New Leaders Forum

In Light of the Pivot, Finding Tomorrow’s Asia Experts

After a decade’s gaze on the Middle East, America needs people who know Asia, says Eric Sayers.

Discussions about America’s “rebalancing” to the Asia-Pacific region to this point have focused on the rhetoric and resources surrounding the effort. But after more than a decade of America’s aspiring foreign policy practitioners choosing and being directed to language training and graduate programs focused on terrorism and the Middle East, we will also need a successful rebalancing of our human capital to the Asia-Pacific region to posture the United States for success. Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said as much last month at the annual CNAS conference: “We have now built an unbelievable cadre of people that can tell you every aspect about how to do post-conflict reconstruction… What I am hoping for and what I believe will be necessary […] is to build a similar cohort of people that are deeply, profoundly knowledgeable about Asia.”

While it is difficult to quantify the challenge the U.S. faces after a decade of focusing on the Middle East, I can attest that amongst my cohorts in Washington D.C. there exists a stark imbalance of Asia-focused experts age 25-35. This is true across the foreign policy spectrum: in think tanks, non-governmental organizations, graduate programs, at the State and Defense Departments, and on Capitol Hill. Part of this can be attributed to a decade of intense focus on the Middle East by the U.S. government and other international organizations, creating droves of career paths focused on the region. This in turn prompted graduate programs to align themselves to meet this demand, creating a new generation of terrorism, post-conflict reconstruction, and Middle East experts; NGOs that focused on the region to gain new notoriety; and think tank centers and fellowship positions to support the intellectual thrust.

As one small example of this shift, at a recent gathering I attended of 30 young foreign policy experts from around town we began the meeting by going around the room and saying our name, affiliation, and the last country we visited. To no one's surprise, only one other person and myself an Asian country as their most recent foreign destination, while almost everyone else cited a Middle East or North African state.

Consistent with Secretary Campbell’s advice, if the United States wants to continue to shape a more peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Asia-Pacific, it will need to cultivate a new generation of knowledgeable Asia experts that have spent considerable time in the region learning its political, economic, cultural, historical, and geographic contours, building language skills, and expanding personal relationships.

How can we begin to build and invest in future Asia Hands? Just like the last decade, if our government and intellectual institutions continue to shift their focus to the region, a demand for Asia experts will follow. The better question for my generation and those just beginning to chart their career path, then, is how young, talented individuals with an interest in foreign policy can chart an Asia-focused career path for themselves.

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A few suggestions from a junior Asia Hand:

Learn a language. The most obvious, but critical, decision to be made. Although I have focused on defense policy in the region and am guilty of not taking my own advice, committing to an Asian language in University (and even High School, if possible) is a big hammer in the career toolbox. And while Mandarin speakers will be essential, we must also focus on Korean, Japanese, and a host of other languages from across South East Asia. One intensive way to study language that friends have chosen is the Middlebury Language School in Vermont. Another is the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC) in Monterey California.

“Asia” doesn’t just mean “China.” The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is of course a focal point for discussing the region’s economic and strategic future. But we cannot forget that the “Asia-Pacific” contains some of the most exciting states in the world, from India in the west to states like Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia in the south. The ongoing political transformation in Burma over the last two years rivals the Arab Spring. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) continues to pose challenges to security on the Korean Peninsula. Finally, the United States maintains a host of alliances (with Japan, Republic of Korea, Philippines, Thailand, and Australia) that will help it play a major role in shaping the future of the region.

Get out of town! The best way to learn about Asia is to go there. It as simple as that. Too many in the foreign policy field make it to D.C. and then believe they’ve made it. Instead of becoming an “armchair” regional analyst, we need to be learning Asia by engaging with its people, culture, and politics. Even today, only 10% of students who chose to study abroad are choosing Asia (with well over 50% still heading to Europe). London, Paris, and Berlin are a fun time, but our generation should be seizing the opportunity to study a language in Tokyo or Beijing, economics in Singapore or Hong Kong, or history in Manila or Sydney. Other opportunities from Fulbright scholarships to the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program also present themselves. Think tanks in the region also offer opportunities, including the Lowy Institute in Sydney and the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo.

Get a degree…in Asia. Individuals in the foreign policy community who have not focused on Asia in their early career and are considering a Masters degree should consider studying in the region. Many American Universities have set up affiliate programs or dual degree programs with Asian affiliates in recent years. Columbia University, for instance, has a dual degree program (in English) with the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. Singapore also is home to the S. Rajaratnam School of International Affairs, which offers English Masters programmes in Strategic Studies, Asian Studies, International Relations, and International Political Economy, as well as a PhD program (I attended RSIS in 2009-2010 along with a handful of other American students). Other programs worth looking at are De La Salle University in Manila, Philippines, The Diplomatic Academy in Hanoi, Vietnam, and Australian National University in Canberra, Australia.

Connect to other 'Asia Hands'. A number of programs/networks exist that help to connect perspective young Asia scholars with one another. In DC, Young Professionals in Foreign Policy is a good way to meet others who focus on international relations, including Asia. The Young Leaders program at Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu is another great network. Pacific Forum organizes over a dozen conferences each year throughout the Asia-Pacific and invites individuals from its Young Leaders program to take part in Track 2 and Track 1.5 dialogues. The East-West Center in Honolulu also offers a range of scholarships, fellowships, and exchanges to bring Asia-focused individuals together. It also never hurts to be proactive and reach out to professors, think tank fellows, or government official working on Asia issues to ask them to share their experiences. When I was starting out I found this was an invaluable way to understand the broader community and learn how each individual and organization connected to one another.

Write on this blog! The Diplomat has its own “New Leaders Forum” page, a space just for young Asia watchers to offer their insights into the diplomatic, strategic, economic, or cultural events of the week. This online magazine has become one of the most widely-read discussion venues for Asia-specific issues. If you are in undergrad , working on a graduate degree, or further along in your career, contributing a piece to The Diplomat for publication is a great way to hone your writing skills and engage in the discussion with a global audience.

Whether we have an Obama II or Romney I Administration next January, the United States’ effort to refashion its time, energy, and resources to the Asia-Pacific region will continue. Resourcing this effort will not just require new diplomatic and military resources, but also a cadre of Asia Hands with deep knowledge of the region. The years ahead present a great opportunity for aspiring foreign policy thinkers to choose a career path focused on the Asia-Pacific region.

Eric Sayers is the Defense Policy Advisor to a U.S. Congressman on the House Armed Services Committee in Washington D.C.. He previously completed an M.Sc. degree in Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and worked as a Sasakawa Peace Foundation fellow at the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu, Hawaii. The views expressed here are his alone. He can be reached at [email protected].