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US faces dilemma in its Asia-Pacific Policy

15:33, May 10, 2011

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By Li Hongmei

Again the United States' strategy in the Asia-Pacific perches at a precarious juncture. When Obama took office three years ago, it seemed that he had a clear vision of his country's national security interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as a better appreciation of the evolving dynamics of the region. The White House even reset its formula to "come back" to the once-overlooked region of "geopolitical importance to the US interests."

To this end, it tries to underwrite its bilateral security commitments, albeit through a less threat-centric lens, and be more cognizant of the region's multilateral overtures by further anchoring US participation in regional multilateral institutions. This shift from a position of bilateral primacy to one of engaged bilateral and multilateral partnership - a "convergent security" approach - is taken as the best strategy for Washington to advance its strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific.

Just viewed from the economic perspective, the U.S. would keep its presence in Asia, considering the region is always taken as a primary destination for the U.S. export strategy. The U.S exports to Asia-Pacific region in 2009 reached US$ 618 billion, accounting for 58% of its total. For this, the U.S. cannot afford to be marginalized in Asia, and will never think of making a retreat.

Meanwhile, on the one hand, the system of Asian Alliances built up and cultivated for long by Washington is a crucial piece on the US chessboard of global strategies. On the other, the regional emerging powers also pose a test not only to the U.S. traditional preeminence in Asia, but act as a showcase of the fledgling new international order.

The current upheavals in Middle East and North Africa also dislocate the planning and implementation of the U.S. global strategies, and somewhat affect its Asia-pacific policies. As the Arab world reels from unrest, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has been charged with having a vague and, at times ad hoc, policy toward tumult in the region.

But, pressured by the public opinions at home to refrain from retracing the route of Iraq and Afghanistan to be bogged down in quagmire for years, this time, the Obama administration is trying to slim down its military commitment to Lybia, for example.

In spite of Obama's stated support for some Democratic movements in the Arab world, fear of Islamic extremism is impeding U.S. ambitions in the war-torn Lybia. Also, the sweeping unrest in the Arab world may alter the U.S. way to keep aggressive in the Asia-Pacific region.

The U.S. Senior officers who handle Asia-Pacific affairs have, hence, gone through an overall reshuffle. James Steinberg, the deputy secretary of state, and Jeffrey A. Bader, senior director for Asian Affairs on the National Security Council, are both considered "China-friendly." They recently left.

Led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, many in the Department of State successfully pushed for a more forceful U.S. attitude toward China in 2010, including more aggressive responses to allegedly Beijing's "core interest" in military expansion. It's also easy to spot the input of Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, in several of Hillary's speeches during her Asia visit; she stated that the "U.S. returns to Asia."

In the future, the Department of State will surely shape Obama's China policy. Thomas E. Donilon, the national security advisor who was just appointed last year, is also an expert on the Korean peninsula. He dealt with Beijing several times to urge China to pressure North Korea. It is said that Bader's successor will be Daniel Russel, a "Japan expert," who will further Obama's ongoing goal of strengthening America's Asia-Pacific alliances.

These personnel re-arrangements need to be approved by Congress and will not take effect in the immediate future. Yet it reveals the general direction of American policy: to ensure America's ability to react to "regional crises", say, North Korea, in the next year and half.

Also, the Obama administration wants to ensure the effectiveness of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and a successful hosting of the next APEC conference following the announcement of the U.S. joining the "Trans-Pacific Partnership." Continuing the "interacting while hampering" policy on China is another objective.

These personnel changes also imply that Washington D.C. intends to broaden and strengthen alliances with Asia-Pacific partners (Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, India, etc.). In light of the coming election, there is no way that Obama will soften his attitude on U.S.-China relations.

Be that as it may, the U.S. is now stepping into a plight of confusion when dealing with Asia-Pacific region, especially, with the rising powers like China----such as how to walk the tightrope between its indispensable alliances and these increasingly dependent emerging powers.

Right now, the death of Osama bin Laden gives Obama the freedom to attempt a shift, as it insulates him from Republican charges of 'weakness' and will help him to convince Americans that it is safe and responsible to withdraw from Afghanistan. For America to marshal the resources and intellectual energy for the Asia Pacific century, Obama will have to make this leap.

From an essay in the New Yorker, one would have an additional clue about Obama's foreign policy doctrine: Obama believes that the future of the global order will be determined in the Asia Pacific.

If this description of Obama's beliefs is accurate, then one can see his management of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in a slightly different light: he is winding down these wars not only in order to rebuild America's economy and improve its international standing, but also to recalibrate US foreign policy toward an Asia Pacific future.

In a nutshell, the U.S. overall readjustment of its Asia-pacific Policies comes with tremendous force on its surface, but, in the meantime, shows the vexing situation the U.S. is in at the time. And China, as a regional power, with its steady rise in strength and influence, is attracting more than others of the global attention.

Even though China has no access to the U.S. thinking and future layout of its Asia-Pacific policies, it will continue to persist in "good neighbor" policy while gaining the due leverage in the region to ensure a peaceful and secure environment for a steady development.

The articles in this column represent the author's views only. They do not represent opinions of People's Daily or People's Daily Online.

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About this column

Li Hongmei, editor and columnist of PD Online.


Li HongLi Hong

After 19 years working for China Daily and its website, Li Hong moved to english.people.com.cn in March 2009.

Li has been a reporter and column writer, mainly on China's economy and politics.

He was graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University, and once studied in University of Hawaii and the Poynter Institute in Florida.

Dai MinJohn
Dai Min

John Milligan-Whyte and Dai Min, the executive producers and co-hosts of the Collaboration of Civilizations television series adapted by the eight books they wrote in the America-China Partnership Book Series published in English and Mandarin in 2009-2010 that created the "New School of America-China Relations." They founded the America-China Partnership Foundation and Forum in 2008 and the Center for American-China Partnership in 2005, which was recognized in 2009 as "the first American think tank to combine and integrate American and Chinese perspectives providing a complete answer for America and China's success in the 21st century."