Trans-Pacific View

Engaging Asia: US Clarity Essential to Bolster Alliances

Insights from Xenia Wickett

Engaging Asia: US Clarity Essential to Bolster Alliances
Credit: The White House

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 Xenia Wickett – Project Director, United States; Dean, The Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs, Chatham House – is the seventh in “The Rebalance Insight Series.”

In a Chatham House Report on Asia-Pacific security you observed, “Despite President Obama’s announcement of the U.S. strategic rebalancing towards Asia, America’s friends and allies are increasingly less confident of what position it will take in the region.” To what do you attribute this lack of confidence?

Key trends in recent years are changing the environment in which the United States and others act. First, the challenges being faced are becoming more global – the U.S. is a necessary but no longer sufficient actor to respond. They are also multiplying – the traditional threats of state-on-state conflict are being added to by the non-traditional such as pandemics, terrorism and cyber warfare. Second, the social construct under which we’ve been living for many decades no longer adds up – so more choices are going to have to be made between spending on areas such as security, education, infrastructure, and welfare. Given these trends, America’s role in the world is transitioning – something clearly seen in its actions in Europe and the Middle East – and this gives rise to uncertainty. This lack of clarity leads to a lack of confidence.

If you had to describe U.S. relations with six allies or partners mentioned in the report – Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea – as strong, steady or spent, how would you rate each? 

All of these six relationships that the U.S. has in the region are strong. They are based on common values and interests: a mutual desire for security and stability in the region. They all hold the view that any disagreements over territory or other issues must be settled transparently and through dialogue rather than through conflict. Arguably the newest of these, with India, today has the most potential for progress. Major steps forward have been taken over the past decade, building on the July 2005 announcement of the nuclear deal during then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Washington and continuing, more recently, with the agreement of a new ten-year defense framework. With the changes taking place in Japan, the U.S. relationship there also has great potential.

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What is your assessment of the U.S. rebalance to Asia and its implications for Europe?

As we note in our report, Asia-Pacific Security: A Changing Role for the US, it is important to remember that the U.S. rebalance to Asia has really been taking place for over two decades, since the presidency of George H. W. Bush. It mirrors a similar refocus that many other states are making, in large part in light of the economic growth stemming from the region. Europe too is focused on the region for principally commercial reasons. The trade routes through, for example, the Malacca Straits, account for approximately 25 percent of global trade and 27 percent of global seaborne oil trade. At the same time, there are long-term security concerns in the region with China, India, North Korea, Pakistan and Russia having nuclear capabilities and defense spending in Asia growing at one of the fastest rates globally.

The United States has, for many years, been trying to focus its strategic attention on this region. But that does not mean that there is a lack of attention on other areas of the world from the Middle East to Europe. The U.S. would, in fact, like to work more closely with Europe on the Asia-Pacific region.  

From your vantage point of training the next generation of foreign policy strategists and practitioners, what three core leadership qualities will the next U.S. president need to fortify American leadership in the Asia Pacific? 

Most importantly for the next U.S. president, he or she will have to lay out a vision for where the world is, and what America’s role is within it. While it is apparent that the world is in a transitional state, new actors – state and non-state alike – are becoming more important and the challenges we face are becoming more interlinked and complex. In doing this, he or she will need to listen to what U.S. partners and allies want to achieve in the region.

Second, he or she will need to communicate this vision for America’s role and, as importantly, explain how the U.S. sees its relationships with its allies and partners and how they can work together. This will require discussion and collaboration.

Finally, the next U.S. president will need to act to support his or her rhetoric. They will need to follow up their explanation and vision with action to reinforce it, so that words and action come together. This does not necessarily mean more resources in the region. But it means a clear message, reinforced through multiple channels, so that America’s partners know what the U.S. will do and what they should do in return. 

As you survey the current field of U.S. presidential candidates, how should they articulate a vision for U.S. engagement with Asia on the campaign trail? 

Each of the candidates will have understood and analyzed how they see the world as they go into the election campaign. They will have to fully understand what they see as the major trends globally and in the region. And they need to be able to express this vision clearly to the public both at home and abroad.

It is clear that as we approach the global challenges from natural resource constraints to climate change, pandemics and terrorism, that like-minded nations and actors will need to work together to address these challenges.  In many cases, historically, these multilateral institutions were set up by the U.S. and Europe. However, in many of these cases, the actors must include partners in the Asia-Pacific such as Japan, India, Indonesia and China. Climate change can only be addressed in cooperation with China and India, respectively the largest and fourth largest emitters of greenhouse gases. Indonesia could be an invaluable partner in bringing together the Islamic world with the western.

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The candidates need to explain to the American people, and to the publics in the countries concerned, how important it will be for the United States to work closely with many of these nations to move the agenda forward on these and other issues.

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.