Colleen Hanabusa is a Japanese-American member of Congress, where she represents Hawaii’s 1st congressional district. The Diplomat’s Justin McDonnell spoke with the Democrat recently about the U.S. commitment to Asia, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the role of Hawaii.
Many Asian nations are perplexed and concerned by what they see as the general dysfunction of the American political system. This concern seemed validated when President Barack Obama was forced to cancel an important trip to Southeast Asia during the federal government shutdown because Congress couldn’t agree on a continuing resolution. As a member of Congress, what would you say to people in the region who question whether the U.S. can commit to Asia when it can’t even keep its government open?
This has been an issue for a while. The concern in my conversations [with people in the region] has been more a matter of whether the United States will maintain a presence because they feel that we basically turned our back on the Asia-Pacific after 9/11. They view that as a result of us turning our backs on the Asia-Pacific, though we’ve never left the area as you know.
Hawaii’s strategic role has been unquestioned over this period, but the perception is that the United States turned its back on its Asia-Pacific allies to focus more on the Middle East. Many of them actually understand the ups and downs of our government. However, they want more of an assurance that we are truly committed to the Asia-Pacific pivot and they are looking for assurances in terms of what they see in our budgets and what we have before them.
One of the most experienced and true friends of Asia in the U.S. Congress, former Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), sadly passed away in late 2012. I know he was something of a mentor to you and his widow, Irene Hirano Inouye – who is the president of the U.S.-Japan Council – has endorsed you in your 2014 campaign for Sen. Inouye’s former seat. What aspects of Sen. Inouye’s incredible legacy influence you most in your work as a current member of the House and potentially as a future Senator?
The senator made a kind of dying wish that I be appointed to succeed him. That was also part of how strongly he felt about this. One of the things that I think people do not realize about the senator was that he was so far-sighted and he really did have a worldview. So he wasn’t only someone who concentrated on Asia, though I will tell you that many of the leaders in the Asia-Pacific feel such a great loss and when they meet me that’s one of the first things they tell me.
But also know that on Tuesday an unprecedented event took place in Israel, where the whole aerial missile simulation part of their defense was named in the senator’s honor. This was the first time a part of the Israeli defense was named after a non-Israeli, so even a country 8,664 miles away from Hawaii stood there and recognized the senator. There is no question I believe that if you are to look at what he has done and his legacy in the area, that you see amazing planning for many, many years – decades and decades – where he ensured Hawaii’s position as the center of the Asia-Pacific, by having the Pacific Command headquartered there, for example.
But not only that, it wasn’t only in terms of our military presence; it was also in terms of research. We have the best research facilities. The NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Center is now the Daniel K. Inouye Regional Center and [serves] the whole Pacific area. Much of what he foresaw as the success of the Asia-Pacific is in Hawaii but also as you said many of the leaders in the area also recognize this. Those who have spoken to me have expressed more than a deep loss but also a sense of who will be able to step forward and advocate for them with the kind of authority the senator had.
As the United States renews its focus on the Asia-Pacific, what are the greatest threats and opportunities it faces?
The greatest threat the United States faces is the fact that we have for so long for lack of a better description viewed ourselves as the hub, and we’ve negotiated and we’ve had our diplomatic relationships determined in a hub and spoke manner. We’ve seen ourselves as the center and we’ve had bilateral agreements, one country at a time. That is going to be a method that we cannot continue in the Asia-Pacific so the great opportunity is the ability for us to be the leader in a truly multinational kind of negotiation, in bringing all of the different countries together.
Even among other countries there are problems because of their long history. You know, we are a relatively young country compared to, for example, China, Japan and their histories. We tend to feel that they should be able to park their differences at the door and come in and you know everyone should get along. That’s not going to happen as easily as we would like to see. So the great opportunity for the United States is to be able to show our ability to be very statesmanlike and be able to negotiate with various countries.
Also, we must let countries resolve their differences or at least agree to what they will put aside for now, and help them develop a level of trust, which is the only way its going to happen. The major vantage is – I agree with the president – the 21st century is going to be determined by the Asia-Pacific and it’s going to be defined by whether we live in cooperation or we live in conflict. So this is our opportunity to show what we have learned from all the years of our leadership.
Many believe that the Asia pivot has really failed to materialize thus far. Do you agree with this view?
I think that a lot of that view is held because of the fact that we’ve had such a major focus on the negotiations of Secretary [of State John] Kerry in the Middle East. We’ve seen what’s going on. We have Syria, for example Iran, and now you have the issues going on with Russia and so forth, but I believe that the Asia-Pacific pivot – though people may feel that it is not well defined, say by this administration – it really actually is.
I don’t know if you’re aware of this but we just got word that from April 1-3, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will hold for the first time an ASEAN meeting of all of his counterparts in Hawaii. What that meeting shows you is the commitment, but it also shows you that it’s reaffirming for Hawaii. When Hillary Clinton was secretary of State, she said that as she was supporting the pivot to the Asia-Pacific and the gateway is Hawaii.
We see it rolling out so we see that what’s happening is though people may not be able to have a real grasp on what this means, what they have to realize is that the pivot to the Asia-Pacific is not just a military pivot. It is a total commitment: economic, cultural, trade, as well as a military presence.
There are growing concerns, not least of all in the U.S. Congress, about the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In your view, how important is the TPP for America’s overall position in Asia? Additionally, what is the likelihood that Congress will give President Obama trade promotion authority (TPA) and is ratification possible without it?
As you know, the TPP is one of four trade agreements that are part of this package that the president has negotiated. We haven’t seen the details of it yet; the only thing that we’ve heard potentially surfacing is the TPA. There are people who feel very strongly that the TPA should not be granting any president that kind of wide authority, because it’s seven years: four and an additional three with a unilateral extension by the president. Congress has a concern about its ability to be part of that negotiation and have a say on behalf of their respective constituencies. Remember also that President Clinton I believe negotiated over a hundred trade agreements and he did not have trade promotion authority for a lot of those, so the trade promotion authority allows a president to fast-track but I don’t believe historically we can say that without it these different kinds of treaties haven’t come about.
The TPP’s position is bringing together countries that we did not think would be part of the discussion and of course that includes Japan. But at the same time the success is going to be determined by the respective agreements. You have the original four who started what is now called the TPP, and then there was an additional five after that, and an additional three, so as the countries add on to these negotiations each one brings with them unique needs or positions, lines drawn in the sand, that is going to differentiate that country from other countries. So I think right now until we see more details, it’s going to be difficult to predict what Congress is going to do but I do know that there is rising concern, especially among Democrats, about the trade promotion authority.
Is there any potential for China to participate in the TPP?
I’ve been very interested in exactly that question. We all know that a major concern that many have, including our allies, is that if the United States and China were to join hands it would be a duel hegemonic power versus the idea that these various groups would be able to collectively negotiate. I think that China will not join these negotiations immediately but I do believe that it will continue to strike trade agreements separately from the TPP because it also would like to be considered a major power in the Asia-Pacific. It is, but I mean in terms of being able to set forth conditions, so I don’t see it joining any time soon.
If you look for example at how China has been playing with the United States, we have a lot of different kinds of training exercises that are going on, a lot of it in what we call HADR, the humanitarian assistance/disaster relief portion which our military does the best bar none, you will see that there is sort of an open door for them to see and hopefully for them to feel comfortable enough to at least participate in those activities. They are beginning to do that so it may be a while, but immediately, no, I don’t see them participating.
What role do you see Hawaii playing in Obama’s Asia strategy?
Hawaii is unique not only in terms of our geographic location, but I would like to think that one of the reasons why both President Obama as well as former Secretary Clinton had such a view of Hawaii being the gateway for the pivot to the Asia-Pacific is also tied to the uniqueness of our people. We have representation of almost every major Asian country in our state, so culturally Hawaii is able to feel and understand many of these countries. You know the East-West Center, for example, which is one of the early successes of Senator Inouye, probably started when he was just a member of the House.
The East-West Center and that blending of cultures from the whole Asia-Pacific area that we feel Hawaii can so uniquely represent is a major component of what Hawaii’s role will be. So not only do we have the major presence in terms of the military component, we have the diplomatic component. We also have different kinds of leaders who come and study at a whole variety of different kinds of think tanks that are located in Hawaii. It’s a natural environment for people to feel like they can all blend and they can all really accept each other’s cultures, as well as accept their differences, and be able to learn from all of that.
Some believe with the recent budget agreement, Congress might again take up the issue of immigration reform next year. Immigration in America is often discussed almost exclusively in terms of Hispanic immigrants but in fact the latest U.S. Census data found that Asians are the largest demographic group when it comes to immigration. How could Asians looking to immigrate to the United States be affected by immigration reform?
There are certain issues that are very dear to the Asian population. Because the percentage of representation is large, individual Asian population groups don’t call themselves Asians as much as they would call themselves Japanese-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Korean-Americans, Filipino-Americans, and East Indians for example. That’s how we identify them, so for example for Filipino-Americans or Filipino immigrants, one of the most critical issues for them is what we call reunification of families and this goes back to World War II. The Filipino veterans who fought alongside the U.S. were promised certain benefits like citizenship and the ability to have their families come. We retracted our position and as a result of that, many Filipino WWII veterans have not been able to be reunited with their adult children.
Immigration is very critical for that, and as you can imagine depending on what the immigration laws do, in terms of for example STEM-related kinds of visas that promote immigration or the ability to stay in the United States for those who are in engineering, and various kinds of sciences, that’s going to have a major impact as well.
So it will all depend on how that bill comes about and how in the House, how the majority decides to bring it forth. I like to think they will allow the types of immigration that we need, but they seem to be fixated on the borders on the continent, whether it’s the Latino issues vs. the Asian issues. I think that’s where you’ll maybe see some of the tensions but also the fact that they may be able to release some of the issues in terms of who can immigrate or whether reunification will become an issue. I tend to think that reunification is one of the most critical issues for the Asian population but as you know, that was one of the provisions that did not make it into the Senate bill.
The family and the cultural ties to the family are going to be a critical part for the Asian community.
For our readers at The Diplomat, could you tell us a little bit about the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and Asia Pacific Oversight Series?
One of the interesting parts of the pivot to the Asia-Pacific is the fact that even though I am a relatively new member of Congress, I am also the ranking member on a series of hearings that we’re going to have for five months on the pivot to the Asia-Pacific in terms of HASC and what it means. I believe that that was a function of my Republican colleague, the chair of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA) really believing that the pivot is a critical part of our future. He wanted someone to be ranking with him on these series because what it does is gives us the opportunity to truly say that the focus is on the Asia-Pacific and this is something that members of Congress have to begin to look at.
In addition to that, three of the greatest economies of the world are in the area, and a fourth of course being India and rising very quickly. And no one can in any way ignore the growth of South Korea as a great industrial power as well. When you put all of those things together it is a part of the world that we cannot ignore. More importantly than that, I’m glad that the president recognized that this is where it’s going to be; I think everyone is beginning to recognize the focus is the Asia-Pacific.
With this renewed focus toward Asia, what are some of the conversations Hawaiians are having amongst themselves?
What people in Hawaii have always spoken about is the uniqueness of our “neighbors” and our ability to understand different cultures, so I think for many people, they view the Asia-Pacific pivot as an extension of what we are. This is what we are. This is Hawaii. Hawaii is a blending of all of these cultures and also the ability to maintain our differences and respect each other’s differences.
I think what it comes down to as to how it affects relationships. I think that’s where you will see more focus on the discussion on the Asia-Pacific. I’m not sure that people are truly concentrating on what this means in terms of our relationship with Japan, if for example we are not able to find some common ground between Japan and Korea. I don’t think people are looking at those kinds of questions as much, but I think what you have though is more a sense of a common feeling in Hawaii.
If the world could be more like Hawaii then the world would be more at peace. We demonstrate the ability to live together and to coexist and to have each other’s cultures become so much a part of us, and I think that’s really the way people view it.