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.
As AEI's Thomas Donnelly has put it, the United States needs to move
beyond a bilateral-based planning for defending discrete countries,
and instead view the western Pacific as "one continuous battlespace."
Defense of Taiwan, for example, will require flowing forces from Japan
and employing assets based in Australia or possibly South Korea.
Similarly, defending Japan from a North Korean missile attack will be
much harder if U.S. forces in South Korea are not able to participate.
It is thus good news that Seoul is eager to foster a "strategic
alliance" for the 21st century with the United States, one that
upgrades Korea's ability to buy U.S. weapons under the Foreign
Military Sales regulations and maintain a robust U.S. presence on the Korean peninsula.
Much more, however, needs to be done, beyond the dispatch of the
nuclear-powered U.S.S. George Washington to Yokosuka, Japan this
spring, and the upgrade of several Aegis ships in Yokosuka with SM-3
interceptor systems. With the growth in China's naval forces, both the
U.S. and Japan need to upgrade anti-submarine warfare (ASW)
capabilities, and Japan's aging
F-4 fighters have to be replaced soon. In addition, the United States
should deploy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), such as the Global Hawk,
to provide surveillance during crisis situations and general coverage
of key transit lanes. Repositioning of some U.S. forces off Okinawa
continues to bedevil U.S.-Japan relations, and over a decade has
passed without significant movement on this issue. At the same time,
Washington needs to assure Korean concerns that the drawdown in U.S.
forces to 25,000 troops is a floor, and does not presage larger force reductions.
Small Step No. 2: Developing a presence and voice in the development
of Asia's multilateral organizations. President Bush last month named
Burma expert Scott Marciel as America's first ambassador to the
Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). This long-overdue
step should finally begin to elevate the U.S. interaction with ASEAN,
and potentially serve as a model for formal U.S. representation to
other Asian multilateral organizations.
The United States has largely watched from the sidelines over the past
decades as the nations in the region have begun forming multilateral
organizations to discuss economic and political architecture. The
effectiveness of these groups is limited, and they are unable to play
major roles in resolving serious issues, as is clearly shown in the
ongoing inability to end Burma's political crisis. Nonetheless, an
American presence is a political necessity, because our lack of
attention results in these nations turning to China as a more reliable
partner on political and trade issues. Friendly nations, such as
Singapore, complain that Washington is AWOL on regional issues, while
Chinese diplomats visit each year, intent on expanding ties. Marciel's
nomination is a recognition that if we want to influence the
development of these groups, and help spread liberal ideas of
governance, diplomacy, and good economic practices, we have to be supportive in word and deed.
The East Asian Summit (EAS) is a perfect venue for Washington to
reestablish its presence in Asian multilateral fora. Our key ally,
Japan, pushed for the inclusion of Australia, India, and New Zealand
in the formation of the EAS, thereby assuring a democratic
counterweight to China, yet America currently does not even send an
observer delegation. Japanese Foreign Ministry officials urge their
U.S. counterparts to get more involved in the EAS, since it represents
the first time that nearly all Asian nations are coming together to
discuss common issues and explore ways to solve them. If we want Asia
to develop along lines that ensure accountability and involve liberal precepts, then we need to play a role.
Small Step No. 3: Reopening markets and pushing for free trade.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Trade Representative began a study of
whether Washington should participate in the full Trans-Pacific
Strategic Economic Partnership of Singapore, Chile, New Zealand, and
Brunei, known as the "P-4" group of countries. This small step only
amplifies America's lag in pushing for free trade agreements in Asia.
Whereas both China and Japan have concluded FTAs or economic
partnership agreements with ASEAN, and continue to look at a variety
of other pacts, the Democratic-controlled U.S. Congress is suffocating the free trade movement here in the United States.
Washington has concluded only a few, minor trade treaties since NAFTA,
but it recently finalized a deal with South Korea, the world's 13th
largest economy and America's seventh largest trading partner. It is a
significant pact that could pave the way for further major U.S. trade
agreements. The Korea-U.S. FTA (KORUS) is now in the gunsights of both
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, not to mention House Speaker Nancy
Pelosi. Failure to ratify the agreement would not only be a major
political blow to the U.S.-ROK alliance, but also a signal that the
United States cannot live up to its rhetoric on free trade and globalization.
The United States did more than $2 trillion worth of trade in goods
and services with Asia in 2007, and the Asia Pacific now accounts for
37 percent of global economic output. The U.S. needs to lead in
shaping emerging trade regimes in the region, and the best way to do
that is through broad-spectrum trade and investment agreements. Along
with its leading partners, such as Japan and South Korea, Washington
must elevate gold-standard trade practices to the norm in bilateral
and multilateral agreements. These include transparency, good
governance, best practices, and labor and environmental protections among others.
The issue here is whether the guidelines that have nurtured global
trade for the past 60 years will now embrace the globe's most dynamic
region, or whether substandard and unenforceable trade agreements will become the norm.
The United States can shape the trading future only by further opening
its markets and working with others to promote Asia's liberal economic
The small steps recounted here reflect a nascent shift away from
Washington's business as usual approach to East Asia. In its last
months, the Bush administration is acting on its recognition that
Asia's future is being forged today, in the security, political, and
economic spheres. But these small steps, as welcome as they are, fall
short of the type of enhanced engagement in Asia that we need. America
may have helped keep Asia safe for the past six decades; it now needs
to ensure that a liberal vision of democratic growth, robust security
cooperation, and economic enrichment continues in the coming decades.
Michael R. Auslin is a resident scholar in Asian Studies at the
American Enterprise Institute.