Quietly, the U.S. Embarks on an East Asia Offensive

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The United States hosts this year's APEC forum for the first time since 1993, with leaders from the 21 member economies convening on the island of Oahu on November 12-13. (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP / Getty Images)

If Americans were paying attention to matters of foreign policy over the weekend, it likely had to do with what was discussed at yet another farcical Republican debate, replete with wild distortions of reality and bald admissions of ignorance. What should have been more on the collective radar took place west of South Carolina — very far west, in fact, in Hawaii.

Sure, annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summits are snoozefests, memorable mostly for the outlandish local costumes festooned upon ranks of heads of state, who are then all corralled into an awkward photo-op. But this year, things went differently. U.S. President Barack Obama scrapped the traditional photo session, dubbing it “silly.” He was here after all at the start of a nine-day swing through Asia-Pacific, a trip that may be prove far from frivolous as Washington slowly extricates itself from a decade of imbroglios in the Middle East and faces up to its real strategic priority of the 21st century: Asia.

In recent years, the narrative surrounding the U.S. and its dealings with this part of the world has been gloomy — Washington is a humbled, distracted power, caught up in quagmires and gradually getting out-thought and out-maneuvered by rising global hegemon, China. That’s starting to change. In an essay for Foreign Policy this month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heralded “America’s Pacific Century,” enunciating the American ambition to reassert its influence in the region:

Harnessing Asia’s growth and dynamism is central to American economic and strategic interests and a key priority for President Obama…Our economic recovery at home will depend on exports and the ability of American firms to tap into the vast and growing consumer base of Asia. Strategically, maintaining peace and security across the Asia-Pacific is increasingly crucial to global progress, whether through defending freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, countering the proliferation efforts of North Korea, or ensuring transparency in the military activities of the region’s key players.

In other words, the 20th century’s Pax Americana — seen to be under threat by Beijing’s rise — is here to stay in the 21st century. At APEC, a trade conclave, Obama sealed widespread backing for a U.S.-sponsored trade zone dubbed the Trans-Pacific Paternship (TPP), a deal that would further integrate the U.S. with a number of leading economies in East Asia and Southeast Asia through shared protocols on labor rights, environmental protections and measures to combat the counterfeiting of goods. The pact is considered to be a challenge to Beijing, which has gone about setting up rival trade blocs. While no clear geo-political camps may ever emerge in Asia, some observers suggest most countries may prefer a reinvigorated U.S. presence to the uncertainties that lie behind Chinese supremacy. Ernest Bower, Southeast Asia program director at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, writes:

The rest of Asia wants to trade with China and to receive its investment and low-cost loans for infrastructure development, but it doesn’t want to be dominated by China. Much of Asia also rejects the idea of Chinese governance even in the commercial and economic space—a phenomenon that has been strengthened during the last year and a half as China has tested whether it could turn the screws on its Asian neighbors over questions of sovereignty in the South China Sea by leveraging its new economic dominance. Thrusts by Beijing have been parried.

(You can read more about those parried thrusts here.) The South China Sea will likely be on the agenda when Obama lands in Bali later this week to attend the East Asia Summit (EAS), another conclave where Washington will push back against China. Rhetoric will be framed throughout in genuinely pacific terms — emphasizing the importance of keeping shipping routes secure, lines of communication open — but that will hardly obscure a growing American steeliness. The forum may also present the White House with a pulpit to reassert Washington’s commitment to Southeast Asia’s fledgling democracies, whose tumultuous politics stand in stark contrast to Chinese authoritarianism.

Perhaps the most important stop Obama will make is in Australia, where he is scheduled to journey up to the northern port city of Darwin, site of strategic military installations the Australians will now allow Americans access. Growing alarm amongst Canberra strategists over potential threats posed by China’s rapidly expanding navy has pushed Australia, a longstanding ally, further back into the U.S.’s embrace. The Obama administration polls more favorably Down Under than the Bush administration did. How Beijing reacts to the latest developments is unclear — my colleague Austin Ramzy outlined last week what’s at stake.

Of course, part of Obama’s diplomatic mission is being conducted with an eye on looming foreign policy battles to be fought during the 2012 election campaign, as Michael Scherer writes on Swampland. But if its legacy stands up to its likely strong rhetoric, the trip could have implications that will last long after the next presidential term.