HOLMES: America’s ‘residence’ in Asia

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The Obama administration wants to “pivot” U.S. foreign policy toward Asia. There are far too few details to know exactly what that means. In the meantime, the administration is right to highlight America’s enduring interests in that region.

Why is Asia important? The U.S. trades more with Asia than with any other region, including Europe and the rest of North America. With its forward-deployed military forces and five formal security alliances, the U.S. underwrites the security that has been trade’s sine qua non in the region.

Asia is at the tipping point between free and unfree. America’s five allies and India are democracies; half of Southeast Asia and China are not.

In an upcoming paper, my colleagues Walter Lohman and Robert Warshawoutline a diplomatic strategy for securing American interests in Asia. They argue that for U.S. diplomacy in Asia to have any real effect, and to make the new expressions of resolve credible, American military power in the region must be augmented.

It’s difficult to see how this can be done given President Obama’s plans to cut the size of U.S. armed forces. The administration is working with Australia for greater access to the Indian Ocean and will deploy littoral combat ships to Singapore. At the same time, it is gutting the shipbuilding budget.

We should never forget that America’s military power, not the finesse of our diplomats alone, gives the U.S. credibility in Asia.

This doesn’t mean that we should not take regional meetings seriously. Far from it, we should work aggressively to set their agenda and produce more concrete outcomes. The list of such groupings is long, including the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting, the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asian Summit, and the U.S.-ASEAN Summit.

The challenge is to make these meetings more than mere talk shops or, worse, places where China uses consensus to block our interests.

We should also be seeking binding economic agreements. We should look to the forums for real action on international issues such as territorial disputes and arms proliferation. Mr. Lohman and Mr. Warshawsuggest that, in addition to making these regional multilateral meetings more effective, the U.S. should rely more heavily on “minilaterals” — i.e., initiatives such as the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) and the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), and various trilateral dialogues.

Yet none of this will work if America’s traditional security alliances in Asia are weak. Specific things to do in this regard include: building a road map for revitalizing the U.S.-Thailand alliance; strengthening the armed forces of the Philippines; preserving the American presence on Okinawa; and expanding the operational significance of the U.S.-Korea alliance beyond the Korean Peninsula.

It would help American diplomacy immensely if we changed the way we engage China. We are currently investing far too many diplomatic resources on dialogues with China that produce far too few results. Much of that time, money and attention should be turned to more actively managing U.S. alliances in Asia and to cultivating new economic and security partners.

Lastly, the United States must do a much better job expanding American trade in Asia. The Obama administration took far too long to approve the free-trade agreement (FTA) with South Korea. It has been wise to take up the Bush administration’s Transpacific Partnership initiative, which should be actively promoted as the basis for a broader APEC-wide trade agreement. Bilateral FTAs should also continue to play a role in our trade policy. Taiwan and Thailand remain prime candidates.

The United States is indeed a “resident” power in Asia. We have just conducted political primaries, not only in Hawaii, but in Guam, the Northern Marianas Islands, and American Samoa as well. But just being there is not enough. We have to work at securing our interests and be seen making the investment that gives our presence the credibility of a superpower.

Kim R. Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org). Follow him on Twitter @kimsmithholmes.

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