Navigating an Asia-Pacific in Transition

On Wednesday, June 13, the Center for New American Security held its annual conference at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C. This year the theme was “Rethinking US Security: Navigating a World in Transition”.  For a conference with open registration, CNAS drew big ticket scholars and public officials such as CNAS co-founders Assistant Secretary of State Honorable Dr. Kurt Campbell and Former Under Secretary of Defense Honorable Michele Flournoy, and notably Dr. Bruce Jentleson, Dr. Robert Kagan, Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter, World Bank President Honorable Robert Zoellick, as well as many others.  With the goal of linking security strategy with diplomacy, this post will give a snapshot of the keynote address by Hon. Campbell entitled “The Asia-Pacific Century”.

Given that, according to Campbell, the lion’s share of history this century will be written in the Asia-Pacific, he posed the following question: can the US sustain a high level of engagement with the Asia-Pacific?  As the most senior State Department official on the subject, Campbell of course sees it to be the ‘destiny’ of the United States to do just that.  He offered a list of elements for the US to be successful.

  •  Perpetuate bipartisan commitment throughout government, and notably in Congress.  Overall, there is immense confidence throughout the world about the “enormous capabilities” of the US; however the main worry is whether or not bipartisan commitment can be sustained.  There is a need to continue to build consensus to demonstrate national strength and forward engagement.
  • Sustain opportunities for regular high level dialogue.  Continuous institutionalization of dialogue at the bilateral level reminds both the US and its partners about the benefits of engagement.  The travel from the US to parts of Asia can be long, and the trips strenuous, but, according to Campbell, “Our Asian friends expect us to show up.” 
  • Promote and support American manufacturers, giving them the “ticket to the big game” in Asia. The US should continue to be an optimistic voice in the international economic system and a strong trading partner. Campbell gave the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement as a good example of cooperation.  Improved lower level engagement is also needed.
  • Strengthen alliances to work as a launching pad for further action in the Asia-Pacific.  Some say alliances are antithetical to new institutions, but Campbell believes otherwise. They provide a foundation for engagement within a strong alliance network.  The US is seeking to deepen its ties with countries such as the Philippines and Thailand. It is “inconceivable that we can be effective without alliances”.
  • Enhance a number of bilateral relationships throughout the Asia-Pacific.  The Obama administration has steadily improved relations with Indonesia (an emerging leader of ASEAN), Vietnam, India, and New Zealand.  It is important for the US and India to work more in tandem on a range of issues. Furthermore, there is room for improvement with Europe-Asia engagement; the US should help Europe to facilitate those ties.
  • Endure positive relations with China. The most significant problem that the US faces is how to sustain a robust relationship with China. The bilateral relationship is, in Campbell’s view, more complicated than former relations between US and the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.  Asia-Pacific states need an agreeable relationship with China; by working together, the US and China can demonstrate our wisdom and maturity to other states.
  • Need to continue to develop formal, multilateral institutions.  For multiple reasons, the success of multilateral institutions is profoundly in the interest of the US.  The current institution-building process – in a period of transition and tumult – is similar to that after World War 2.  Campbell stated “I want to have the US sit at those [negotiating] tables” to build norms and manners of engagement. ‘Minilateral’ forums can help build trust while tackling key issues. US-Japan-Korea is the most important trilateral relationship, and the US is heavily invested in the future development of the Japan-Korea relationship.
  • Pursue a comprehensive defense strategy.  Find additional ways to partner and engage with states in the region.  ‘Defense Diplomacy’ has been and will continue to be critical in Southeast Asia due to traditional and nontraditional security issues.  Actions taken by the Obama administration to establish training, military rotations, joint facilities and so forth with actors such as Australia, Philippines, and Singapore are “a down payment on this process”.
  • Invest in people. The US Department of State, Department of Defense and the greater government need employees that are deeply knowledgeable about Asia, with language skills.  Effective and sustained engagement will require advice and the pursuit of experts.
  • Stay true to American values and democratic principles. For Campbell and his team, the Chen Guangcheng experience required intense diplomacy; without a dedicated team there may have been greater conflict with China.  Because of American involvement in such human rights cases, including working with Aung San Suu Kyi, “We continue to be a beacon of hope and a reminder that there is a better world.”

After his address, Hon. Dr. Kurt Campbell walked offstage to be swamped by the press, including, among others, CCTV and a reporter for a Japanese newspaper.  Not only were the military, government employees and other civilians in the crowd interested in Campbell’s address; perhaps even more so those with direct links to the Asia-Pacific were hanging on his every word.  Over the past year, the Obama administration has continued to emphasize its commitment to the Pacific ‘turn’ through all aspects of international engagement, including defense, diplomacy, international trade, etc.  Strategic allies and general partners in the Asia-Pacific are overall pleased with the US desire to sustain engagement in the region.  In part, this is due to the economic rise of China and its quest for greater regional influence through increased military modernization, expansion of relationships in the region and strengthened voice in international institutions.  From the list of essential elements for successful sustainment, most all require bilateral, multilateral and institutional cooperation – and hence cannot be accomplished by US action alone.

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New Militarism: Obama’s Strategy at Home and Abroad

The predator drone resembles a modified miniature passenger jet more than the aggressive looking F-15 or B-1 manned fighter jets and bombers that we are used to. But the remote-operated predator and its peers, with their surveillance equipment and payload of Hell Fire missiles, represent a new age of aggression that appears to require less of US citizens and US allies when even more is at stake.

Like the predator drone, President Barack Obama doesn’t bear the outward militarism of his predecessor. On paper he has withdrawn from one bloody war in the Middle East, is in the process of withdrawing from another, and claims to have greatly decreased the number of civilian casualties in ongoing conflicts. Of course Obama hasn’t turned away from America’s militarist tradition in its entirety, as his reelection ads are quick to point out that America’s worst enemy, Osama Bin Laden, was killed on his watch. But, he has ended the rhetoric of “good versus evil” which was already on the way out at the end of George W. Bush’s second term.

On the flip side, Obama is presiding over stepped-up CIA operations in Afghanistan with forays into neighboring countries and secretive wars and assassinations on both sides of the Gulf of Aden. The current administration has increased funding toward cyber warfare that would put the US on the offensive, and there is building rhetoric and geopolitical maneuvering around a “turn to the Pacific” intended to combat China’s growing influence. Add this to the rash of antidemocratic legislation at home and moves to extend definitions of criminal threats to the state, undermine due process and gag protests and you get a very different perspective on the current administration.

A recent New York Times article reports on Obama’s hands-on approach to personally signing-off on individual drone strikes in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. The article quotes one of the Bush administration’s top national security lawyers John B. Bellinger III, who attributes the lack of global scrutiny over “hundreds of drone strikes in several different countries, including killing at least some civilians” to Obama’s “liberal reputation” and “softer packaging.” The drone campaign has also avoided criticism at home as it reduces the possibility of US casualties while maintaining a “tough on terrorism” image.

The New York Times article sheds light on the current administration’s controversial method of counting civilian casualties. The method “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” In effect the counting method is based on guilt by association: “people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.” And the method is likely contributing to low collateral deaths in official accounts.

The drone campaign has set a number of worrying precedents. There have been 14 strikes in Yemen, and 6 in Pakistan just since April and the Department of Defense and CIA are staying tight lipped about strikes in Somalia flown out of a base in the neighboring country of Djibouti. Make no mistake; China and Russia are watching the US strategy of crossing national borders and killing foreign nationals with impunity.

In terms of American civil liberties, the September 2011 execution of the American citizen and radical cleric-propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen indicated that the administration could secretively order the execution of American citizens overseas without trial. Attorney General Eric Holder met complaints that the administration had violated the Fifth Amendment guarantee to due process by asserting that “due process and judicial process are not one and the same.” This can be added to the policies that Obama has retained from the Bush years including rendition, military commissions and indefinite detention. Not to be outdone, Obama has also helped push through the National Defense Authorization Act which enables indefinite detention of US citizens at home and bills like HR-347 to increasingly limit and criminalize domestic rights to protests.

Keeping the US’s recent history and ongoing conflicts in the Middle East in mind, it is surprising that Obama’s proclaimed pivot to the Asia-Pacific region is being heralded with optimism. Asia has seen its share of proxy wars (i.e. the Korean and Vietnam wars) and the Pacific has been the theater for war between military powers in the past. At the heart of this pivot are US-China relations and US interests in maintaining access to sea channels and trading partners in the Asia-Pacific. On the one hand, the US is getting ready to engage China on a cyber battlefield, as the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has recently secured a half billion dollars to fund research on cyber weapons and the US and China have already engaged in cyber war games. On the other hand, the US has posted troops in Darwin, Australia, and is working on military technology better equipped for operations in Asia and the Pacific.

We shouldn’t be lured into complacency by Obama’s liberal legal background. The ACLU is steadily building a list of civil rights claims against this administration and foreign administrations should be weary of US moves into the Asia-Pacific region with new tensions building between the US and China. US military strategy under Obama is best represented by the innocuous drones which have become the centerpiece of a take-no-prisoners campaign in the Middle East.

Tai Neilson is a PhD student in Cultural Studies at George Mason University.