Why Asia Wants America

Why Asia Wants America

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I met this month with a business delegation from Malaysia, and one of them said to me: “Senator McCain, when we look at America these days, you seem totally dysfunctional. Your political system seems incapable of making the basic decisions to fix your fiscal problems and project resolve to the world.” And by the way, he said, “some in Asia are citing these failings to undermine the confidence that your friends still have in you.” I couldn’t disagree with him.

This is an enormous problem. And it raises doubts about our commitment in the Asia-Pacific region. While it’s wrong to speak of a “pivot” to Asia, the idea that we must rebalance U.S. foreign policy with an increasing emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region is undoubtedly correct. The core challenge we face is how to make this rebalancing effort meaningful, because at the moment, amid all of our political and fiscal problems, we run the risk of over-promising and under-delivering on our renewed commitment across the Pacific.

It’s difficult to overstate the gravity of the choices before us right now. We face immediate decisions that will determine the vector of American power in the Asia-Pacific region – diplomatically, economically, and militarily – for decades to come. We have to get our bearings right. If we fail, we’ll drift off course and fall behind. However, if we get these big decisions right, we can create the enduring conditions to expand the supply of American power, to strengthen American leadership, and to secure America’s national interests across the Pacific.

After all, while the context in Asia is changing, U.S. interests in Asia have not. We still seek the same objectives we always have: the ability to prevent, deter, and if necessary, prevail in a conflict; the defense of U.S. allies; the extension of free trade, free markets, free navigation, and free commons in air, sea, space, and now cyber. And above all, the maintenance of a balance of power that fosters the peaceful expansion of human rights, democracy, rule of law, and the many other values that we share with increasing numbers of Asian citizens.

None of these interests is directed against any other country, including China. The continued peaceful development of China is in our interest. We reject the notion that the United States wants to contain China or that we seek a new Cold War in Asia, where countries are forced to choose between the United States and China.

In short, the question we must answer is: Can we in the United States make the big strategic decisions right now that will position us for long-term success in Asia?

One of those big decisions pertains to trade. It’s often said that the business of Asia is business, but when it comes to trade, the United States has been sitting on the sidelines, and Asia is sprinting forward without us. After four years, this administration still hasn’t concluded or ratified a single free trade agreement of its own making. It took them until last year just to pass the FTAs with Korea, Colombia, and Panama that the Bush administration had concluded. Meanwhile, since 2003, China has secured nine FTAs in Asia and Latin America alone. It’s negotiating five more, and it has four others under consideration.

And it isn’t just China. The Japanese prime minister announced this month that he wants Japan to begin negotiations on a free trade area with China and South Korea. India is now negotiating an FTA with the European Union. And yet, we won’t even conclude a narrower Bilateral Investment Treaty with India, let alone a full FTA, as we should. As of last year, one report found that Asian countries had concluded or were negotiating nearly 300 trade agreements – none of which included the United States of America. The launch of the Trans-Pacific Partnership has brightened this picture a bit, but a deal may be years off – if it happens at all.

Instead, we should be moving forward with a bilateral trade agenda, starting with India and Taiwan. We should also move more aggressively on a multilateral track. The Trans-Pacific Partnership splits the ASEAN countries. We either need to bring all of the ASEAN countries into the Trans-Pacific Partnership or push for a formal U.S.-ASEAN free trade agreement. The bottom line is that U.S. long-term strategic and economic success requires an ambitious trade strategy in Asia.

A second decision with enormous implications is our regional force posture. We all share the same goals – strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance, while maintaining our strategic commitments in the Asia-Pacific region through a robust presence of forward-deployed military forces. Like many of you, however, some of us on the Senate Armed Services Committee were critical of the previous plan to realign U.S. forces on Okinawa and Guam, which had become totally unaffordable. The costs of the Guam move alone had doubled in seven years to more than $20 billion.

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