The Obama administration's "rebalance" towards Asia is about climate change and women's rights as much as it is about security, Ambassador Susan E. Rice said Wednesday, in a speech modestly rebranding the Pacific tilt, which is a signature presidential initiative.
"Enhancing security" was just one of four cornerstone objectives of U.S. policy in Asia laid out by Ms. Rice, President Obama's top foreign policy adviser, in a speech at Georgetown University.
The others were "expanding prosperity, fostering democratic values and advancing human dignity."
Diplomats from many countries routinely stress the non-security aspects of their policies and relationships, and Ms. Rice did reiterate growing U.S. military commitments in the region.
By 2020, 60 percent of U.S. naval forces would be based in the Asia-Pacific region, she said.
But the speech reflected something of an "adjustment in tone," according to one former State Department official — a veteran of the Obama first term.
"I would say it's a more liberal, more progressive articulation of the [Asia rebalance] policy than we have heard so far," said Ely Ratner, who worked on the China desk at the State Department 2011-12.
"There is relatively more emphasis on religious freedom, on democratization, environmental protection and women's issues," in the president's second term rebalancing policy, added Mr. Ratner, now a scholar at the Center for New American Security, a think tank in Washington.
"We will continue to champion respect for the rule of law, human rights, religious freedom and democratic principles," promised Ms. Rice Wednesday. "Even and especially when it is not the easy or expedient thing to do."
She noted that the Asia Pacific region already was home to half the planet's population and that its economies predicted continued growth.
"How the region meets its energy needs will have critical implications for global energy supply and climate change," she said.
She made an economic argument for gender equality, saying it increased women's participation in the workforce. "Simply put, the smaller the gender gap, the stronger the economic growth," she said.
She gave U.S. aid to the Philippines following the mega typhoon as an example of a policy which could serve a variety of security and non-security objectives.
The deployment of U.S. AID specialists and hundreds of military personnel to the disaster zone, she said, was "a major manifestation of America's commitment" to a country she called "our oldest ally in Asia."
"We're cooperating seamlessly with our allies in the region, particularly Japan and Australia, who have stepped up to help a neighbor in need," she said.
She promised that the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific — seen by many as derailed by continuing crises in the Middle East and South Asia — would continue, as would aid to the typhoon disaster area.
"Recovery will be a long process, but the United States will stand beside the Philippines every step of the way — getting people back to work, rebuilding homes, reopening schools," she said.
Mr. Ratner said Vice President Biden's trip to the region next month would be an important litmus test of how the new policy would actually get implemented.
Another test would come on President Obama's rescheduled trip to the region, to replace the South East Asia visit canceled as a result of the government shutdown in October.
Ms. Rice announced for the first time today the president would travel there in April, but gave no details of the itinerary.
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