Sunday, January 25, 2009

America's evolving role in a changing Asia

Earlier this month, I visited three capitals in Southeast Asia – Bangkok, Phnom Penh, and Hanoi – to present the latest in a series of reports on America’s role in Asia, produced each presidential election year by the Asia Foundation.

The report was not easy to summarize. It contains chapters on no fewer than eight countries and sub-regions (Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan), plus seven additional chapters on key functional issues (trade, security, alliances, the environment, energy, terrorism, and regional architecture). All the chapters incorporate individual insights on trends in the region, as well as numerous detailed recommendations on policy. The report also reflects a few differences of opinion, both among the Asian participants and between the American and Asian contributors, especially with regard to questions involving regional architecture.

But the main purposes of the project – to identify the key trends in the region, and to make policy recommendations to the incoming U.S. administration – provided a structure for my summary. Within that broad framework, I found that there was a remarkable degree of consensus on six major trends, and on ten broad policy recommendations. That consensus is presented below, although I have also indicated a few places where the contributors had different views, and where I have somewhat contrasting opinions of my own.

Key trends

1. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the end of the bipolar international order that had formed at the end of World War II, there was a commonly held assumption that the world had become unipolar, with the U.S. in the dominant position. More than a decade later, however, it has become increasingly clear that the rise of new global and regional powers has created a multipolar world, not a unipolar one. But within that multipolar world, the longer-term balance among the global and regional powers remains uncertain. It will depend on domestic developments in the key national actors, particularly the relative speed and degree to which they recover from the global financial crisis. While the U.S. may remain the most powerful nation in the world in that future order, it is unlikely to dominate either the Asian balance or the global balance of power.

2. Because it involves the lowering of barriers to transborder flows of people, capital, and goods, globalization is promoting both economic interdependence and the emergence of a wide range of transborder issues. This is changing the international agenda, both in Asia and more globally, adding a wide range of new issues, as well as new economic opportunities. (I believe that globalization is transforming Asia and the world in yet another way: it is making the world multinodal, rather than multipolar. Rather than seeing the major world powers as relatively independent poles competing for position in a geopolitical balance of power, they should now be viewed as multiple nodes in an interdependent economic and financial network. In this new multimodal world, major nations continue to compete, but now as economic centers as well as military powers. They also have major common interests in maintaining the vitality of the global order and in managing transnational issues. The blend of competition and cooperation among the major powers is therefore very different in a multimodal world than it was in a multipolar one.)

3. Asia will remain a highly important region for both the U.S. and the world. It is home to several of the most important rising powers (China, India and, if it can develop a common foreign policy, ASEAN), as well as such established powers as the U.S., Japan, and Russia. It is almost certain to remain one of the world’s most economically dynamic regions. It is the location of the two most important unresolved issues left over from the Cold War: Korea and Taiwan. It is also a region in which every virtually contemporary transnational issue – from terrorism and climate change to transborder crime and communicable disease -- can be found and where effective solutions will need to be developed.

4. There is a widespread perception that America has become somewhat disengaged from this important region, to the extent that some Asians assert that Washington has been treating Asia with “benign neglect.” (I think this may be a bit exaggerated. I prefer to say that the U.S. is paying selective attention to the region, focusing only on the major powers [Japan, China, and India], “hot spots” [North Korea and Taiwan], and issues [the war on terror and non-proliferation] that are of greatest concern to the U.S.)

5. Asia is trying to build regional organizations that will eventually form an economic and security community for the region. The aim is to promote cooperative security, manage economic interdependence, and address the transnational issues that affect the region. But there are different assessments of the accomplishments and effectiveness of the organizations that have been created so far, especially such flagship institutions as ASEAN, ARF, and APEC. Asians (who stress process) are more positive about these organizations than are Americans (who emphasize concrete outcomes). Where Asians see these organizations as moving at “a pace comfortable to all,” Americans complain that they are like a naval convoy that is limited to “the speed of the slowest ship.” Equally important, there are also differences of opinion as to whether these organizations should be pan-Asian (excluding the U.S.) or pan-Pacific (including it).

6. There is a growing sense that global institutions (the UN Security Council, G-8, IMF, IBRD, etc.) do not adequately represent the emerging powers, including those in Asia (particularly China and India and, in the case of the Security Council, Japan).

Policy recommendations for the new administration

1. The U.S. should pay more comprehensive attention to Asia. This means, in particular, more attention to Southeast Asia and to the smaller states of South Asia, which feel particularly neglected. It also means greater attention to the issues of greatest concern to members of the region -- not just to the war on terror, non-proliferation, and sub-regional hot spots, but also to prosperity, financial stability, development, food security, energy security, climate change, public health, and disaster management. (I would add that this may also require increasing the “bandwidth” of the American foreign policy bureaucracy responsible for Asia, so that it can deal effectively with these additional issues.)

2. Preserving U.S. strategic dominance in the region – in other words, trying to make Asia into a unipolar region -- will not be a viable strategy. It is neither desired by most of the region, nor feasible given the rise of regional powers. Instead, the U.S. should look at itself more as an offshore balancer in the near term, and as an architect of effective regional cooperative security organizations over the longer term.

3. Even this somewhat more modest goal will require the U.S. to remain strategically engaged in the region. This means not only maintaining America’s forward military deployments, but also consolidating the U.S. alliances and building stable and cooperative security relationships with the emerging Asian powers.

4. The U.S. should maintain its commitment to free trade. The report recommends renewing the president’s trade promotion authority (“fast track”), resisting protectionism, pushing for the successful completion of the Doha Round, and completing and ratifying the free trade agreements that it is negotiating with the region. (While protectionism is indeed a danger during the current financial crisis, I believe that the oft-stated concerns about American protectionism are usually exaggerated. I would also note that the U.S. is not the only obstacle, and is not even the principal obstacle, to the completion of the Doha Round. Agricultural policy in Europe, and industrial policy in much of the Third World, are equally significant problems. I would also caution that, as the U.S. negotiates free trade agreements with countries in the region, many of its Asian counterparts will resist the demanding and comprehensive form of free trade agreement on which Washington insists. In this regard, the problem will not be American protectionism, but Asian protectionism.)

5. The U.S. should become more supportive of the construction of regional economic and security architecture. However, there was no clear conclusion among the American contributors to the report about which of the growing number of regional organizations hold the greatest promise. In addition, while there was a general consensus that the U.S. should sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with ASEAN, there was a difference of opinion among the Asian participants as to whether the U.S. should be invited to join the East Asian Summit (also known as ASEAN+6).

6. The U.S. should also support an expanded role for the emerging Asian powers in global institutions. But the contributors differed somewhat as to whether the U.S. should insist that countries like India and China act as “responsible stakeholders,” accepting existing international norms without significant modification, or whether it should expect that those norms would be readjusted to reflect the interests and values of the rising powers.

7. In promoting development in Asia, the U.S. should not just support free trade, better governance, and respect for human rights, but should also provide more traditional forms of economic development assistance. In particular, the report recommends that the U.S. develop a program of investment in Asian physical infrastructure, to supplement initiatives being undertaken by China and Japan.

8. The U.S. should continue to pay attention to human rights and democracy, but should take a more positive approach. It should use more moderate rhetoric against human rights shortcomings, support reforms initiated by local governments and civil societies whenever possible, and be more consistent in its own behavior at home and abroad. Above all, the U.S. should not replace a single-minded focus on terrorism with an equally single-minded focus on human rights.

9. The U.S. should place more emphasis on the development and deployment of its soft power. But this implies more than devising a more effective foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. It also will require the U.S. to rebuild the instruments of public diplomacy (such as cultural and academic exchange) that have been neglected over the last several years.

10. The U.S. should increase its own economic competitiveness. This will be key not only to maximizing trade and investment flows with the region, but also to maintaining a commitment to free trade and to restoring the appeal of the American economic model.

These ten points can, in turn, be boiled down into three even broader recommendations:

1. In most of the areas on which the Bush Administration has focused, American policy in Asia has generally been appropriate. In these areas, the Obama Administration should stay the course, with perhaps some tactical adjustments to promote our evolving relationships with such countries as China, Japan, North Korea, and India. The exception to this generalization lies primarily in Southwest Asia, where the report recommends more dramatic changes in U.S. policies toward Pakistan and Afghanistan.

2. As noted above, however, the Bush Administration’s focus has been limited. The new administration should fill in the gaps that have been left by American selective attention to Asia.

3. The U.S. should work to sustain or rebuild all forms of American power in the region: hard, economic, and soft.

Asian reactions

The report was generally well received in the three capitals I visited, particularly in its suggestion that the U.S. pay more attention to neglected countries and issues. But there was some concern expressed about three aspects of the report: whether the new administration would actually support Asian multilateralism, whether it would accept a somewhat reduced role in the region, and whether it would place undue emphasis on human rights.

With regard to that first issue, some in the region will place considerable weight on whether or not President Obama chooses to attend the summit meeting between ASEAN summit and its dialogue partners that will be held in Thailand later in the year. The Thais are strongly urging that he do so, not only as an expression of a US interest in ASEAN, but also as an implicit endorsement of Thailand’s desire for a greater leadership role in the region, and an acknowledgement of Thailand’s return to political normalcy. And yet, some in Thailand explicitly said that it was “not the time” for the U.S. to join the East Asian Summit, underscoring the fact that the creation or maintenance of pan-Asian (as opposed to pan-Pacific) regional organizations was a real possibility. This underscored the tensions created by the American need to deal both with ASEAN and with regional organizations led by ASEAN – one of the contradictions I had identified in my earlier blog entitled “The Challenge of Engaging Southeast Asia.”

I sensed, moreover, that not everyone in the region was keen to see an unqualified American return to multilateralism. Cambodians seemed to welcome it, since they doubted that their country would otherwise attract sustained high-level attention from the U.S. But some Thais, and particularly some Vietnamese, appeared concerned that an American focus on multilateral approaches toward the region as a whole would mean less U.S. attention to bilateral relations with their own countries. Larger regional powers, with robust ties with the U.S., may fear that they might lose relative influence if Washington chose to deal with the region primarily through ASEAN or through other multilateral mechanisms. This illustrated yet another tension mentioned in my earlier blog: the contradiction between dealing with Southeast Asian nations individually, and dealing with them as members of ASEAN.

As for America’s role in the region, some in Thailand asked whether American would actually accept the fact that the U.S. could no longer dominate the region. Conversely, some in Vietnam raised the opposite concern, cautioning that the U.S. should not redefine its role too modestly, as they believed the term “offshore balancer” implied. In particular, they were worried that the U.S. was not paying attention to the conflicting claims in the South China Sea, and that this lack of concern might lead China at some point to assert its claims unilaterally and by force, producing a fait accompli to which the U.S. might be unwilling or unable to respond.

The report did not contain a chapter on human rights. Interestingly, not a single participant in any of the three meetings in Southeast Asia questioned this omission. Instead, there was some concern expressed that the appointment of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State might presage a return to what some regarded as the excessive focus on human rights of the Clinton Administration.

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