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Strengthening the U.S. Role in Asia

Interviewee: Evan A. Feigenbaum, Adjunct Senior Fellow for East, Central, and South Asia
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
November 16, 2011

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While President Obama continues a nine-day, high-level visit to Asia, there has been speculation about a major shift in U.S. policy toward Asia, but Asia expert Evan A. Feigenbaum says the idea of a "shift" overstates the situation, as the United States has been at "at the center of the security system in Asia" since 1945. He says a more accurate portrayal is that "as the United States draws down in Afghanistan and Iraq, that is freeing up diplomatic, political, and other strategic resources that will enable us to strengthen a long-standing position in Asia." Feigenbaum says it would be wrong to reduce the U.S. commitment to the Asian region, as that could cause serious problems for the nations that rely on a U.S. presence. "The central strategic reality of Asia today is that economics and security are increasingly in collision," he says. "What you see are countries that are deeply integrated with China economically and depend on China for their own economic growth. But China scares them silly, so those [same] countries are tacking toward the United States for closer security partnerships."

President Obama is currently on a nine-day Asian tour that kicked off with the APEC summit in Honolulu. Australian scholar Geoffrey Garrett (VOA) says this trip marks "a strategic pivot in U.S. foreign policy away from the Middle East and the war on terrorism and toward the Asia Pacific." Do you agree?

I think that notion of a "shift" is overstated. The United States has been essentially at the center of the security system in Asia since the end of the Second World War. There's no question that the United States is paying a lot of attention to what's happening in Asia, but this notion of some gigantic pivot obscures the degree to which there are some really central pillars of American policy in the Pacific that have roots that go back decades.

It isn't as if the United States suddenly woke up in the last year or two and discovered that it ought to play an important role in security in Asia. The notion of some gigantic pivot isn't helpful because it suggests that the United States is kind of a herky-jerky super power that swings wildly from focusing on one thing to focusing on another thing. Firstly, that doesn't really describe reality, and second, it's not very reassuring to Asian countries and particularly to U.S. allies to see the United States described that way. It's better and more accurate to describe the situation this way: As the United States draws down in Afghanistan and Iraq, that is freeing up diplomatic, political, and other strategic resources that will enable us to strengthen a longstanding position in Asia.

There are opportunities that have been created in the last few years that didn't exist before. So if you look at something like the U.S.-Vietnam relationship, for example, there are opportunities in that relationship that didn't exist in 2005, much less in 1995 or in 1985. The good news is that, as opportunities are being created and windows are opening, the United States is beginning to seize on some of those.

Vietnam, the Philippines, and some other Asian countries are all looking for U.S. support for their claims for rights in the South China Sea, which China claims. Will the United States take sides against China or will it try to remain neutral?

The United States has quite studiously avoided taking anyone's side on the claims and has focused more on freedom of navigation and customary rights in international waters. That's consistent with an American role in sea lanes in Asia that has provided reassurance to a lot of countries for a long time. That's a good place for the United States to be. I've never understood why the United States can't pursue good relations with China and good relations with these other countries too.

As the United States draws down in Afghanistan and Iraq, that is freeing up diplomatic, political, and other strategic resources that will enable us to strengthen a long-standing position in Asia.

The central strategic reality of Asia today is that economics and security are increasingly in collision. The United States has for six decades basically provided security in Asia and had largely provided economic-related public goods as well by keeping its market open to Asian exports and by being a leader on regional and global trade liberalization. But the situation now is that China increasingly is providing economic public goods to the region while the United States continues to provide security-related public goods. And when I say China's providing the economic public goods, I mean that, at a time of austerity in Europe and a really slack global demand in the United States and in traditional export markets, Chinese demand is increasingly powering the growth of major Asian economies. So that disconnect between economics and security creates a very different strategic set-up and it's a challenge for the United States and for everybody else.

What you see are countries that are deeply integrated with China economically and depend on China for their own economic growth. But China scares them silly, so those [same] countries are tacking toward the United States for closer security partnerships. The question over time for countries like Vietnam is: How do you balance that set of economic and security interactions--one set disproportionately with China, the other increasingly with the United States? For the United States, the question is, while we continue to be a security provider, how do we remain central to the economic game in Asia? How do we continue to provide public goods and show some leadership? That's why things like regional trade agreements, like this negotiation going on over the Trans-Pacific Partnership become important.

What is that?

This is a trade agreement that dates back prior to the Obama administration, but the administration has now picked up the ball in a big way. Essentially it's getting some of the countries within APEC, which are prepared to move forward on trade liberalization to become the first movers within the larger APEC group. The United States has become quite central in that, which is a good thing because the United States had not been so active on trade for the last few years.

The other day, Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) advocated rather forcefully for major defense spending cuts, including for U.S. air bases in Okinawa, which he says serve no purpose except to destabilize the Japanese government. Overall, he seemed to be saying we have too much security in Asia. Do you agree with that?

No, I don't. There's potential for a much more volatile security environment in Asia. One of the reasons that the security environment hasn't become more volatile there is because of the consistent and steady role that the United States has played in the region. When you think about all of the trade that the United States does with Asia, the fact that our growth and employment here is increasingly connected to what's happening economically in Asia, you can begin to see why a more volatile security environment wouldn't be in the U.S. interest. So you have to ask: Without the United States in the security equation, can we safely assume that the security environment in Asia would simply merrily roll along in the stable way that we've seen for the last few decades? The answer is "No." I think the potential would be there for much more security competition among countries in the region, therefore arms races, and a much less stable environment that wouldn't be in the U.S. interest and certainly isn't in the U.S. economic interest.

What you see are countries that are deeply integrated with China economically and depend on China for their own economic growth. But China scares them silly, so those [same] countries are tacking toward the United States for closer security partnerships.

So to say that the United States should be focusing on economic growth and jobs, and therefore we should dramatically reduce or withdraw from our security responsibilities in Asia, really obscures the interconnections between a stable security environment in Asia, to which the United States is essential. Without security in Asia, you can't have those economic benefits, and without the United States you wouldn't have security in Asia, in my view.

Is there much support in the United States for doing more in Asia, or are we not asking the public to do more there?

Well it depends what you mean by "do more." For instance, I think the United States, if it wants to remain relevant in Asia, needs to be more of a leader on trade liberalization in the region. Trade is politically fraught in American domestic politics, so leaders really have to make the case that trade and investment is job-creating and growth-conducive. I think that case can be made, and as it's made public support for U.S. trade agreements in Asia ought to grow, but I'm not going to pretend that it's easy. On the security side, I'm not sure that it's an either/or. The United States has certain security responsibilities globally. It's had certain security responsibilities in Asia, and if it begins to draw down from that part of the world, it will find, I think, that its economic and security interests are quite closely intertwined in Asia. You can't just talk about Asia strictly as a set of economic challenges and opportunities for the United States. Economic opportunities don't exist without security, and the security wouldn't exist without certain kinds of American commitments and activities.

How important is the relationship with China to the United States?

The challenge of China is changing for the United States in some very interesting ways. American policy toward China has been very consistent for several decades, but China's grown a lot weightier in regional and global affairs. China has more vulnerabilities and thus it ought to have more incentives to cooperate, but I think what we're seeing is a disconnect between economics and security. If you look at something like the financial crisis, you have elites in China that have reached diametrically opposed conclusions about what that means strategically from looking at the same facts and evidence. You have economic managers in China that look at the global economic situation and they say, "Oh, my goodness! Demand in the United States is slack. Europe is in austerity. So these markets that were so central to China's export-led economic model, are drying up. This isn't economically so good for us." Then you have security and strategy elites in China who look at what's been happening in the global economy and reach the opposite conclusion. They say this confirms that the United States is "in decline." China is on the rise, and I think that's produced this disconnect where, among security elites in China, you've had some chest-pounding behavior in the last couple of years, but you have economic managers who are much more cautious.

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