US Asia Strategy: Emerging Risks For The Next US President
Image Credit: The White House

US Asia Strategy: Emerging Risks For The Next US President


The Rebalance authors Mercy Kuo and Angie Tang regularly engage subject-matter experts, policy practitioners and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. rebalance to Asia. This conversation with Professor Carla FreemanDirector of the Foreign Policy Institute at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and Director of the China Program at Johns Hopkins University – is the sixteenth in “The Rebalance Insight Series.”

Has the U.S. rebalance to Asia achieved its goals or is it still a work in progress?

Entangling security challenges outside the Asia Pacific continue to add layers of difficulty to the Obama administration’s plans to re-weight its commitment in its foreign and security policy toward economic, military and diplomatic engagement with the region. The shifts of naval assets to the region, deeper defense cooperation with allies, U.S. participation in the East Asia Summit, and diplomacy to support democracy in Myanmar are all among many new moves that can be attributed to the rebalance. But some of the rebalance’s signature programs, namely the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), continue to stumble toward implementation, while China’s recent regional initiatives, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), complicate the rebalance’s objective of shaping the region’s institutions and architecture. With the rebalance now framed as a set of sustained strategic goals to intensify and strengthen commercial interactions with the Asia-Pacific and to respond to security challenges in the region, the rebalance is going to be a work in progress for the long-term or until a new administration sets different policy priorities.

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What are the top three emerging risks to Asia’s strategic environment over the next decade?

Leaving aside specific and more immediate areas of concern to regional security – violent extremism, nuclear proliferation, terrorist and cyber threats, or territorial disputes, for example – the region is experiencing what I’ll bracket as transitional dynamics that go hand in hand with multiple risks. Picking the top three: first, regional security competition can be expected to intensify, raising the risk of violent conflict, amid regional power dynamics shifting rapidly with China’s ascent and the emergence of new power centers like India with their own ambitions and priorities, alongside a United States that appears committed to sustaining its power projection capabilities in the region. Second, and related to the first point, there are domestic political transitions across the region, adding new uncertainties to regional interactions and also reflecting a pattern of intensifying nationalism that could be accompanied by militarism. Lastly, the human security effects of a rapidly changing global climate are an increasingly salient risk. Significant population displacements from sea level rises in low lying parts of continental Asia, as well as in archipelagic countries and small island states in the region, will test the region’s capabilities to cope on a scale that could dwarf the current flows of refugees from Middle East conflicts that Europe is finding so difficult to manage.

What are the implications of the P5+1 Iran Nuclear Deal on North Korea’s nuclear developments and more broadly, Asia’s security architecture?

Regarding the potential of the P5+1 deal in galvanizing progress on North Korea’s nuclear program, that’s a hope all Six Party Talk participants clearly share – with the exception of the pivotal actor, North Korea. North Korea has used the media attention it has received in the wake of the Iran deal to reject Iran-style nuclear talks and to assert its status as a nuclear power. North Korea is very different from Iran, which had not developed nuclear weapons and had long asserted that nuclear weapons were not the endgame of its enrichment program, conditions enabling the talks to focus on how to regulate Iran’s civilian nuclear capacity.

Notably, China had taken the opportunity following the announcement of the P5+1 deal to highlight its constructive role in the Iran negotiations and to suggest that the talks could be a “positive reference” for the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula, as well as for other regional hot spots. North Korea’s categorically negative response plus Kim Jong-un’s decision not to attend the World War II commemoration events in Beijing are evident that a chill in Sino-North Korean relations persists, making it harder for China to get North Korea to the table. Kim was noticeably absent from China’s celebration marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, attended by South Korea’s Park Geun-hye. When Park and China’s President Xi Jinping met during her three-day visit to Beijing, the two leaders took the opportunity to announce their agreement to work together to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program and called jointly for a resumption of the Six Party Talks. There is as yet no indication that this effort by Beijing and Seoul to use the positive atmosphere created by the Iran deal to restart nuclear talks with North Korea will get anywhere, but it does represent a commitment by states in the region to find a multilateral solution to a regional security challenge. It should be noted that when China, Japan and South Korea meet in a trilateral summit in late October or early November of this year, there are strong indications that the Six Party Talks will be on the agenda.

How might the next U.S. president bolster American leadership in the Asia Pacific?

In seeking to strengthen its international leadership, the U.S. still does not give enough consideration to sources of leadership beyond military power. Leadership is a role that is made possible and bolstered by actions that enhance American prestige abroad and with it American influence in the region, including over its norms – and I think that’s what the U.S. hopes for, what would serve its interests, because Asia will then continue to be a source of growing economic opportunity for the U.S. A key wellspring of prestige is how well the U.S. manages affairs at home. The more the U.S. demonstrates that it has the ability to make its own institutions work for American prosperity and to tackle 21st century challenges, the more its international and regional prestige will grow internationally and in the region.

In addition to this general prescription, it is also critical that the U.S. conducts itself as a regional stakeholder rather than as a powerful outside arbiter of regional affairs. This means that the U.S. should engage as a member in institutions that involve the regional community broadly, continue to deepen trade and investment ties throughout the region, and work with other countries in the delivery of public goods that serve our interest in promoting a stable and secure environment for trade and investment. On this last point – the United States is interacting with countries in the region that are increasingly confident about their capabilities and conscious of their role in shaping this century. The region is likely to be the source of more initiatives, such as the AIIB, and it seems clear that the U.S. is better served by engaging in these initiatives from the ground up as much as it can to help shape them so that they are compatible with American norms and interests – a boss might drive but a leader leads. The U.S. must deal with the challenges of intensifying military competition from and among rising powers in the region, but it will find itself better able to effect regional development by weaving itself into the region’s growing fabric of institutions and deepening networks of trade and production.

If the next U.S. president had a first 100-days plan upon assuming office, what key priorities for Asia policy and China should be in that plan?

The world will undoubtedly look quite different than we expect by the time January 2017 rolls around, but I suspect many of today’s challenges will remain. I think the rebalance will have countered the perception that American commitments to the region are diminishing. I would advise building on the positive gains from the rebalance policy and amending some of its less constructive consequences. Among the priorities, the new president would be well-served to select a top Asia-Pacific policy team for the cabinet and in senior ranks below that level, comprising officials all of whom had some Asia experience and knowledge of Asian history. I would seek to include officials with experience in the emerging regional powers, including China. Unlike the rebalance, which came late in Obama’s first term in office – although it built on many initiatives begun well before then – the next president should came to office with strategic clarity, even a strategic “doctrine,” to guide his or her approach to Asia that should be articulated soon after assuming office. My preference would be that this would emphasize economic and multilateral engagement as well as sustaining the U.S. regional security role.

U.S. Asia strategy would be aimed at enhancing U.S. interests in the region broadly, with our approach toward emerging powers, including China, integrated into this overarching blueprint. Specifically, the president should announce plans to attend summits in the region and to routinely engage with regional leaders, including scheduling an early visit to the region with stops at minimum in Japan, South Korea, and China. I would encourage the next president to identify goals that serve both regional and American interests that can or must be addressed through cooperation, such as nuclear security, counter-terrorism, improved regional civilian and military cooperation for managing environmental change and emergency response, and mechanisms for financial stability. On the domestic front, I would suggest the president convene a U.S. governors meeting on the Asia Pacific aimed at helping states maximize benefits from trade and investment ties with the region. And, recognizing the power of people-to-people ties, I would suggest initiating a plan to expand educational opportunities for American students across the region through the expansion of language programs and scholarships for study abroad.

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