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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US and China Outline New Year Policies Affecting Home and Abroad

The New Year has started with immediate action in the Asia-Pacific region and Sino-US relations. On January 1, Chinese President Hu Jintao published a highly charged article in the Communist Party journal Seeking Truth about culture and the threats China faces. On January 6, President Barack Obama stood alongside military leaders to launch his administration’s new defense strategy “Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense”. Both events were media spectacles spurring speculation and hype among pundits. Across multiple fronts, the US and China are in a stage of ‘transition’, with the current administrations both facing potential (in US) and real (in China) leadership changes at the end of 2012. The contents of Hu’s essay and the Obama administration’s defense strategy demonstrate the leaders’ mutual need to shore up domestic support and enthusiasm.

For some in the US, Hu Jintao’s essay declared a new ‘culture war’ directed at America, harkening back to Mao Zedong. Hu wrote in the essay and speech: “We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of Westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration.” The Wall Street Journal argued that “Hu Jintao has launched another culture-rectification campaign with goals that Mao would recognize: step up ideological struggle and fight back against Western encroachments.” In a response to US reactions, the Chinese Culture Minister quickly replied by clarifying that 2012’s proposed ‘culture work’ does not mean it will “engage in so-called Great Leap Forward”. Instead, China’s plan is to perpetuate soft power and to promote internal and international stability.

I agree more with Damien Ma’s interpretation in The Atlantic that the ‘culture war’ is not meant as an implicit threat to the US. Rather, it is “part of a battle to sustain the confidence of its own people – via nationalist, Confucian tenets, wealth, cultural renaissance or whatever substitute that can be dreamed up — or risk the consequences. The war is, and has always been, about defining the soul of the modern Chinese nation.” Furthermore, the warnings are a call to the Communist Party to remain relevant to China’s populace. The forthcoming political transition at the end of this year and the Chinese population’s growing benefits from economic and technological development led to a fear of waning power and influence. Building on nationalist sentiments and stirring up the public by flexing its diplomatic muscle is one way for Hu’s Administration to calm its nerves.

Meanwhile in the US, the Budget Control Act of 2011 mandated that the Pentagon budget be trimmed by “by about $487 billion in the next decade, a roughly 8 percent decrease.”* The recent Defense Strategy Review is an attempt to redefine America’s strategic interests and goals, and to focus on priority areas for future funding. As the US reaches the last year of President Obama’s first term, withdraws military forces from Iraq and deals with a continuing government budget and wider economic crisis, the country faces a point of ‘transition’ which makes the time ripe for this discussion. By surrounding himself with top Pentagon officials, President Obama tried to strengthen his stance against an unwieldy Congress and direct an image of authority in an election year. The need to reduce the budget was evident on every page of the report, with the key being “Whenever possible, we willdevelop innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches to achieve our securityobjectives”. (p. 3)

Interestingly, at no point in President Obama’s defense policy launch did he mention China. The Defense Strategy Review, on the other hand, warned that China’s emergence could affect the economy and security of the US in a number of ways depending on the path taken. Additionally, China’s military power growth “must be accompanied by greater clarity of its strategic intentions in order to avoid causing friction in the region.” In a menacing tone, the Review said the US would “continue to make the necessary investments to ensure that we maintain regional access and the ability to operate freely in keeping with our treaty obligations and with international law.” (p. 2)

As you can see, budget reductions are a priority, but they do not stand in the way of military readiness and competitiveness. In an effort to sound practical, the Review argued for a reduction in the “cost of doing business”, to which many Americans would agree. However military personnel have sacrificed much over the last decade and will bear the burden of budget cuts: “As DoD takes steps to reduce its manpower costs, to include reductions in the growth of compensation and health care costs, we will keep faith with those who serve.” (p. 7) Cutting health care benefits from veterans has not been as controversial as one may think in Congress however unpopular it may be to the American public; hopefully, this move is not foreshadowing irrational motives sparked by China’s emergence.

As Presidents Obama and Hu pit tough rhetoric against each other to hold or challenge the balance of power, they also seek to prove dominance to their domestic populations. Competing party and government politics have been the main driver of their warnings and stern tones. Economically, China and the US are so interdependent that the leaders’ domestic pandering should not affect their strategic relationship; the US in particular finished 2011 with a negative stance toward China, causing international headaches. But both powers share the mutual interest of stability, and while the US has less concern for other states’ sovereignty than China, the Obama Administration should prevent domestic issues and government in-fighting from leading to a dampened bilateral relationship.

Last year was, and no doubt 2012 will also be, a busy year for Sino-US relations and multilateral cooperation in the Asia-Pacific. On January 7, US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell arrived in Tokyo to discuss the situation on the Korean Peninsula and said “Even while the United States is making an adjustment in its global military posture, we are intent on maintaining a very strong, enduring military presence in the Asian-Pacific region”. China, likewise, intends to increase its diplomatic efforts this year and boost cooperation in the Asia-Pacific in issues of mutual interest; China’s government is anticipating high-level meetings such as the “Seoul Nuclear Summit, the BRICS Summit in India, the Asia-Europe Meeting in Laos, and the East Asia Summit in Cambodia”. During these meetings, China plans to “enhance strategic coordination and mutual understanding with Asian countries”. With both China and the US boosting diplomatic efforts in the Asia-Pacific, the hope is that eventually the two powers will forge a more cooperative and mutual partnership together instead of solely other neighbors.