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What Would a Pluralist US Asia Policy Look Like?

While the concept may help soothe worries of a bipolar framing of U.S.-China rivalry, whether it can be put into practice remains to be seen.

Prashanth Parameswaran
What Would a Pluralist US Asia Policy Look Like?

US President Donald Trump speaks on the final day of the APEC CEO Summit, part of the broader Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ summit, in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on Friday Nov. 10, 2017.

Credit: Anthony Wallace, Pool via AP

On December 2, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State of East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell delivered an important address at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. laying out a U.S. vision for Asia based on “pluralism” – where, in essence, Asian countries will be able to make their own choices free from coercion. While this vision will find no shortage of proponents in the region worried about a bipolar framing of U.S.-China rivalry and some of Washington’s past unilateral impulses, it nonetheless leaves open the question of the exact form of pluralism that Washington supports and how that might translate into concrete policy.

The notion of pluralism is not entirely new within the broader history of U.S. foreign policy, and indeed, aspects or versions of it can be seen historically depending on how it is defined. The spirit of freedom of choice was embedded in Woodrow Wilson’s notion of self-determination, even though this was selectively applied in practice. And the more general notion of Washington having to accept the rise of other powers in the region apart from preserving its own primacy in a balance of power sense – often loosely described in international relations parlance as “multipolarity,” which Stilwell referred to in his remarks – was recognized by multiple past presidents in different ways, be it Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vision of The Four Policemen during World War II or Richard Nixon’s post-Vietnam War era conception of Asia, as articulated in Foreign Affairs before he entered office.

But Stilwell’s articulation of “pluralism” in Asia in his speech was notable given the current context within which it was laid out. Over the past few years, we have witnessed a trend where, while the Trump administration’s tougher China policy has led to somewhat greater clarity about Washington’s focus on great power competition, it has also raised concerns in some Asian capitals about U.S. Asia policy being viewed excessively – at times even singularly – through the bipolar lens of U.S.-China rivalry. And over the past few months in particular, U.S. officials have begun speaking more about a broader Asia approach beyond U.S.-China competition to provide a clearer sense of Washington’s own positive vision for the region beyond just countering some aspects of Beijing’s assertiveness.

Seen from this perspective, Stilwell’s remarks constituted a clear articulation of a positive U.S. vision for the region based on pluralism. The speech, along with another on U.S.-China relations delivered at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, candidly framed the changing regional context, noting a China that diverged from Washington’s hopes, a shift in U.S. policy under Trump, and questions in the region about being forced to choose between China and the United States. It then went on to articulate the notion of pluralism, defined loosely as coexistence embracing diversity or openness as practiced by the United States. That pluralism, Stilwell said, is evident in not just the U.S. Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy but also visions of the Indo-Pacific articulated by others such as Japan, India, ASEAN, and European countries, relative to the authoritarianism and hierarchy evident in China’s vision for the region typified by Yang Jiechi’s 2010 comment that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.” It then moved on to reframing the choices Asian countries will be making in terms of not just being about the United States and China, but over principles such as sovereignty which they themselves prioritize.

Stilwell’s pluralism speech will no doubt find no shortage of proponents in the region worried about a bipolar framing of U.S.-China rivalry. But his remarks also left open the broader question of what a more pluralistic U.S. Asia policy would look like. As mentioned previously, historically, there have been various claims to pluralism or multipolarity based on different conceptions, be it collective security, a concert of powers, or offshore balancing. The concept of pluralism also raises other broader questions, such as the extent to which the United States would be willing to accept the coexistence of other competing visions from its adversaries and different domestic political systems in its alignments. And policy-wise, as with virtually any idea that has surfaced to this point within U.S. Asia policy during the Trump administration, including FOIP itself, there continue to be questions about how this will fare in the mix of views in the interagency process and whether this will actually concretize in the formulation of Washington’s approach to the region.

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It is also unclear to what extent Washington could overcome the challenges and complexities inherent in moving forward with a more pluralistic Asia policy. The United States has often found it difficult to balance respecting pluralism and preserving its own primacy in the region in practice, and this has been clearly visible to regional observers, with a case in point being Washington’s opposition to Japan’s proposed creation of an Asian Monetary Fund after the Asian Financial Crisis in the late 1990s or China’s vision for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank during the 2010s. Even when Washington has stepped away too much from a more activist role focused on U.S. primacy, such as during the post-Vietnam period, it has generated fears of vacuums that U.S. adversaries can then fill. In a contemporary context, with China continuing to coerce some regional states into making choices — and some regimes in these countries themselves making decisions based on preserving their own power rather than looking out for their country’s long-term security and prosperity — the choices faced by Asian states are at times more complex than just being for or against certain general principles, which can in turn condition Washington’s options as well.

Nonetheless, Stilwell’s comments constitute the most clear and concise articulation of a U.S. regional vision for the Indo-Pacific we have heard from the Trump administration to date beyond U.S.-China rivalry. With less than a year to go until the next U.S. general election in 2020, its spirit in principle could be embraced by a future Republican or Democratic administration. As such, this warrants careful watching to assess to what extent it may actually concretize in 2020 and beyond.