US Strategy: All Eyes Turn to Asia-Pacific

There has been a lot of buzz surrounding US engagement in the South Pacific over the last few weeks and months. The US sent its largest delegation ever to the Pacific Islands Forum’s Post-Forum Dialogue in Auckland in September; this month USAID opened a new Pacific Island Regional Office in Port Moresby, the US Coast Guard assisted New Zealand to provide emergency water supplies to Tokelau. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta weighed in on the US presence in the Pacific on a recent visit to the region with Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell to meet with ASEAN ministers. November will bring the APEC Summit in Hawaii, and the East Asia Summit in Bali.

Given all these recent events and appearances, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote an article for the November issue of Foreign Policy entitled “America’s Pacific Century”. The article details America’s adapting strategy in the Asia-Pacific. Clinton’s early claim that due to geography, “the US is both an Atlantic and a Pacific power,” illustrates how she views the role of diplomacy. US Ambassador to New Zealand David Huebner adds good insight into the article on his embassy blog.

The Obama Administration seeks a US-Asia alliance similar to the US-Atlantic alliance. Using “forward deployed diplomacy”, the Administration’s strategy follows six lines of action:

“strengthening bilateral security alliances;

deepening our working relationships with emerging powers, including with China;

engaging with regional multilateral institutions;

expanding trade and investment; forging a broad-based military presence; and

advancing democracy and human rights.”

To improve and safeguard bilateral relationships and alliances, according to Clinton, the US needs to update its alliances.

“In this effort, the Obama administration is guided by three core principles. First, we have to maintain political consensus on the core objectives of our alliances. Second, we have to ensure that our alliances are nimble and adaptive so that they can successfully address new challenges and seize new opportunities. Third, we have to guarantee that the defense capabilities and communications infrastructure of our alliances are operationally and materially capable of deterring provocation from the full spectrum of state and nonstate actors”.

The US is notably focused on updating the intricacies of its alliances with Australia, Thailand, South Korea and Japan. Additionally, as “part of a broader effort to ensure a more comprehensive approach to American strategy and engagement in the region” the US is building new partnerships with “China, India, Indonesia, Singapore, New Zealand, Malaysia, Mongolia, Vietnam, Brunei, and the Pacific Islands”.

Regarding multilateralism, Clinton believes there is still work to be done on all sides to strengthen collaborative political, economic and social efforts across the Pacific. “A more robust and coherent regional architecture in Asia would reinforce the system of rules and responsibilities, from protecting intellectual property to ensuring freedom of navigation, that form the basis of an effective international order.” The US gains from multilateral settings because “responsible behavior is rewarded with legitimacy and respect, and [states] can work together to hold accountable those who undermine peace, stability, and prosperity.” Thus US engagement with ASEAN, APEC and EAS are critical to the renewed Pacific strategy.

In maintaining economic statecraft as “a pillar of American foreign policy”, the US seeks to increase its exports to the Asia-Pacific. Because the Asia-Pacific currently “generates more than half of global output and nearly half of global trade” it is only natural that the US continues to push for progress in this area. Clinton asserts improved trade flows will assist improved diplomatic ties and vice versa:

“Increasingly, economic progress depends on strong diplomatic ties, and diplomatic progress depends on strong economic ties. And naturally, a focus on promoting American prosperity means a greater focus on trade and economic openness in the Asia-Pacific.

“Our hope is that a TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) agreement with high standards can serve as a benchmark for future agreements — and grow to serve as a platform for broader regional interaction and eventually a free trade area of the Asia-Pacific.”

Because American political and economic resources were allocated to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last decade the US has been unable (or perhaps just unwilling) to give the Asia-Pacific region the attention that it deserves. Therefore Clinton calls this renewed engagement with the region a ‘turn’ in policy.

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