What does Barack Obama think about Asia? Does Barack Obama think about Asia? As the president-elect prepares himself to confront the global economic disaster, the conflict in Gaza, the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs, the genocide in Darfur, and Russia's intimidation of its neighbors, it wouldn't be surprising if he had only a few fleeting moments to think about Asia.
If that's the case, and Obama wants a "shovel ready" strategy for Asia put together by a team of top-shelf experts, he should pick up or download a copy of the new AEI report, An American Strategy for Asia. The AEI team was led by Dan Blumenthal, an AEI scholar who served as the Pentagon's senior director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia, and Aaron Friedberg, a scholar of international relations at Princeton who worked for Vice President Cheney.
The report proceeds from the premise that, over the past thirty years, there has been "a massive, rapid shift in the distribution of global wealth and power toward Asia." That premise is hardly controversial, yet as the authors observed in a recent discussion at AEI, neither journalists nor voters demanded during the recent campaign that either presidential candidate demonstrate his readiness to handle this historic shift of gravity from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Thus, Obama never said much about Asia, aside from his ritual denunciations of free trade with China for destroying American jobs.
In normal times, one wouldn't expect a Democratic president to turn to AEI for ideas. However, Obama is in the midst of making an extremely aggressive run toward the center on foreign policy. In addition, Hillary Clinton has tapped Kurt Campbell to head up the Asia Pacific bureau at the State Department. Recently, one veteran of the Bush NSC praised Campbell for resisting knee-jerk criticism of President Bush and "understand[ing] just how much was achieved in Asia over the past decade."
The AEI report makes it very clear that the dominant challenge facing both the United States and its friends in Asia is how to handle the rise of China. The first and foremost objective of American strategy, the authors conclude, should be to "prevent the domination of Asia by a hostile power or coalition." At the same time, the United States must strive to build an Asia that is "prosperous, peaceful and free," just as it sought to build a Europe "whole and free" during the Cold War. The authors are candid about the tension between these two essential objectives. As they explain, "Beijing sees U.S. efforts to bolster democratic friends and work toward an Asia that is prosperous, peaceful and free as troubling and potentially threatening." Profoundly insecure about its own legitimacy, the Chinese Communist party has every reason to regard the advance of freedom in Asia as a threat to China's stability.
In the 1990s, Western experts often predicted that this tension between freedom and stability would be resolved as China's growing prosperity led to an inevitable democratic transition. Nonetheless, "China continues to grow wealthy and powerful while being governed by an increasingly sophisticated authoritarian regime," a situation that "may persist for some time, perhaps for many decades." Thus, all responsible strategies for the future of Asia must reckon with the challenge of a rising China that is deeply suspicious of the United States' growing network of democratic friendships and alliances.
The good news is that no matter how fast an authoritarian China may be rising, its leaders recognize that they have a long way to go before they are strong enough to risk provoking us. "In the near to medium term . . . China's leaders believe they must remain on the defensive against a still-powerful United States and its democratic allies." The United States has sufficient time to implement a multi-faceted strategy for securing the peace in Asia.
Obama and his advisers will be glad to know that the AEI report recommends engagement as an essential aspect of the American approach toward China. Communication between Washington and Beijing is essential because of our deep interdependence, especially on economic issues, but also because of the need for cooperation on transnational issues such as climate change and public health. The authors have no illusions, however, about the potential for diplomatic engagement to promote a democratic transition in China. To put it bluntly, "There may be little that we can do directly to bring about political change in China." Engagement alone is a deeply deficient strategy.
In addition to engagement, the United States must make a concerted effort to balance China's growing power and hedge against unpleasant surprises. In part, this entails a well-calibrated response to Beijing's rapid military modernization, driven by annual increases of almost 10 percent per year in its military budget going all the way back to 1990. Even more important, the United States must deepen its military cooperation Japan, India, Australia, South Korea, Taiwan and other friends in Asia who share our deep concerns about China's intentions.
If the past is prologue, firm efforts to strengthen military cooperation with our friends and allies will result in the ample expression of hurt feelings and wounded pride by Chinese diplomats and high officials. These expressions should be duly noted but in no way inhibit the balancing component of American strategy. In the past, the advocates of engagement have often mistaken the warmth of official relations between Washington and Beijing as the essential barometer of success for American strategy in Asia. This habit was the corollary of mistaken predictions in the 1990s that the democratization of a wealthier China was inevitable, therefore the essential mission of U.S. diplomacy was to prevent unnecessary conflicts during China's alleged authoritarian interregnum.
A final word is in order about the role of "soft" or "smart power" in Asia, especially given Sen. Clinton's lavish praise of smart power in her confirmation hearings. On its final page, the AEI strategy notes that journalists and other commentators have reflexively employed a standard storyline, according to which "the United States has suffered a grievous loss of popularity, thanks to the style and policies of the Bush administration." Yet polling data from the Pew Research Center shows that the United States still has approval ratings of more than 50% across Asia, giving it a more positive reputation than China, whose charm offensive is often praised by Western observers. Moreover, America's stock has been rising over the past two years while China's has been falling. The bottom line is that we don't have to choose between being popular and being secure. Working with our democratic friends and allies to build an Asia that is "prosperous, peaceful and free" can make us both.
David Adesnik is a defense analyst in Washington DC who served on the foreign policy staff for McCain-Palin 2008.