Late last month, I filed a story announcing the launch of the Pacific Partners Initiative (PPI) by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Lowy Institute for International Policy.
As part of that piece, I spoke with Ernie Bower, Director of the CSIS Southeast Asia Programme and head of PPI. Due to space and topic limitations, certain portions of our conversation weren’t included in that article, but I thought they were worth mentioning now.
One of the things we talked about was how Americans perceive the Asia-Pacific region. Bower told me he believes there’s a grave lack of understanding among the US public of how important the region is to US national interests.
‘Americans don’t understand the importance of the Asia-Pacific to our economic well-being and national security,’ he said. ‘ If they did, the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement would have been passed over two years ago and Defence Department plans to switch the balance of their focus to Asia would be well underway.’
The threat posed by this knowledge gap is so serious that some, including Bower, believe it should be elevated to a national security concern for policymakers.
‘For the sake of our security, we are an Asia-Pacific power. The US therefore will need to make difficult decisions over the next 20 years on a range of issues, from force posture to trade agreements, that will gradually re-orient the United States toward the east,’ he said. ‘Unfortunately, such decisions aren’t possible without public support, which ultimately requires a better understanding of regional issues.’
When asked how best to address the problem, Bower said that the first step is for policymakers to assume greater responsibility for engaging with the public. ‘I believe it’s the responsibility of American political leaders, particularly in the White House, to listen to understand the importance of Asia to the United States and talk about it consistently to the public,’ he said. ‘It has to be a priority and foreign engagement, trade and investment must be transformed from political “liabilities” in American politics to core competitiveness issues.’
But the solution also requires an investment in dedicated education and public awareness programmes. ‘We need to make these issues part of the nightly dinner table conversation around the country. Americans must understand that their jobs now depend on Asia and they must focus on providing products and services in areas where we are competitive,’ he said. ‘We also must take a critical look at education and make sure that Asian languages and other skills necessary for future generations to be competitive in Asia are part of the curriculum.’
If such programmes were implemented, Bower said he believes that Americans would better understand the importance of Asian growth to the United States’ economic future. ‘The growing Asian middle class – 400 million in China and 300 million in India alone – are creating new service opportunities where Americans would be competitive. Our failure to understand this is at our own peril.’
And, of course, there would also be obvious diplomatic and strategic benefits for peace and stability in the region. Since World War II, the United States has managed most Asia-Pacific security issues multilaterally and bilaterally through partnerships with key regional allies, including Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore. That list has even expanded to include new players, such as ASEAN and India, who will play an increasingly important role in the years ahead.
But Americans have grown complacent in their understanding of their traditional allies in the region, Bower said.
‘The average American looks at the region through general stereotypes. Australia serves as an afterthought for the average American and few understand how New Zealand shares common interests with the US. In general, there simply isn’t a good understanding of historical, let alone future economic and strategic, challenges and opportunities with our partners.’
Bower says Americans have also failed to evolve their understanding of the region to properly weight ASEAN and India as major actors. This is a huge strategic risk for policymakers given that the ‘US won’t be able to acculturate China into the existing rules’ without them.
Ultimately, this ties the public knowledge-gap on Asia-Pacific issues to the broader American debate over the threat posed by China. While rejecting the notion that China is by its nature a revisionist power, Bower nevertheless warns that ‘a rising China creates new dynamics in the Asia-Pacific. History teaches us that, if we ignore such rising powers and fail to engage them, we end up with world wars.’
Bower says the best form of future US-Chinese government to government engagement needs to be based on strong support from an informed public. This not only reduces the probability of a serious erosion in US-Chinese relations, but also provides a platform from which the two countries can deepen their relationship over time through increased social, cultural and economic ties.
Eddie Walsh is The Diplomat's Pentagon (accredited) correspondent and an MPhil/DPhil candidate in Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies. His work has been featured by ISN Insights, CSIS, The East Asia Forum, The Jakarta Globe and The Journal of Energy Security. He blogs at Asia-Pacific Reportingand can be reached at [email protected].