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U.S. Asia Policy: The Africa-Asia Angle

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Trans-Pacific View

U.S. Asia Policy: The Africa-Asia Angle

Insights from U.S. Ambassador Cameron Hume.

U.S. Asia Policy: The Africa-Asia Angle
Credit: U.S. Embassy Jakarta

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 Cameron Hume United States Ambassador to Algeria (1997-2000), South Africa (2001-2004), and Indonesia (2007-2010) is the eighth in “The Rebalance Insight Series.”

Ambassador Hume, your experiences as a career diplomat with posts in Africa and Asia give you a broad perspective on U.S. diplomacy in these emerging areas of the world. Asian countries – China, Japan, South Korea, and Indonesia, among others – are actively engaging African nations on a range of issues from infrastructure investment to natural resources to development aid. What are the key elements driving interlinkages between Africa and Asia?

The key interlinkage is trade and investment. This connection has been based on Asia’s need for raw materials, particularly in the metals sector, and Africa’s need for basic consumer goods. Now the equation is changing in several ways, becoming both more balanced and more complicated. Asian countries are major consumers of African energy, both petroleum and coal, and leading investors in this sector. Angola’s changed relationship with China is a case in point. Some lower wage manufacturing has moved from East Asia to Africa; one Chinese investor is building a shoe industry in Ethiopia, and others have moved textile plants to Africa. These changes reflect the increased integration of both regions in the global economy. I would caution against the occasional warning that China is about to take over the African economy to the exclusion of the continent’s ties to other markets.

From a U.S. foreign policy perspective, competition for influence seems to be emerging. What are the policy implications for U.S. interests?

U.S. economic interests in Africa have grown moderately over the past two decades, but the shift of the U.S. economy toward energy independence has changed the longer term pattern. This change is evident in the redirection of petroleum exports from Atlantic basin producers such as Nigeria and Angola toward Asia, although the U.S. petroleum industry remains heavily engaged as investors and producers. The most significant shift this century has been the shift of official interest from the decolonization conflicts of Southern Africa toward the clashes inside states stretching east-west across Africa in the zone south of the Sahara. While U.S. observers see this mostly as part of the “war” on violent extremism, the problem arises from the failure of weak states to provide adequate governance: Public services are a shambles, people turn toward religious zealots for guidance, and state authority disappears. Just look at the mess radiating from Libya as a result of chaos. Without better governance in Africa most people will stay and suffer dire consequences, but others will flee to Europe, South Africa, and elsewhere. Against this background I think any competition between the U.S. and Asian countries in Africa can be more beneficial than harmful.

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo faces domestic political challenges in portraying himself as a pragmatic reformer and strong international leader. How would you assess his leadership style and its implications for handling regional challenges, such as the South China Sea, and relations with a post-Obama White House?

President Widodo’s election was primarily a reflection of domestic Indonesian concerns. Although for two generations this huge country has pursued moderate foreign policy goals in conjunction with its ASEAN neighbors, no doubt a strong sense of nationalism is part of Indonesia’s political personality. Any Indonesian president is challenged to harness that energy in support of the country’s international goals. President Widodo will find his path. Regarding regional challenges, Indonesia has a long-standing approach to the South China Sea issues: Apply the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, seek a common ASEAN procedural approach, and negotiate the issues. China’s insistence on negotiating separately with individual ASEAN members conflicts with Indonesia’s preferred regional approach. China’s building of islands conflicts with Indonesia’s preferred negotiation approach. In case of any escalation to the point that force is used, Indonesia, guided by its consensus-seeking strategy of asserting leadership by balancing contending parties, will condemn the escalation, propose a negotiating process, and avoid any military engagement. President Widodo may not involve himself personally unless there is an escalation that puts ASEAN states on opposing sides. As for relations with the United States, both sides have a responsibility to grow the bilateral relationship, and the opportunity to do that will continue after the next U.S. election. 

How would you evaluate U.S. rebalance to Asia thus far?

Official Washington is now re-learning that events more than anything else determine a country’s foreign relations. Despite the exit of U.S. forces from Iraq and the impending exit of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, events in that region have clouded the picture of a decisive pivot toward Asia. I hope the recent drama in Washington over “fast-track” authority from Congress for trade negotiations was a real tipping point that gives substance to the declared policy. Now it is time to complete the negotiations. When in a few months President Obama hosts his counterparts from Vietnam, China, and Indonesia on separate visits to Washington, he will have a good stage to explain his vision for relations between the United States and Asia.

With the current line-up of U.S. presidential candidates, how should they explain the importance of U.S. engagement with Asia to their constituents and the American public?

The United States needs a foreign policy adapted to the challenges of the 21st century, a policy of strong convictions and a readiness to work with others. Policy toward Asia, or toward Japan or China, should be part of the overall policy, reflecting the same convictions we lead with elsewhere. For example, I hope a candidate explains that the current round of trade negotiations with Pacific Rim countries and those with the European Union are to establish rules that both benefit the United States and set global standards that will build a stronger and safer international order. It is not just about being self-interested, but about leading. It is not about disadvantaging another nation, but about finding opportunity for all. The world wants the United States to be led by a person who will take this great nation confidently into the future.

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.