The Blog

Engaging the East

Halting an erosion of influence.

11:45 PM, Apr 30, 2008 • By MICHAEL AUSLIN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

IN RECENT DAYS, the Bush administration has taken three small steps to
shore up America's position in East Asia. While important, these steps
are not enough in themselves to stave off our long-term decline in the Pacific.
Rather, they should serve as the first salvos in a full-fledged
redefinition of our interests and role in the world's most important region.

The Cause of Decline: Losing Focus

Blame for America's decline in Asia cannot be laid solely on the Bush
administration, despite the Iraq War's draining attention and
resources away from the region. Much of the rationale for America's
Asian policies disappeared with the end of the Cold War. While we
became paramount in the region after 1945, our policies were informed
by an ideology of protecting democracy and deterring threats to
peaceful development. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991,
however, rather than attempting to shape the region's future,
Washington's default goals became expanding trade and maintaining
stability in the Pacific. Misguided assumptions by the Clinton
administration that China was a "strategic partner" further muddied
our policies and understanding of how the region was evolving. By
assuming the position of a status quo power, we stood for nothing and became defensive in our response to Asia's economic and political waves.

At the same time, hundreds of American bureaucrats and officials
continue to race full speed to keep up with the myriad meetings,
summits, agreements, treaties, and problems that absorb us in Asia.
Despite this, State Department officials in the Bureau of East Asian
and Pacific Affairs will acknowledge off the record that we are seen
as disengaged, particularly at the top levels of government. In short,
we have lost ground not because we're absent from the region, but
rather because we have become unfocused and lacking in vision.
Leadership is a fickle property, and once it begins to slip away, it
is hard to recapture. Thus, Washington's recent small steps are
helpful, but America must offer a compelling vision of the future of the Asia Pacific region and take the lead in building it.

Small Step No. 1: Redefining and shaping the Asian security environment.
During April's summit with the new, pro-American President of South
Korea, Lee Myung-bak, President Bush is reported to have discussed a
joint regional security "entity" with Japan and Korea. This new
trilateral approach should be at the top of the White House's agenda,
as it can be the first step towards a larger alignment of democratic
nations in the region. It was a mistake for Washington to ignore
former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's call for a quadrilateral
linkage of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. President
Lee is giving Washington a second chance to show that like-minded
liberal nations have a natural community of interests that can engage all neighboring nations and positively shape regional affairs.

This small American step is central in reversing a relative decline in
America's security capabilities in Asia, which makes our democratic
partners nervous. Over the past decade, China has added ever more
advanced military platforms, such as the fourth generation Shenyang
J-11 fighter, the new Jin-class ballistic missile submarine, and
demonstrated direct ascent kinetic kill capabilities. At the same
time, U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) finds its resources strained by
expanding responsibilities and forces unavailable due to deployment to
Iraq. Former top ranking U.S. officers in the region believe that our
qualitative edge is declining both in the skies and under the waters.
Add in North Korea's continuing nuclear program and missile
capabilities, the reemergence of Russia as a strategic player in the
Asia Pacific, and the growing importance of India, and Washington
faces a far more complex, challenging, and expensive portfolio of interests than ever before.