most important in the Middle East and Central Asia — from the future of Iran’s nuclear program to shifting global markets for energy to the task of containing threats from within Pakistan — increasingly depend on actions and positions taken not by regional players but by China and India.

As Daniel Yergin told me in our recent discussion about The Quest, his new book on the future of energy, virtually all new demand for energy from the Middle East will come from China or India. The major power whose influence is most likely to be the swing vote in the court of international opinion — not to mention the U.N. Security Council — regarding the future of Iran’s nuclear program is China. Both India and China have vital roles to play managing relations with Pakistan and Afghanistan.

All of which illustrates starkly why the pivot to Asia must take place. As does the fact that the current economic crisis in Europe is perhaps the first in which China’s intervention may be the most important of all the major powers’ in terms of funding or not funding the kind of safety net or intervention that may be necessary in the marketplace. As does the increasing role of China and India as consumers of resources from elsewhere in the emerging world — or their rising influence among emerging powers that seek to have an influential, independent voice in international institutions.

Asia’s economic growth and its population size, its productive capacity and its demand, its technological leadership and the geopolitical importance of its major actors, are all reasons why the Obama administration was right to immediately and decisively make a new, strategic, comprehensive Asia policy such a high priority. One might almost say such a decision was inevitable. But of course, the previous administration made a very different calculation, even as many of the same trends were clear to observers even before Bush took office.

But the Obama administration’s initiative has been more than just timely, more than a simple recognition of the obvious. It has also been smart and systematic. A centerpiece was, as necessary, engagement with China. That effort has been ongoing, both publicly and privately, and at both high and low levels. In other words, it has been just what was called for even if it has not been smooth on every issue — as indeed it never can be. But it has also been wisely even-toned most of the time, sidestepping the counterproductive melodrama and extremes that have marked some earlier chapters in the relationship.

Further, the administration has very consciously sought balance at every level — between different elements of the China relationship and between China and its neighbors. Building on important work done during the Bill Clinton and Bush administrations, strengthening the relationship with India — including embracing India’s goal of becoming a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council — has been a special area of accomplishment. But the administration has also made sure to deepen ties with Japan despite that country’s political dysfunction, stepping in quickly, for instance, in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. It has assiduously worked the North Korea issue. And it has, as Secretary Clinton notes in her article, not stopped with the headline-grabbing countries of the region; from Burma to the Mekong River delta, from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to the Spratly Islands, it has recognized that Mies van der Rohe’s dictum that "God is in the details" applies as directly to diplomacy as it does to architecture.

Further, to Clinton’s credit, she has overseen this initiative on the president’s behalf in the best possible way. She has actively put in the miles, working behind the scenes when appropriate and being out in front and the voice of the United States when it is called for. She has served the president and the country by setting aside ego and rolling up her sleeves, doing the tedious, day-to-day work of relationship management and attention to minutiae that comprises her brief. She has also empowered and guided her team at the State Department well, with important work being done almost constantly and seamlessly at the deputy secretary, undersecretary, assistant secretary, ambassadorial, and working levels.

The result is that the United States has never been more respected in the region nor more acutely attuned to its issues of the moment. The shift in focus, therefore, ranks up there with the other vitally important changes overseen by the Obama national security team — including the restoration of America’s international reputation, the shift from unilateralism to multilateralism, and the shift from the "open-heart surgery" approach to the war on terror to the arthroscopic approach (intelligence, special forces, unmanned aircraft). Together all these represent a "pivot" — to use Clinton’s word — that is one of the most significant in recent U.S. foreign-policy history and may be seen not just as one to a "Pacific Century" but in reality one from the 20th to the 21st century.

David Rothkopf is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of the upcoming Power, Inc. due out in early 2012.

Charles Homans is a special correspondent for the New Republic and the former features editor of Foreign Policy.

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