In my first article for the Lowy Interpreter, I offered a different perspective on the historic meeting between the presidents of the Republic of Palau (Tommy Remengesau), Republic of the Marshall Islands (Hilda Heine), the Federated States of Micronesia (David Panuelo), and the United States (Donald Trump). While the Trump Administration can take credit for acting on wishes of apolitical policymakers and continuing a coherent strategy in the Indo-Pacific, the leaders of the Freely Associated States and their ambassadors have their own reasons for coming to the negotiating table.
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.