President Obama was in Asia this week to make good on his campaign promise of renewing American diplomacy worldwide. His longest, and arguably most important, international trip of his presidency included stops in India and Indonesia, the region’s next two emerging powers after China, as well as Japan and South Korea, two of America’s regional military allies. In each state, Obama focused talks on issues related to economic cooperation; counterterrorism; non-proliferation; food and water security; sustainable development; climate change mitigation; and overall cooperation based on shared values of democracy and open government.
The trip to South Korea culminated in the G-20 Summit where the world’s biggest economies attempted, perhaps unsuccessfully, to hammer out economic agreements to advance post-crisis recovery efforts and improve global economic opportunities for all.
Obama’s journey is part of a broader global effort to improve American economic and security engagement with countries in bilateral and multilateral forums. Asian states and regional organizations constitute a critical part of America’s diplomatic renaissance.
After World War II, America became a dominant force in Asia’s trade, security, and political dynamics. In the years following 9/11, however, the Bush Administration neglected relations with most Asian states except when they played direct roles in confronting threats emanating from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and North Korea. Japan, South Korea, and India contributed directly to American security objectives and China financed American debt, while most Southeast Asian states were left largely unattended and underappreciated.
Moreover, throughout this period American diplomacy relied on the “hub-and-spokes” strategy which focused overwhelmingly on bilateral relations. Regional organizations like ASEAN were considered talk shops having little objective utility for meeting American foreign interests and were marginalized in America’s Asia strategy.
Obama’s renewed engagement of Asia is an attempt to renovate America’s regional role. In the post-financial crisis world, he seeks to strengthen historic alliances and develop stronger links with every Asian nation to face global challenges, including proliferation, transnational security threats, climate change, pandemics, and economic instability. The message is clear: Asian states and their regional architectures are keys to the future of American prosperity.
Since Obama’s inauguration, U.S. Cabinet and other senior officials are constantly in Asia meeting to discuss economic relations, security affairs, climate change mitigation, sustainable development, and cooperation in global governance. Asia represents the biggest potential market for American exports. Asian states constitute both sources of transnational criminal activity and potentially strong allies and partners against such security threats. Asia is projected to be one of the worst affected regions of the world by climate change and Asian states’ environmental reform policies are increasingly dynamic. Asia is home to two non-Western developed nations and a host of emerging powers, all of whom seek increased roles in global governance. The U.S. seeks to enhance relations with Asian partners on all of these affairs.
This is not the first time a US president sought to improve ties with Asian states, but it is perhaps the first time that an American president’s renewed diplomacy enshrined improving cooperation with regional organizations as a core priority. Hardly a week goes by now when Obama or one of his senior officials is not engaged in some senior-level dialogue with an Asian counterpart in lieu of an upcoming meeting of a regional or global governance mechanism. Witness Gates’ attendance of the ASEAN+ Defense Ministerial and Hillary’s several trips and high profile statements at the ASEAN Regional Forum last July and the ASEAN Summits last April and two weeks ago.
Obama’s re-engagement is meant to enhance the longevity and resilience of American leadership in Asian affairs. No doubt, the re-emergence of China, India, Indonesia, and other Asian states as loci of regional power fundamentally alters regional dynamics that America has traditionally dominated. Wealth and power are now ebbing from the West and flowing to the East, and the global financial crisis is accelerating this process. This arch-trend will change the nature of cooperation and competition in the region, and in order to sustain leadership, America must rethink, repair, and retool its relations.
This transformative moment in American diplomacy is not an effort to stop China’s dominance in the region and safeguard against China’s potential emergence as a regional hegemon. When China opened up and instituted sweeping economic and political reforms in the years following the Nixon-Kissinger visits to Beijing in 1972, relations with America became a critical component of China’s development strategy. If not for relations with America, the pace of China’s economic development and re-emergence in world affairs would not have been as swift. America has never sought to contain and constrain China’s rise. If that had ever been a US goal, then America has failed spectacularly.
Indeed, the multipolar (some would say non-polar) world in which China’s rise takes place precludes the possibilities of either China successfully attaining regional preponderance or America successfully containing China. Globalization and ever-deepening economic interdependence make it improbable, if not impossible, for competing Cold War-style power blocs to emerge. The march of global capitalism means the world is increasingly becoming one highly complex economy on which the future prosperity of both China and America relies. As Chinese, American, and European leaders now regularly state, we are all in the same boat, and that boat’s name is Capitalism.