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AEI's "American Strategy For Asia"

2:41 PM, Jan 14, 2009 • By DAVID ADESNIK
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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.