US Foreign Policy

Presidential Inbox 2013: Find the Right Balance in Asia Policy

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The Presidential Inbox series gives Stimson experts a chance to offer their views on key international security challenges and pragmatic steps the Obama Administration can take to resolve or manage those challenges in the coming year. 

Click here to view the complete Presidential Inbox series.

The Challenge

The rebalancing of American attention toward East Asia announced by President Obama in late 2011 is not a casual or inconsequential undertaking. Nor is it entirely new. Over the years, with the demise of the Soviet Union and the rise not only of China but other Asian economies, previous administrations have had a similar objective. However, events in the Middle East and South Asia have impeded engaging in it on a sustained basis. Now that the war in Iraq is over and Afghanistan is winding down, the opportunity exists to undertake rebalancing in a serious way.

This is not a “pivot” as some have come to call it, precisely because it does not represent an intention to pivot away from Europe or the Middle East, or South Asia. But with American economic, political and security interests increasingly centered in East Asia, we need to reallocate more of our human, financial and other resources to that region, resting on three core objectives:

  • Strengthening our alliances and partnerships throughout the region to consolidate peace and stability and 
  • Further developing and deepening relations with China in a manner that can reinforce our broad common interests while successfully managing our differences. 
  • Preventing or managing emerging conflicts driven by territorial and natural resources disputes and rising nationalism in key East Asian countries, including 

o In Northeast Asia, the challenge of nuclear weapons and proliferation from North Korea, energy security, competing territorial claims and other serious sovereignty-related issues such as Taiwan’s relationship with the PRC and freedom of navigation (including for naval vessels)

o In Southeast Asia, China’s insistent claims to virtually all land features (and associated waters) in the South China Sea, its demand for raw materials and tropical commodities, and its drive to harness the huge hydroelectric potential of the Upper Mekong through the construction of as many as 14 large- to mega-sized dams have a profound effect on the politics of China’s southern neighbors, and could well create conditions of long-term instability.

The Context

Northeast Asia is probably the world’s only region where the strategic environment continues to be characterized not only by the legacies of Cold War but also by pre-1945 history.  The notable strengthening of the PRC’s military capabilities and China’s rapid emergence as a global economic powerhouse have encouraged Beijing to behave in a way that poses questions about its strategic intentions in the region and globally.  Leaders in China and the United States both recognize the fundamental importance of finding ways to cooperate on a very broad agenda. But the two nations have differing, sometimes competing, interests on many of the most fraught issues in East Asia, the Middle East and beyond. Given the deep mutual strategic suspicions, the second Obama Administration will need to find even more effective ways to move the relationship with Beijing from the rhetoric about a “new kind of major power relationship” to a reality that will avoid the historical trap involved when a new rising power emerges in the face of an existing-and in this case not significantly weakened-established power.

Northeast Asia has entered an unprecedented period of uncertainty.  Pyongyang’s repeated attempts to conduct missile tests and its unabated nuclear ambition provide little hope that its new leader Kim Jong-Un will lead his country down the conciliatory path anytime soon.  If anything, it is more likely that North Korea will continue its belligerent behavior, including a third nuclear test in 2013.  While remaining firm on the ultimate goal of denuclearization of North Korea, the United States must work with China, the ROK, Japan and Russia to determine whether there is a fruitful diplomatic path forward with Pyongyang that can cap and ultimately eliminate the North’s nuclear program. Eventually concluding peace arrangements on the Peninsula and normalization of the DPRK’s relations with the United States and others must be part of the picture. But neither of these goals is realistic in the absence of successful efforts on the nuclear front.

 Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul all went through political transitions in 2012.  Despite the impressive economic success of China and South Korea in recent times, and although the specifics and severity of the problems differ in each country, all three face daunting domestic economic and social challenges. Maintaining a peaceful international environment to allow them to focus on those urgent domestic concerns will be a high priority for each. However, issues of “history” among the PRC, ROK and Japan as well as competing territorial claims among them will also likely continue to complicate these efforts.

Northeast Asia has witnessed a sharp increase in tensions of territorial and maritime issues. Two of these disputes-Japan-ROK tension over Takeshima/Tokdo and Japan-China tension over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands-are very problematic for the United States, and will raise questions about how the US rebalancing policy can contribute to the successful handling of these deeply entrenched issues.  Both disputes are of great importance for US alliance management, but the East China Sea issues between China and Japan also raise the risk of blundering into conflict, even though no one wants that.

In Southeast Asia, the tone for US reengagement was set when Secretary of State Clinton declared “we’re back” at the July 2009 ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting.  The President underscored the closer US embrace of Southeast Asia by attending the East Asia Summit in November 2011.  Obama was the first US president to visit Myanmar and Cambodia, strong symbols of the shift in US attention and interest to the region. 

The centerpiece US Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) involving the Mekong River Commission (MRC) and its four constituent countries, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, and recently, Myanmar, will require continued attention to ensure its sustainability.  It has been appreciated in the region that outgoing Secretary of State Clinton personally championed the issues of fisheries, food security, education, and climate change adaption, giving US policy a strong “human security” profile.

The renewed interest and involvement in the region by the United States and its status as an agenda-setter and convener has had a modest impact on the regional dynamics and brought more international attention to the underlying geopolitical issues at stake.  All of the MRC countries welcomed the proposed LMI, and each of them agreed to accept responsibility to co-chair with the United States a set of working groups.

Disputes over islands, reefs, shoals and rocks in the South China Sea also engage American interests with respect not only to the maintenance of peace and stability but also ensuring freedom of navigation. In these areas, as well, the course of US rebalanced engagement will also be of high importance; some worry about the sustainability of the more robust civilian engagement, and are more confident that the US military presence will be a source of assurance in the decades to come. 

Pragmatic Steps

  • Renew and improve the economic and security dialogues with Beijing quickly once new Cabinet officers are in place in both countries, but also move beyond that to a sustained summit-level dialogue to help enhance mutual trust regarding each side’s strategic ambitions and policies.

o As part of this, stress the importance of maintaining peace and stability and the importance of respecting internationally accepted norms and the rule of law.

  • Ensure that reengagement and rebalancing complement each other, and strengthen coordination among the NSC, State, Defense and the Pacific Command to achieve better unity of purpose.  Ensure that rebalancing is understood as a holistic notion, not a purely security-driven concept and not as an approach aimed at restricting China’s peaceful rise.
  • Facilitate a “reset” of Japan-Republic of Korea relations.  The inauguration of new leaders in those countries provides a moment of opportunity, and the US should work quietly to strengthen the instincts of Japanese PM Abe and Korean President Park Gyun-hye to stabilize the relationship. This is not only essential for maintenance of regional peace and stability in general, but a positive Japan-ROK relationship is critical specifically to ensure solid US-Japan-ROK policy coordination vis-à-vis North Korea. 
  • Continue the ongoing efforts to deepen the US-Japan alliance.  There is already an effort under way between the United States and Japan to revise the burden-sharing in bilateral defense cooperation. Washington should also intensify its consultations with Tokyo to complete the realignment of US forces in Japan, the relocation of the Marines in Okinawa in particular. 
  • Sustain the positive momentum created in US-ROK alliance relations during the Lee administration by successfully relocating US forces, concluding the “123” agreement on nuclear cooperation, and implementing the KORUS FTA in a way that vividly demonstrates its benefits to a broad spectrum of Koreans and Americans. 
  • Maintain strong unofficial relations with Taiwan, contributing to our mutual prosperity, Taiwan’s democratic development, and the island’s security as well as to the ongoing process of peaceful development of cross-Strait relations.
  • Keep the focus on the Lower Mekong Initiative as a dynamic framework for US engagement, and avoid it becoming a confusing mélange of aid programs, without the high-level attention that made it so successful under Secretary Clinton.  Synchronize the LMI with the Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI), which seeks to narrow the development gap between more and less advanced countries, and accelerate the economic integration of the newer members (Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Viet Nam).
  • Place greater emphasis on visible public diplomacy and information dissemination within the Southeast Asia region.  The most active four years of US engagement since the end of the Cold War have significantly raised the US profile in the region, generated anger and criticism from Beijing, and in some cases, created expectations that will be hard to fill without more substance and follow-up.
  • Enhance US credibility on maritime territorial disputes by expending the necessary political capital to gain Senate ratification of UNCLOS (the Law of the Sea Convention.)
  • Pursue the Trans-Pacific Partnership in a way the complements, rather than competes with, other regional economic and trade arrangements.



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