WASHINGTON: There’s an increasing consensus in Washington that America’s future lies in the Pacific. It’s one of the few things both parties can agree on. Unfortunately, if we can’t reach an agreement to get our fiscal house in order, the governments in the Asia-Pacific region will have every reason not to take our strategy seriously.
Republicans and Democrats agree that “the future, and the history, of the 21st century will be written in the Asia-Pacific region,” declared the State Department’s top official for the region, Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell. While the US is not abandoning the Middle East, Europe, or the rest of the world, he said, “the wheel has been turned and that we are now proceeding in what is our national destiny – as an Asia-Pacific strong partner.”
But to be that strong partner, Campbell went on, “as important as anything else we do is how we conduct ourselves domestically. [Whether we] get our domestic budget situation resolved, and whether we will be able to successfully engage in several of our domestic challenges, is at the heart of how Asia views our enduring partnership in the region.”
Campbell, a veteran Asian hand, quoted Australia’s defense minister as saying America “is one comprehensive budget agreement away” from removing regional doubts about our commitment — an assessment with which Campbell vigorously agreed. The problem, so far, is getting that agreement, with the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration looking increasingly likely and even the first-ever US government default a possibility.
Campbell was the keynote speaker at a day-long forum at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that featured the release of a new book, entitled Crux of Asia, that contained essays by both Chinese and Indian scholars, as well as by Carnegie’s own Ashley Tellis and Sean Mirski, on the changing global order, regional security, non-proliferation, space, and energy security. The anthology covers the rapid rise of China, the less dramatic but still substantial growth in India and many of Asia’s smaller nations, and reactions across the region to the Obama Administration’s Pacific-focused strategy.
Campbell said he has been asked repeatedly if the US can really sustain the new security strategy announced a year ago that calls for a “rebalancing” of America’s security focus to Asia and the Pacific. He said he believes strongly “that is set” in a bipartisan way among Democrats and Republicans and among a variety of constituencies including trade, economics, and security. While public discussion of the Pacific strategy has emphasized security — at times to the point of implying a new Cold War with China — Campbell emphasized economic issues, urging American companies to seek more exports to Asia and saying the US must be open to capital investments from Asia in return.
Campbell also argued that American policies on Asia have been too narrowly focused on Northeast Asia — Japan, China, and the Koreas — and called for greater attention to Southeast Asia, including Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand.
One unintended consequence of the new strategy, Campbell acknowledged, was that the emphasis on the Pacific had been taken in many European capitals to mean “that somehow we have turned away from Europe and we were not engaged in Europe as we were in the past.” That’s simply untrue, he said, arguing that everything of consequence the US has accomplished worldwide in the last several decades was done with our European partners. But, he lamented, “the glaring hole” in US relations with Europe was that “we have not had a deep dialogue with Europe on Asia.”
When Campbell took questions from the audience, most of them tried to get clearer pronouncements on America’s role in the growing tensions between China and its regional neighbors over a number of small islands and reefs scattered from the South China Sea to the southern tip of Japan. Although historically there was little interest in who owned which bits of uninhabited rock, bitter competing claims have emerged since the discovery of what could be substantial deposits of oil and natural gas around them.
Like most US officials, Campbell tried to duck the issue of who owns the islands, instead making the standard call for “calmer heads” to prevail and bring down tensions. He specifically refused to comment on whether the US-Japan security agreement committed America to defending Japan in a conflict with China over their disputed islets.
In December, the House-Senate conference approved a provision in the defense authorization bill committing the US to the island’s defense — but that was a mere “sense of Congress” clause not binding on the Administration. Meanwhile, the substantive spending bill that would put the Pentagon’s 2013 funding on a solid basis remains in limbo.