If the Obama administration’s Asia policy seems familiar, it is with good reason. In several respects, it closely mirrors that of the George W. Bush administration.
It has held firm on the presence of the U.S. Marines in Japan. It has stood forcefully by our South Korean allies as they twice faced down North Korean aggression. It dusted off the U.S.-Korea free-trade agreement with only cosmetic political changes. It picked the low-hanging fruit of consistent engagement in Southeast Asia that the Bush administration initiated but could not seem to manage.
President Bill Clinton may have opened the door to a broader, more productive relationship with India, but it was President Bush who drove the U.S.-India nuclear deal through it. The delinking of America’s India and Pakistan policies once envisioned by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is now a reality, as President Obama essentially acknowledged in his well-received visit to India.
And when administration officials speak of getting America’s alliances right, they use words eerily similar to those used by the Bush White House.
But the Bush administration was not all good. And like the Bush administration, the Obama administration has been unable to settle on an approach to the greatest challenge to American leadership in the Indo-Pacific region: the rise of China. That lack of clarity only emboldens the Chinese - and weakens the resolve of our friends and allies.
China is a deliberate competitor for regional influence with interests diametrically opposed to America’s. This is not to say that open lines of communication and economic cooperation with Beijing’s leaders are not important. But at some point, we must be willing to walk away. We have many other things that take precedence and upon which American predominance in the Indo-Pacific absolutely depends.
1) Our military presence and freedom of the seas. The administration must understand the direct correlation between a robust defense budget - particularly shipbuilding - and our profile in Asia. The region is looking at trend lines as much as current capabilities. As for freedom of the seas, it is a core American interest going back as far as our British political heritage; it is non-negotiable.
2) Our treaty allies. There are five in the Pacific: Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand. We will not allow any of them to be bullied. We should work to build up the weakest (the Philippines) and give it the wherewithal to stand its ground.
In the meantime, we should introduce some strategic ambiguity into how the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty applies. It’s hard to imagine the U.S. standing still were the Chinese to move on Philippines-occupied and -administered islands in the South China Sea. But even beyond that, the administration should make it clear that it regards Chinese harassment of Philippine vessels elsewhere within the disputed territory as hostile.
3) Taiwan. There is nothing inherently wrong with America’s 30-year-plus policy toward it. That policy is a convenient framework that allows us to maintain relationships with both sides of the Strait. The problem is in the overly tight and China-deferential application of the policy.
The Taiwan Relations Act and the assurances that President Ronald Reagan made to Taiwan in 1982 are fully part of our foreign policy. As such, they demand more than lip service. Taiwan has slipped so far behind China in the military balance that the U.S. is plainly in breach of its legal obligation to see that Taiwan can defend itself.
Mr. Obama made good on the second half of a big arms-sales package negotiated by the Bush administration. He should make the sale on the new fighter aircraft and upgrades the Taiwanese are now begging for.
4) India. The American and Indian foreign policy elites have discovered one another - long after our respective peoples have. We share many strategic interests with India, but our affinity actually stems from common values. Matters that concern India - from Chinese provision of nuclear technology to Pakistan in violation of its international non-proliferation commitments and dangerous diplomatic games on the China-Indian border - are also big problems for us.
5) Liberty. Americans care deeply about it - not just our own, but the liberty of others. We must call those individuals in China we are concerned about by name - publicly, at every opportunity - without worrying about the diplomatic consequences.
The Obama administration is at a critical turning point. The president is mid-way through this term. He has done some good things in the Indo-Pacific. But it’s time to lay down much clearer markers in the U.S.-China relationship. The president’s team - from the ambassador to China, to the Defense Department, to the State Department, to the National Security Council - is undergoing a massive reshuffle.
Mr. Obama has a once-in-an-administration opportunity to give shape to America’s future in the Indo-Pacific.
c Walter Lohman is director of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org).