Trans-Pacific View

U.S. Asia Policy: Past, Present and Future

Recent Features

Trans-Pacific View

U.S. Asia Policy: Past, Present and Future

Veteran senior diplomat Nicholas Platt offers insights on U.S. foreign policy.

U.S. Asia Policy: Past, Present and Future
Credit: Asia Society

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 Ambassador Nicholas Platt – U.S. ambassador to Zambia (1982-84), Philippines (1987-1991) and Pakistan (1991-1992), and President Emeritus of Asia Society – is the third in “The Rebalance Insight Series.”

As a former U.S. diplomat with a career spanning 34 years, you have served in key diplomatic posts in Washington and throughout Asia at the height of U.S. global leadership. You accompanied President Richard Nixon to China in 1972 on a historic trip marking the rapprochement of U.S.-China relations. As a U.S. foreign policy practitioner and strategic thinker, you understand the importance of statesmanship and strategy. What are ways in which the next U.S. president can forge an effective U.S. policy toward Asia? 

The next president should start by ordering, and participating personally, in an interagency review of policy toward Asia coordinated by the National Security Council. The result should be an agreed series of long-term goals and objectives, squarely addressing differences in the diplomatic, economic and national security fields. This should provide a strategic framework to guide day-to-day policy decisions. An annual review should measure the extent to which the administration has succeeded in implementing these strategic guidelines.

What is your assessment of the U.S. rebalance to Asia, and how do you see it evolving in a post-Obama presidency?

The U.S. has played a balancing role in Asia since the end of World War II. From 1945 to 1989 we operated as the counterweight to the Soviet Union. With the Soviet Union gone, Asian nations now count on the United States to balance Beijing’s rising power. The current increase in the number of actual U.S. military forces redeployed to Asia is relatively small given our continued global responsibilities in Europe and the Middle East. But, our new policy emphasis on Asia is real, reflecting the region’s cumulative growth in economic, diplomatic and military power in the region.

We need to remember that containment and balance are different concepts. China is too big to contain, and has become a major trading and investment partner of all the countries in Asia, as well as the United States. U.S. policy should not aim to force our allies to choose sides. But, China’s neighbors take comfort in the traditional balancing role of the U.S., especially when China is behaving aggressively. This dynamic will continue long after the Obama administration ends, and as long as the United States maintains its levels of power. 

How would you evaluate current efforts of Washington and Tokyo to bolster the U.S.-Japan alliance? Is there substance beyond the symbolism of Prime Minister Shinzo Abes recent visit with President Obama?

The newly agreed operational guidelines for Japan’s security cooperation with the U.S. permit Japan to provide more military support to the U.S. in the region, and definitely add substance to the symbolism of the recent Abe-Obama meetings. The Chinese have taken note and understand the significance of U.S.-Japan relations. I remember Deng Xiaoping telling Secretary of Defense Harold Brown in 1980 that Japan was America’s most important relationship in Asia. Then, of course, the U.S.-Japan alliance was protecting the People’s Republic of China against the Soviet Union. The situation is different now, but all sides understand the function of balance.

What three key characteristics or skills will the next U.S. president need to navigate U.S.-China relations in terms of global power-sharing?

1) Determination to identify and pursue practical joint long term goals; 2) confidence in U.S. strength to share power, while competing successfully in areas where we excel; and 3) patience and sense of history to enable the U.S. and China, in Dr. Henry Kissinger’s term, to “co-evolve” in peace.

As you observe the current field of U.S. presidential candidates – Democrats and Republicans – how should they articulate a vision for U.S. engagement with Asia on the campaign trail?

The Chinese have become accustomed over the years to China bashing and harsh rhetoric during U.S. presidential campaigns. They know, however, that reality is the principal policy maker for U.S. governments and that whoever wins, whatever they may have said [while campaigning], will return to the pragmatic continuity of the policies followed by eight past presidents.

That said, Beijing will be listening carefully. Candidates who articulate an informed, practical approach to U.S. engagement in Asia, stick up for their principles and their old friends (including Chinese), and espouse peaceful engagement across the region will earn respect in Asia and votes at home. Facilitating China’s participation in the new Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement now under negotiation would be a good example of the approach I describe.

Mercy A. Kuo is an advisory board member of CHINADebate and was previously director of the Southeast Asia Studies and Strategic Asia Programs at the National Bureau of Asian Research. Angie O. Tang is Senior Advisor of Asia Value Advisors, a leading venture philanthropy advisory firm based in Hong Kong.