Less than one month into 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry visited Laos, Cambodia, and China, U.S. President Barack Obama welcomed Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to the White House, and Secretary Kerry and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter hosted their Philippine counterparts for a 2+2 ministerial meeting. The pace of top-level engagement with Asia-Pacific leaders will accelerate in February when President Obama hosts a landmark summit with all ten ASEAN leaders at Sunnylands.
Already scheduled to visit Japan in July for the G7 summit, Laos in September for the East Asia Summit, Vietnam before or after Laos, and China in September for the G20 summit, President Obama is set to blow by President George W. Bush’s record for the most visits by a U.S. president to countries in the region. In the first seven years of his presidency, Obama’s seven trips to Asia have been a major pillar of the “new normal” of U.S. engagement in Asia that Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Danny Russell often touts.
Presidential attention has contributed to substantial gains for the United States in Asia during the Obama administration – a successful conclusion to the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, agreements for military access in Southeast Asia and Oceania, a historic climate agreement with China, and new guidelines to modernize the U.S.-Japan alliance, among others. These accomplishments leave a substantial legacy on which the next U.S. president can build even deeper ties with the region.
But a key, underappreciated element of the administration’s focus on Asia has been the construction of an intricate architecture for engagement with the region that was only beginning to take shape before 2009. These vehicles have been essential to the Obama administration’s progress in deepening ties throughout the region and will also help the next U.S. president to build on Obama’s success in Asia.
While a robust framework for engagement with Europe developed during the Cold War – regular NATO summits, G7/8 summits, innumerable NATO Ministerial Meetings – relatively few structures existed in the Asia-Pacific to force U.S. leaders to focus attention on Asia. As a result, for decades, when Presidents and cabinet officials looked at their commitments for the year, they saw a raft of transatlantic meetings and very few requirements to engage with Asia. This manifested itself in meager top-level travel to the region — Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and H.W. Bush each made only two trips to Asia during their presidencies; Presidents Truman and Kennedy did not make any. And the travels of their Secretaries of State and other cabinet members followed a similar pattern.
The pace of presidential travel to Asia began to increase substantially under President Clinton, largely due to the establishment of APEC, which put a mark on the calendar for Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama to travel to Asia, at least during years when an Asian country would chair APEC. But this still did not mean Clinton and Bush always had a reason to travel to Asia, as they failed to travel to the region when the APEC summit took place in the Americas (1997 and 2004) and Oceania (1999, 2007).
President Obama’s decision to join the East Asia Summit was, critically, a commitment for the President of the United States to visit an ASEAN country every year, for the first time creating the kind of structure for Presidential engagement with Asia that has existed with Europe (but also still doesn’t exist for the Middle East or Africa) for decades. As a result, in years in which APEC is not held in Asia, like 2016, the president will still travel to Southeast Asia to attend the East Asia Summit, which this year will make Obama the first U.S. President to visit Laos. President Obama’s decision to hold regular U.S.-ASEAN leaders summits on the sidelines of UN General Assembly meetings and elsewhere has also raised the bar for U.S.-ASEAN leaders-level engagement.
Obama’s secretaries of state and defense have also been busy created an architecture for regular engagement with Asia that goes far beyond ad hoc bilateral visits. Together, the Secretaries of State and Defense have expanded the use of “2+2” meetings at the cabinet level, which had previously typically only been done with Japan and Australia, to include such meetings with allies South Korea and the Philippines. Moreover, with Australia, rather than having deputy secretaries stand in at the annual 2+2 Australian-United States Ministerial consultations (AUSMIN), as took place under previous administrations, AUSMIN has been attended by the cabinet secretaries every year since 2009. Perhaps most importantly, the secretaries of state and treasury have joined forces for the annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, now bringing together more U.S. officials for this meeting than any other event on the diplomatic calendar.
Secretaries of State Clinton and Kerry also created mechanisms for annual dialogues with the foreign ministers of Indonesia and Singapore. In 2010, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates effectively institutionalized multilateral cabinet-level defense engagement in Asia by joining the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus process and subsequent Secretaries have regularly attending special 10+1 sessions with ASEAN defense ministers on the sidelines of the grouping’s 10-member ministerial retreats. This track record has raised the bar for the next secretaries of state and defense.
The State Department and Pentagon have also created a raft of mechanisms for engagement with Asia at the sub-cabinet level that did not previously exist. For instance, an annual U.S.-Philippines Bilateral Strategic Dialogue co-chaired by Assistant Secretaries of State and Defense, created in 2010, has guided the alliance to its strongest state in decades, culminating in the U.S.-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. Under the radar, forums such as an annual U.S.-Malaysia defense policy dialogue, created in 2009 at the Deputy Assistant Secretary level, have deepened U.S. ties with the region, in this case bringing U.S.-Malaysia defense cooperation out of the shadows and facilitating enhanced U.S. military access in Malaysia. Even the annual U.S.-Laos Comprehensive Bilateral Strategic Dialogue, raised to the level of the Assistant Secretary of State in 2009, is set to yield dividends this year during Laos’ ASEAN chairmanship, as this framework has enabled both sides to better understand one another and to build ties.
When the Obama administration touts its record on Asia, it naturally points to concrete accomplishments such agreements on trade, defense, and climate change. But a key, underappreciated aspect of its policy has been to rebalance the time commitments of the U.S. government’s most senior leaders and to create an architecture for engagement with Asia that will outlive this administration. When observers debate the Obama administration’s legacy on Asia, this much will be clear – the bar has been raised for the time and attention a U.S. president must pay to Asia.
Brian Harding is Director for East and Southeast Asia at the Center for American Progress. From 2009-2013, he served in Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia in the Pentagon. He can be followed on Twitter at @iambrianharding.