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Lieberman on the Asia-Pacific

1:51 PM, Nov 4, 2011 • By DANIEL HALPER
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Independent Democratic senator Joe Lieberman recently visited the Heritage Foundation to talk about the Asia-Pacific: 

Here's the full text: 

Thank you, Ed, for that kind introduction, and for your distinguished leadership of the Heritage Foundation over many years. It is always a pleasure to come over to Heritage.

From the Hart Office Building where my Senate office is, I can see the American flag that flies over this building -- a constant reminder to me of the principled, patriotic, and important work that I know is being done every day at Heritage.

I am grateful for the invitation to deliver the B.C. Lee Lecture on International Affairs. Some of our country’s most distinguished national security leaders have participated in this lecture series, and I am honored to have the opportunity to follow in their footsteps. I also want to recognize Walter Lohman, the director of the Asian studies program at Heritage, for all his work in organizing today’s event.

Over the past decade, the region of the world that has most visibly occupied the attention of American foreign policy has been the greater Middle East. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a day in the life of either President Bush or President Obama during the past ten years in which the Middle East did not play a prominent role -- whether because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Iranian nuclear program, or now the Arab Spring. The Middle East is a part of the world that has been, and remains, the source of some of the most direct and potent threats to our national security. It has also been the subject of some of the most polarizing and partisan debates in our domestic politics. 

The Asia-Pacific region, by contrast, has not occupied nearly so prominent a place in our public discourse. But as the old expression goes, still waters run deep.

In fact, for the past several years, under both Presidents Bush and Obama, the U.S. has been pursuing a variety of initiatives that have deepened and strengthened America's presence and engagement across the Asia-Pacific region.

Among the most significant of these measures have been efforts to modernize and expand our historic alliances and partnerships in the region; establish new strategic partnerships with rising powers like India; foster greater trilateral security cooperation -- for instance, among the U.S., Japan and South Korea; conduct enhanced dialogue with China on a range of issues; and embed the U.S. in the evolving multilateral security and economic architecture of the region.

These collective efforts to deepen our presence and engagement in the Asia-Pacific over the past decade have been driven by several real and powerful factors. Most broadly and fundamentally, they reflect a longstanding, bipartisan recognition that America’s own security, freedom, and prosperity are inseparably intertwined with the future of the Asia-Pacific region. This is a consensus that has tied together not only the Bush and Obama presidencies, but multiple administrations of both parties since the late 1940s.

As former Defense Secretary Bob Gates rightly put it during his final appearance at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore in June, “The commitment and presence of the United States as a Pacific nation has been one of relatively few constants amidst the furious changes in the region over the past half-century.” 

America's deepening engagement also reflects the recognition that as countries in the Asia-Pacific region have experienced extraordinary economic growth over the past several decades, there have opened new opportunities for us to work together to build a freer, safer, and more prosperous world that will benefit them and us. Having reaped the rewards of an international system that has enabled their rise, the successful countries of the Asia-Pacific region now have both a self-interest and a responsibility to help reinforce and sustain that system.

Indeed, when it comes to dealing with a host of global challenges -- whether supporting democratic transitions in the Middle East, managing the global economy, responding to large-scale natural disasters, or putting pressure on rogue regimes like Iran and North Korea -- the contributions and cooperation of countries in the Asia-Pacific region have been, and increasingly will be, absolutely indispensable.

But America's deepening engagement and presence in Asia is also driven by another factor -- the shifting geopolitics within the Asia-Pacific region itself.

It’s useful here to take a step back. As I noted, the extraordinary economic growth that has characterized the Asia-Pacific region in recent decades did not happen by accident. It was made possible because of a particular set of international conditions. These include a worldwide system of free and open commerce, access to the global commons by all, freedom of navigation, and the principle that disputes among nations should be resolved without coercion or use of force. What has underwritten and guaranteed these rules and principles in the Asia-Pacific region is not simply mutual goodwill among nations, but a very specific balance of military power there.

The fact is that it has been the predominance of American military power in the Asia-Pacific that has been the ultimate guarantor of the international rules and conditions that have facilitated the explosive economic growth of countries in this region, which in turn has enabled literally hundreds of millions of people to emerge from poverty. By providing a climate of international security and assured access to the global commons, the U.S. military has tempered destabilizing regional rivalries and allowed countries to focus instead on building their economies and expanding trade -- good for them and good for us.

This was precisely the hope and intention of the wise men who, at the dawn of the Cold War, established the American security architecture for this region. As President Harry Truman said in 1951: “In the Pacific, as in other parts of the world, social and economic progress is impossible unless there is a shield which protects men from the paralysis of fear.” For six decades, the U.S. military -- through its constellation of bases, forward-deployed assets, and close cooperation with key counterparts -- has provided that shield.

The result has been one of the great success stories of American foreign policy and of human history. As a consequence, the Asia-Pacific region today is more prosperous, more secure, and more free than ever before.

The balance of power in the region, however, is also under growing strain. Paradoxically, it has been the miraculous economic growth made possible by this balance of power that has facilitated the rise of one country -- China -- whose government many in the Asia-Pacific region now fear is prepared to use its economic wealth to challenge this regional balance of power.

Let me be clear. I do not think that a destabilizing security competition with China is inevitable. On the contrary, the emergence of a strong and prosperous China can be a real plus for the entire world; reinforcing the international system that China, as much as any other country, has benefited from. Already China's extraordinary economic growth has allowed hundreds of millions of its own people to escape poverty while simultaneously creating opportunities for millions more around the world. We also should note, with appreciation and encouragement, the contributions China has made in recent years to international efforts to address problems like piracy off the coast of Africa, and we should seek to engage China in more cooperative activities of that kind.

At the same time, it is impossible to overlook the fact that -- in comparison to just a few years ago -- there is markedly greater anxiety today among virtually all of China’s neighbors about Beijing’s conduct, capabilities, and intentions. In my personal experience, China has now become issue number one that political and policy leaders around the Asia-Pacific region want to discuss. That was not the case a decade ago.

Much of this uneasiness is traceable to China’s continuing military build-up -- in particular, the development of so-called anti-access and area-denial capabilities. These are sophisticated weapons systems -- including precision-guided cruise and ballistic missiles, submarines, anti-satellite weapons, and cyber-capabilities -- that directly challenge the ability of the U.S. military to carry out its traditional role as a security guarantor in the Western Pacific and thereby unsettle the established military balance there.

Sometimes it is said that China’s military spending is an inevitable consequence of its rise, but the experience of other countries in the Asia-Pacific region suggests otherwise. India, for instance, is another Asian great power that has experienced spectacular economic growth over the past two decades and lies outside the U.S. treaty system. But while India is modernizing its military, it has notably not chosen to invest in the kind of anti-access, area-denial capabilities that China has prioritized. That is perhaps one reason why India’s rise has not provoked the sort of anxieties in the region that have become associated with China.

These concerns have been further exacerbated over the past three years by what has been characterized as China's “new assertiveness.” While for many years Chinese foreign policy followed Deng Xiaoping’s admonition to “bide time,” “keep a low profile,” and “hide one’s capabilities,” Beijing has adopted a very different approach as of late; employing heavy-handed tactics in territorial disputes with a broad swath of its neighbors -- from the South China Sea to Arunchal Pradesh. These actions have raised worrying questions, not just in Asia, but around the world about how China will exercise its influence as it grows more powerful in the years ahead.

It is especially striking that these tensions between China and its neighbors have ratcheted up at the same time that cross-strait relations with Taiwan have settled down. This strongly suggests that the argument, once quite popular in Washington, that China’s rise will be free of turbulence unless there is a flare-up over Taiwan is far too simplistic.

Now, what does all of this mean for U.S. policy?

First and foremost, it means that uneasiness about China is causing unprecedented demand for American engagement, presence, and leadership across the Asia-Pacific. Rather than pushing the United States out of the region, as some predicted, China’s rise is for the moment opening new doors for Washington, militarily and economically, as countries along Beijing’s broad periphery look for U.S. help in shoring up the regional balance of power.

In my opinion, this is a window of strategic opportunity that will not remain open indefinitely. If the U.S. is not responsive to the voices we hear in the region calling for greater engagement, some countries may conclude that Washington is no longer a credible partner and either seek accommodation with China, or pursue their own alternative balancing strategies, which could be strategically destabilizing for the region.

To be clear, I am not talking about a Soviet-style containment strategy of China. No one in the Asia-Pacific region wants that, including the United States.

 

Nor am I advocating that we scale back our engagement with China. On the contrary, we must continue to seek every opportunity to pursue dialogue and interaction with Beijing; so that we can try to eliminate sources of misunderstanding, reduce the risks of miscalculation, and offer China the opportunity to join other responsible stakeholders in upholding and strengthening the regional and international order that has made possible its rise.  That would include expanding on our current naval cooperation with China against piracy and exploring joint patrols of sea lanes.

 

In our engagement with China, however, we must work with and through our allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific -- putting to rest any notion that the United States would consider a so-called “G-2” arrangement with Beijing.

 

We must also make absolutely clear that the U.S. is committed to the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific and to our friends and partners there, and that we will never be pushed out of the region or into a secondary or transient role. Indeed, this was the message delivered last week by Defense Secretary Panetta during his inaugural visit to the region. As he put it while in South Korea: “The United States of America is a Pacific power... We will not only remain a Pacific power, but we will strengthen our presence in this area. We are here to stay.”

 

In order to make this commitment both clear and credible, I strongly believe additional actions are necessary.

 

First, American power is clearly inseparable from the strength of the American economy, and this is especially true in Asia. That is why our friends and allies in the Asia-Pacific look upon our current federal government’s current fiscal mess with such deep concern. Indeed, it was also lost on no one in Asia that China’s new foreign policy “assertiveness” started soon after the 2008 American financial meltdown.

 

Consequently, it is vital both for our own economic future and our national security that we start tackling the structural problems that threaten our country’s long-term fiscal health, including the difficult entitlement and tax reforms we need.

 

Second, hard power matters in Asia. There is no better illustration of the potentially catastrophic consequences of deep cuts to the Pentagon budget than the dynamic security environment in the Western Pacific, where Ronald Reagan’s dictum of peace through strength remains very much true today.

 

Even under the most optimistic scenarios, however, it is also clear that our military is going to be required to do more, with less, over the next several years. As we weigh trade-offs and assign priorities, ensuring that our military is able to continue to project power in the Western Pacific and maintain the ability to deter China from acts of aggression or coercion in that region must be at the very top of our priority list.

 

In this respect, it is important to recognize that preserving a stable, favorable military balance in the Asia-Pacific ultimately is going to require more than just protecting investments in particular capabilities and weapons systems -- although that is certainly important. Rather, it will require the development of new concepts of operations, doctrine, and strategy that tie these systems into a coherent whole.

 

One promising framework for doing this is a new concept being developed by the U.S. Navy and Air Force, called “Air Sea Battle.” Although still in its infancy, Air Sea Battle has the potential to drive innovations in our military’s planning, operations, and procurement to neutralize the anti-access, area-denial capabilities being fielded by the Chinese military.

 

Maintaining the military balance in Asia also demands that we find ways to deepen, broaden, and harden our force posture across the region. That means keeping U.S. forces in Japan and South Korea as long as the democratically-elected governments in Tokyo and Seoul want us there. It also means looking for new arrangements -- not necessarily permanent American bases, but long-term access to joint facilities, more port calls and exercises... in short, more American presence on the seas, in the skies, and on the ground.

 

Finally, this is a moment to take our defense and security cooperation with our Asian friends to whole new levels, helping to build greater capacity and interoperability among both longstanding allies like Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines, as well as with new partners like India, Vietnam, and Indonesia.

 

In addition to these military measures, the U.S. also needs an ambitious, forward-looking, and strategically-minded trade policy for the Asia-Pacific region. While countries in the region are eager to enjoy the opportunities created by China’s growth, they also worry about growing overly-dependent on Beijing. In this respect, the strategic balance they seek is not only military, but also economic. As CNAS scholar Richard Fontaine recently observed, “In Asia, where the business of the region is quite often business, Washington’s trade posture is a key sign of its presence and continued commitment to the region.”

 

In this respect, it is to the credit of President Obama that he abandoned his initial opposition to the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement after coming to office, and worked hard to secure its passage. This was a very significant accomplishment, but the fact remains that the U.S. has not yet signed a single new FTA during the Obama Administration. According to one recent analysis, more than 300 trade agreements have either been concluded or being negotiated in the Asia-Pacific, but none of which include the United States.

 

It is not, however, too late. The Obama Administration has pledged to push forward with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, which would liberalize trade with eight Pacific Rim countries. This is a promising American initiative and must be treated as nothing less than a national security priority, but more is also required. In particular, it is past time for Washington to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement with Taiwan, whose commerce with mainland China is arguably now more free than its trade with the U.S. In addition, we must redouble our efforts to conclude a Bilateral Investment Treaty with India, with the clearly stated goal of concluding a full FTA with New Delhi before the decade is out.

 

And while we are thinking of bold new steps, we should also actively explore the possibility of an FTA with Japan, which would be a true game changer for the region.

 

In our foreign policy in the Asian Pacific, the United States also must never shy from standing by our values. The fact is, America’s leadership in the world is guided by more than the pursuit of alignments of commercial or security interests. It is rooted in our national values and principles like democracy, rule of law, and human rights that we believe are universal -- an assessment that is shared by many of our friends in Asia.

 

Indeed, India’s prime minister has called liberal democracy “the natural order of social and political organization in today’s world.” He is absolutely right. Consider that, sixty-five years ago, there were only two Asia-Pacific democracies: Australia and New Zealand. Today, more people live under democratic government in the Asia-Pacific region than in any other part of the world. From South Korea to the Philippines, and from Taiwan to Indonesia, the past three decades have witnessed an extraordinary expansion of freedom’s reach and rule.

 

On the one hand, this creates enormous opportunities to pursue values-based diplomacy with our Asia-Pacific partners, working to promote democracy, rule of law, and human rights, both in this region and around the world.

 

On the other hand, we also should not hesitate to challenge governments that violate these principles, including China, where human rights conditions have notably worsened over the past two years in what appears to be a heightened crackdown on dissent. When journalists, civil society activists, and artists are imprisoned for exercising universally-recognized rights, when religious and ethnic minorities are oppressed for upholding their beliefs and culture, when rule of law is flouted -- the United States and our partners must speak out.

 

Let me conclude my remarks today by returning to the place I began -- namely, the greater Middle East.

 

It has recently become fashionable in some quarters to argue that, in order for the U.S. to succeed in the coming "Pacific century," we must turn away from the Middle East, where we have spent so much blood and treasure over the course of the past decade.

 

In my opinion, this is a false choice -- and a dangerous one.

 

To be sure, a greater share of U.S. resources and attention will be shifting eastward in the years ahead. But as that occurs, we must acknowledge that both of these great regions are critical for our national security. We must be cognizant of the deep and profound linkages that tie the future of the Middle East with that of the rest of the Asian continent.

 

These linkages are not always apparent in Washington, but consider, for instance, the view from New Delhi, where the Indian government has a vital national interest in the outcome of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and the related effort to end Pakistan's sponsorship of Islamist terrorist groups. The notion that the U.S. might disengage from Afghanistan and Pakistan in order to “pivot” towards Asia would be viewed by India, one of our most important Asian partners, very threatening.

 

Likewise, consider the view from Beijing, where authorities earlier this year made the sale of the jasmine flower contraband, after Tunisia's democratic revolutionaries adopted it as the emblem of their uprising against an autocratic regime. This illustrates the way in which the Chinese government very much sees a connection between the cause of democratic self-government in the Middle East and in China -- and they are right to do so. 

 

Finally, consider the view from any country in the Asia-Pacific region that counts itself an ally of the United States, and whose security therefore ultimately rests on America's pledge to come to its defense against aggression. For these countries and their governments, America's abandonment of an ally anywhere in the world, in the face of a tough fight, cannot help but be a source of grave and destabilizing alarm, raising questions about America's reliability and staying power in the Asia-Pacific as well. 

 

The simple truth of the matter is that American power and leadership in the world is ultimately indivisible. That is why we cannot hope to be effective in the Asia-Pacific if we retreat or disengage from the Middle East. Success on one side of Asia will reinforce success on the other; the same is true of failure. It is only by matching our principles to our power in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific alike that we can secure the future of freedom and prosperity that our people and the people of Asia deserve and demand. That is the opportunity, and the responsibility, we face as we begin the second decade of the 21st century. We can and must seize it.  

Thank you, and I look forward to your questions.

 

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