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By Ernest Z. Bower, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Feb 3, 2012

Over the past two weeks, U.S. defense secretary Leon Panetta and his key officers, including Admiral Robert F. Willard, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, have actively explained details of President Barack Obama’s January 5 announcement about the new defense budget and its implications for the Asia Pacific. Southeast Asian counterparts want to clearly understand U.S. intentions so they can calibrate China’s response and be able to translate joint plans with the United States into their domestic political discourse.

Comprehensive Engagement

As the United States takes steps to fulfill Obama’s promise of a policy “pivot” toward Asia, U.S. policymakers should invest ample time briefing colleagues throughout the Asia-Pacific region regarding U.S. intentions. In so doing, it will be vital to point out that the enhanced U.S. presence in the region is part of a comprehensive strategy that includes robust economic and political engagement. In other words, the United States must be clear that its Asia-Pacific strategy is not a security-dominated approach but instead a broad and long-term commitment. The United States is reemphasizing long-standing security and economic commitments to the region and adding new political focus.

Balance Is Key

A summit with leaders of the member states of ...

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Balance is the most important ingredient in this recipe. If Asian countries are not convinced that the United States intends to step up its game in terms of economic competitiveness, they will not embrace the security aspect of the “pivot.” Specific actions in this regard are important and include the following: continued progress and leader-level focus on trade, specifically the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations; talking to Americans about the contribution of Asian trade to U.S. economic recovery and long-term growth; welcoming investment from Asia; demonstrating a willingness to table economic and financial issues at the East Asia Summit (EAS); and organizing presidential- and/or cabinet-level business missions by U.S. CEOs to the region. Understanding these linkages and broadening the talking points of senior U.S. officials is important and should become a mantra supported by actions.

Reassure on China

Southeast Asia needs the United States to be clear about its intentions. It needs to understand that the U.S. endgame is to have good relations with China. An effective and sustainable grand strategy for the United States should aim to convince China that it can meet its energy, food, and water security goals and expand its economic might within regional security and trade frameworks.

The region is anxious because it does not know what China wants. It does not know how China will define itself in the coming decades. Economic power and growth are welcome, but using that new muscle to try to define sovereignty in disputed regions such as the South China Sea, China-India border, and elsewhere has raised alarm among China’s neighbors. Looking ahead to this year’s Chinese leadership transition, even the best China experts cannot say for sure which elements will define the country’s new posture in 2013 and beyond.

Paradoxically, while Southeast Asia’s uncertainty about China has motivated countries to encourage a more proactive U.S. role in the region, it also heightens Southeast Asian concerns that U.S. reengagement not be construed as trying to contain or oppose China.

Southeast Asia is now convinced that the United States is not in a spiraling economic decline: signs of recovery have encouraged leaders and policymakers that the U.S. model continues to work and produce results. On the other hand, fear of a U.S.–China condominium, or “G-2,” has also been put to rest. The United States and China have normalized and stabilized relations, but they are clearly not yet aligned on a preponderance of global issues. What no one in Southeast Asia wants is direct competition in a nouveau Cold War between the United States and China. Fortunately, both Beijing and Washington seem to agree on that point.

Rotations, Not Bases

Straight talk and following through on what is said is tactically the winning formula for the United States. Strategically, the United States must continue to deepen its relationships around Asia. It has to listen to and understand what traditional and new partners want and need. That posture is being reflected in the new defense approach in Asia. Admiral Willard has said that the focus is on “rotations, not bases,” signifying a lighter but likely more omnipresent footprint for the United States in Asia.

That is a smart and sustainable approach if executed well and consistently. Asia will likely see a new U.S. presence “inside the horizon” in the next decades—sharing facilities, emphasizing interoperability, conducting joint exercises, and, importantly, providing public goods such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Expect this effort not only to include treaty allies such as Australia, the Philippines, and Japan, but to expand to Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, and possibly Indonesia in the future.

The end goal is to engage China in these efforts. A significant benchmark would be to see China accept the invitation that has been tabled several times in the past to participate in regional exercises such as Cobra Gold. Building trust and expanding relationships with China’s military is a long-term goal for the United States. Doing so will put our partners in Southeast Asia at ease and provide a possible double dividend of peace and prosperity in the world’s most dynamic region.

© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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