The Obama administration’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific continues to produce significant accomplishments for the United States and the region, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia told the Asia Society in a speech yesterday.
Since the administration announced its “pivot” – subsequently termed the “rebalance” – to the region in 2009, the United States has strengthened and modernized its alliances, invested heavily in ASEAN-led regional arrangements, established a constructive relationship with China, and built strong ties with other emerging powers like India and Indonesia, Daniel Russel, the Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said in prepared remarks.
“The result is a ‘new normal’ of relations with the region where big accomplishments have become a regular occurrence,” Russel said.
As evidence of this, Russel pointed to the busy last few months for U.S. Asia policy in 2015. In particular, he noted six key events, both past and future: the conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, whose 12 members account for about 40 percent of global GDP; Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States; the trilateral summit between Japan, South Korea, and China; Myanmar’s upcoming election; Obama’s attendance at Asian summits; and the climate conference in Paris.
“There’s a lot going on in our relations with the Asia-Pacific right now. We’re seeing a substantial return on our investment in the rebalance,” he said.
Beginning with the TPP, Russel said that while the trade pact does strengthen the American middle class and set favorable new rules for economic engagement, its real significance is its strategic role in demonstrating the sustained engagement of the United States in shaping an open, prosperous, rules-based region.
“[M]lost importantly from my perspective, TPP is a strategic agreement. It is the economic leg and the ‘crown jewel’ of the Obama rebalance strategy,” he said.
The agreement is still yet to be finalized, with text released earlier today and approval required by the U.S. Congress as well as in the other 11 countries currently part of the deal.
On U.S.-China relations, Russel said that the strength of the Obama administration’s approach to China is that it successfully obtained “unprecedented cooperation” in areas like climate change, counter-piracy, Iran, North Korea, and Afghanistan without trading these gains for U.S. silence or accommodation on problem areas like cybersecurity, the South China Sea, and human rights.
“Yes, we are building out areas of cooperation wherever our interests and policies align… but we don’t just ‘agree to disagree’ where they differ,” he said.
He noted Xi’s recent commitments on not conducting cyber-enabled theft for commercial gain and not militarizing the South China Sea, stressing that the administration was looking to see that these were followed through. On the South China Sea, he reiterated that Chinese behavior – including its artificial-island building – had raised “real concerns about China’s intentions.” The United States, he stressed, was committed to a stable, peaceful, and rules-based order protecting the rights of all countries big or small, as evidenced by the recent “transit” of the USS Lassen near one of China’s artificially-constructed islands, a move which Beijing deemed provocative.
“So the recent transit of a U.S. Navy ship near several of the disputed features serves as a reminder that international law applies to the South China Sea just like everywhere else,” he said.
Russel’s use of the word “transit” comes amid continued ambiguity about whether the event constituted a freedom of navigation operation or innocent passage. The latter could be read to mean that the United States accepts that feature in question, Subi Reef, is a rock entitled to a territorial sea of 12 nautical miles when it is in fact naturally a low-tide elevation – one that is above water only at low tide but otherwise submerged.
Russel said the trilateral meetings that occurred this past weekend in Seoul were a welcome development given the critical role that China, Japan, and South Korea play in both the security and economic realms. In particular, he said the United States hoped that the first summit between the leaders of U.S. allies South Korea and Japan could “become a regular occurrence.”
“Cooperation between these two democracies and friends, and together with us, is important to the region, and to the world,” he said.
Turning to developments that lie ahead, Russel said that while the international community will be watching Myanmar’s historic election after the country’s opening and reforms since 2011, much work remains to be done, particularly on human rights in the wake of discrimination against minorities – including the Rohingya – and measures like race and religion laws.
“The reform process has been imperfect, and is far from over, but Burma has a chance to hold a successful election: one that produces a new government that is more transparent, more legitimate, and more inclusive than before,” he said.
Russel also stressed the importance of Obama’s attendance at upcoming APEC and ASEAN meetings in the Philippines and Malaysia respectively, stressing that he would press a “forward-looking agenda” at these meetings designed to address not only regional issues but also global ones like terrorism as well as climate change ahead of talks in Paris.
He specifically highlighted the role of the East Asia Summit (EAS) – which the U.S. joined in 2011 under the Obama administration – as the premier leaders’ form for discussing political and security issues, including globally relevant ones like the Islamic State, Iran, and cybersecurity.
“It is helping us take the rebalance global, engaging key players in the Asia-Pacific on issues beyond the region,” he said.
As the EAS celebrates its first decade this year, Washington and others have been pushing for reforms within the institution that will further strengthen its role in this regard.
With a new U.S. president expected in January 2017 and regional anxieties in some quarters about the sustainability of U.S. policy, Russel also expressed confidence that the strong bipartisan support for the rebalance means it will continue on over the next few years.
“[T]hat gives me confidence that the strategic priority on the Asia-Pacific — the rebalance — will continue in the next administration, regardless of who occupies the White House,” he said.