Is the Obama administration willing to back up Clinton's talk with action?
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton deserves credit for laying out a comprehensive vision for U.S. engagement in the coming Indo-Pacific century. She and her Asia team, led by Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, have been energetic in traveling to the region and laying down markers in support of U.S. alliances with Japan, South Korea, and Australia; strategic cooperation with India, including through an important new U.S.-India-Japan trilateral cooperation; a deeper relationship with Indonesia; freedom of navigation in the South China Sea; and engagement with the Pacific island nations. This activism is a reminder that Asia policy has a bipartisan base in Washington -- and that the United States never "left" Asia during the George W. Bush years. Indeed, Bush's historic opening to India in particular helped create a more favorable strategic environment for Barack Obama's regional engagement.
The harder question is whether the Obama administration is committed to maintaining a favorable balance of power in the Asia-Pacific -- without which Clinton's many laudable objectives will be impossible to meet. Obama's own proposed budget would cut American defense spending by $1 trillion over the coming decade. Meanwhile, China is developing sophisticated weapons expressly designed to exclude the U.S. military from the Asian littoral. It is difficult to understand how the United States can ramp up its security commitments and presence in Asia -- for which there is bipartisan support in Washington and widespread regional consent -- even as its commander in chief proposes hollowing out the country's armed forces.
It is also striking that Clinton's vision for Asia focuses more on one country than on any other. That country is not America's closest ally in the region, Japan. It is not the democracy of 1.3 billion Indians, whose strategic community identifies a convergence of interests with the United States in maintaining equilibrium in Asia, defeating terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and maintaining maritime security. It is, more than any other country, China -- a rising peer competitor -- that Clinton seems intent on reassuring. The administration's recent refusal to sell Taiwan advanced combat aircraft appears in line with this assessment.
This approach seems to get things backward; rather, it would seem that the burden is on China to reassure America. After all, the United States and its allies have been generating security in Asia for 60 years -- including for China since its economic liberalization in 1978. By contrast, China's rapid military modernization and external assertiveness today generate acute insecurity in the eyes of its many neighbors, eroding the stability that has underwritten Asia's economic miracle.
Clinton correctly notes that American economic leadership in Asia is critical. Measured by trade in goods and services plus investment flows, it is the United States -- not China -- that remains nearly all Asian countries' economic partner of choice. Yet until last week, the Obama administration had refused to send to Congress a free trade agreement with South Korea that had sat on the president's desk since his inauguration. The United States has downgraded its economic dialogue with Japan and continues to slow-roll a bilateral investment treaty with India. Technical-level negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership are no substitute for a robust strategy of economic leadership in the Indo-Pacific.
Former Obama Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg was fond of telling Asian elites that U.S.-China relations were like Anglo-American relations a century ago -- and that like Britain then, the United States today was preparing to peacefully cede leadership in international affairs to a rising China. This message went down very badly across Asia. As the late Indian international affairs scholar K. Subrahmanyam put it, Asians (including Indians) are quite happy to live under American preeminence -- and refuse to countenance its replacement by Chinese hegemony.
It will be costly and challenging for the United States to maintain Pacific primacy in light of the China challenge. Good speeches help, but actions matter more.
Daniel Twining is senior fellow for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a former member of the U.S. State Department's policy planning staff. .
The essay can be found here in its original form