Edgar A. Porter

The United States Re-Emerges as an Asia Pacific Power: Consequences for the Region

By: Edgar A. Porter
Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University

President Barack Obama has declared himself as American’s first “Pacific president”, and identified the Asia Pacific region as a “top priority” of U.S. security policy.  This follows on the heels of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s important essay published in the November 2011 edition of Foreign Policy, titled “American’s Pacific Century”. 
During a 2011 visit to Australia, the president announced that American troops will be stationed in that country and insisted U.S. spending cuts would not affect his national’s strategic commitment to the Asia Pacific region.  Further, the U.S. joined the East Asia Summit in Bali in November as a full member and the first ambassador from the United States to ASEAN has recently been named.  Crucially, these developments are taking place in an era defined by growing confidence and strength of many key players in the region.

While the rise of Japan dominated regional concerns during the 1970s and 80s, and the rise of China became a focal point beginning in the 1990s, today’s Asia Pacific boasts several big powers (China, India, Russia and, though diminishing somewhat, Japan).   There are also active middle powers such as Australia, South Korea, and Indonesia which, together with the U.S. , heighten the complexity of the region’s political-strategic landscape.  At the same time, the regional security architecture of the Asia Pacific is largely a function of the influence enjoyed by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), whose members often hedge against the big powers even though some of them may be formal allies (Thailand, the Philippines) and strategic partners (Singapore and Mongolia) of the United States.  Finally, what impact will this new reality have on those smaller developing countries desiring friendly relations with the U.S. while not losing needed capital investment and support from China to assist in their development?  Mongolia is one such case.  While the rise of the Chinese economy and military remains a foremost concern for other Asia Pacific countries and for the U.S., the degree of mutual dependency among them limits somewhat the ability of any Asia Pacific power, not least the U.S., to exercise proactive unilateralism.
Against this backdrop, this presentation will address the following question:  How do the Asia Pacific nations view U.S. engagement in the Asia Pacific in historical and contemporary terms and what does the future hold for Asia given this re-entry of the U.S. into the region.

These points were discussed in detail at a symposium organized by Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University and Nanyang Technological Institute’s international relations center, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies  in December, 2011.  Most of the following comments are attributable to the speakers at the conference, which included three sitting ambassadors, several former ambassadors and leading scholars from the Asia Pacific region.  The conference was keynoted by Singapore ambassador at large Tommy Koh. 

Ambassador Koh, a leading figure in ASEAN and chair of the Law of the Sea conference some years ago, has set the discussion of the United States committed re-emergence in the region clearly and succinctly.  He points out that the U.S. is an intra-regional power with a long term commitment, not a visiting external power.  To quote President Obama in his speech to the Australian Parliament on November 17 of  2011, “Let there be no doubt: in the Asia-Pacific in the 21st century, the U.S. is all in.” This is tied directly to two issues.  First, the economic interests of the U.S. in the dynamic economies of the region are seen as the way to pull the U.S. out of growing joblessness and recession while pulling away from Europe.  There is hope that the new TPP initiative, which originated with APEC countries but has been championed recently by the U.S., will gather support throughout the region to enhance trade that benefits all. On the strategic front, the U.S. is now reinvigorating it’s alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand and the Philippines and elevating the importance of ASEAN.  Secretary Clinton’s recent visit to Myanmar is an example of the respect shown ASEAN.  To again quote Obama from his Australia speech, “The U.S. is a Pacific power and we are here to stay.”

Now we will look more particularly at Indonesia, the headquarters for ASEAN and recognized as one of the most dynamic economic and democratic rising stars in Asia.  Secretary Clinton, in her Foreign Policy piece, states, We are…forging a new partnership with Indonesia, the world’s third-largest democracy, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, and a member of the G-20.  We have resumed joint training of Indonesian special forces units and signed a number of agreements…But there is still some distance to travel – we have to work together to overcome bureaucratic impediments, lingering historical suspicions, an some gaps in understanding each other’s perspectives.” 
Former Ambassador and current senior editor of the Jakarta Post Sabam Siagian points out that Indonesia is proud of its “non-aligned” history, dating back to the 1955 Bandung conference.  Just as Indonesia did not align with either Cold War power in the previous era, it is wary now of aligning too closely with the United States or China and prefers to have an independent path, closely aligned with its ASEAN neighbors and encouraging a sharing of power.  To mark this independence clearly, Siagian states that he is proud of the way Indonesia and its partners disregarded the U.S. pressure to isolate Burma, but rather to engage with that authoritarian country in hopes of changing it slowly and carefully.  This, he says, is exactly what happened and shows that while the U.S. is welcome in Asia, it is not always to be followed.

Summing up his argument, while many  Indonesians are supportive of U.S. naval power in the Pacific, including the U.S.  naval base located at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, he also argues that, “it is of supreme importance of the Republic of Indonesia with the longest coast line facing the Indian Ocean that an amicable understanding and cooperation could be forced between the significant navies (Indi, the U.S., China) operating in the Indian Ocean.”  
The view from South Korea is, of course, seen the through the lens of North Korean dynamics, thus security issues are paramount when considering greater U.S. presence.  In some ways there is little change for South Korea, as U.S. forces have been deployed there and in Japan since the Korean War.  However, with a new base set up in distant Australia housing United States marines, there is even more U.S. flexibility in quick response time through the region, thus giving South Korea more confidence in long term U.S. presence and protection.  Professor Byung-Se Yun notes that thanks to the new initiative by the Obama administration, there is 1)confidence that North Korea will be further deterred from provocative actions, 2) enhancement of more thoughtful crisis management, 3)  greater control over domestic strategy  by South Korea in operational matters while more support from the U.S. and 4) greater economic integration leading to a seamless regional economy.  There are serious issues to overcome, including historical problems of trust for the U.S.’s other strategic partner Japan, and the uncomfortable reality that the new policy includes the preparation for potential conflict with China as well as North Korea, though direct discussion of this by principle players is understated at this point so as not to cause excessive alarm in China.

The view from Japan is one of firm support, and appreciation, for a growing U.S. presence.  According to Professor Yoichiro Sato, Japan welcomes the U.S. for three reasons:  First, to maintain global security, then regional security and finally to defend Japanese territory.  The first two help stabilize economic opportunities with protection of supply lines and possible new  trade agreements.  The third, of course, insures the autonomy and survival of a nation that cannot defend itself if left uncovered by a major power.  This is especially important for Japanese concern about China’s interest in what is perceived as encroaching military presence in waters off the coast of Japan, which some in Japan see as a prelude to serious military threats to the country.  While I find the concern felt by many in Japan, citizens as well as nationalist leaders, that China has an eye to “take over” Japan unfounded, the psychological distress this causes is real.  Thus, growing cover from the U.S. is appreciated.

It is expected that U.S. bases will continue to be hosted by Japan, probably in Okinawa, and that dependable rear support within Japan for U.S. military actions outside that country will be strengthened.  Enhanced quick response to natural disasters and sophisticated intelligence gathering and minesweeping support for the U.S. and its friends will also continue.  Finally, Japan hopes to take advantage of the new engagement to improve relations between the strongest democracies in Asia, particularly Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, with an eye to overcome past difficulties with Korea by focusing on future security and economic dependency.  This will also give warning to China, its greatest concern at this time, that the democracies are united politically as well as strategically and economically. 

The case of India presents particular opportunities and problems to both that country and an engaged United States.  Secretary Clinton states in her Foreign Policy essay that “India and American will be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century, rooted in common values and interests.  There are still obstacles to overcome and questions to answer on both sides, but the United States is making a strategic bet on India’s future.” While acknowledging that President Obama supports India’s “look East” policy, former Ambassador and current Professor S. D. Mani of National University of Singapore notes Obama wants India to more fully “engage East,” not just “look east” as a way to join the U.S. as it tries to increase the security and prosperity of all nations in the region.   Professor Muni  states, “India welcomes U.S. support for is Asian policies, but the strategic community in India has not been too comfortable with the way these U.S. directives have been articulated.” 

To underscore this, India has not formally responded to the Obama/Clinton initiative to increase engagement in Asia.  Muni argues,  ”There is a remote chance that India will formally endorse the U.S. strategy.  If an endorsement comes at all, it will be indirect and with caveats.”   This awkward position comes from the view that perhaps the “Obama doctrine has the required elements in it to trigger a subtle and sophisticated new Cold War in Asia between the U.S. and China.”  While concerned about China’s aggressive moves into Asia and not altogether opposed to a check on China’s perceived expansive plans by the U.S. , India looks, as does Indonesia, for balance.  As Muni articulates, “The challenge that the new U.S. strategy of Asia Pacific assertion poses before India is that its support for this strategy should not lead to increase tensions and hostilities from China.” 

This brings the discussion directly to China.  How does China see the Obama/Clinton pivot from Europe and the Middle East to Asia Pacific?  Ambassador Tommy Koh argues that the relationship between the two powers is “not a zero sum game.”  He believes that the rise of China does not lead to the argument that the U.S. is a declining power.  At the same time, China should not see this move as damaging to China’s self interests.  “Asia and the Asia-Pacific are big enough to accommodate a rising China and a resurgent U.S.”  Comments at the opening of the Singapore conference by U.S. Ambassador to Singapore David Adelman and Japanese Ambassador to Singapore Yoichi Suzuki spoke directly to this point, criticizing the international press for overstating the threat posed by the U.S. and its allies to China today.
Some leaders in China state that the U.S. is seeking to build an anti-China coalition by deepening support for and dependence on traditional U.S. allies and fellow democracies.  There is increasing concern about this if the White House is taken over by Republican Party, whose candidates use strident rhetoric and fear mongering related to China to advance their agenda.  Tommy Koh points out, however, that no matter how aggressive some in the U.S. might become to build a coalition against China, it would fail.  “ASEAN, for one, will never join such a coalition.  ASEAN does not fear China’s growing prosperity, power and influence.  ASEAN has benefitted from China’s growing prosperity and is determined to maintain a relationship of amity and cooperation with China.  ASEAN has, however, made clear to China, that its policy of good neighborliness and peaceful development are being put to the test in the South China Sea.”   While a discussion of this territorial dispute is outside the scope of this study, it is yet another indication that for all of Asia, a balanced, peaceful relationship with each power, the U.S. and China, is the most important concern for all parties.
Finally, what consequences of the new attention paid Asia Pacific can be found for Mongolia?  Certainly Mongolia is seen by the U.S. as an important player and strategic partner in the future.  Secretary Clinton places Mongolia front and center when she states, “As we update our alliances for new demands, we are also building new partnerships to help solve shared problems.  Our outreach to China, India, Indonesia, Singapore, New Zealand, Malaysia, Mongolia, Vietnam, Brunei, and the Pacific island countries is all part of a broader effort to ensure  more comprehensive approach to American strategy and engagement in the region.  We are asking these emerging partners to join us in shaping and participating in a rules-based regional and global order.”

To be categorized as a partner in line with Singapore, New Zealand and Indonesia is a clear statement that Mongolia is important to the U.S. in the coming decades.  As pointed out by Ambassador Addleton during his in his November 16 address to the University of Humanities and his 2012 New Year greeting to the Mongolian people in January, this call from Secretary Clinton comes soon after important visits of President Elbegdorj to the White House in June 2011 and a visit by Vice President Biden to Ulaanbaatar in the following August.  Other areas of partnership continue to grow, including closer military and security cooperation, economic cooperation, especially in the mining industry, as well as a growing dependency on Mongolia to continue promoting democracy in the region, as witnessed with Mongolia taking the chair of the Community of Democracies.

What began 20 years ago as a new relationship based on the 3rd neighbor policy, continues today with greater trust between the U.S. and Mongolia. At the same time, like Indonesia and other developing countries in the region, Mongolia pays careful attention to the growing influence of and need for a healthy and balanced relationship with its southern neighbor and economic partner China. 

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