There has been a lot of commentary on the Obama administration's "pivot" (or "rebalance") to Asia here at Shadow Government. Most commentators have praised Secretary Clinton's activism towards Southeast Asia, but pointed out that the rhetoric of the pivot will look hollow without a real trade strategy and adequate resourcing for our forward military forces. This past month it looks like the wheels may have started coming off on the trade strategy axle.
In early September regional leaders met at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders meeting in Vladivostok, sans Barack Obama who was unwilling to skip town in election season, and courtesy of Vladmir Putin who was unwilling to schedule the meeting at a time the U.S. President could attend. President Obama's absence was not the end of the world: Bill Clinton skipped two APEC summits and managed to compensate the next year (for the record, George W. Bush missed none...but that was before we were "back in Asia" as the current White House likes to say). The real problem at Vladivostok was the hallway banter by the other delegates about TPP -- the Trans-Pacific Partnership -- that forms the core of the administration's strategy for building a regional economic architecture that includes us and strives for WTO-consistent trade liberalization and rule-making. The overall critique in Vladivostok was that the U.S. side is playing small ball on TPP, to the frustration of multiple stakeholders. The U.S. business community is worried at the lack of market access in the negotiations; the Australians and Singaporeans are hedging with Asian-only negotiations because of what they see as incrementalism by USTR; and Japanese officials are dismayed by administration signals discouraging Tokyo from expressing readiness to join TPP.
This all matters because of the other summitry gossip that is coming out of Asia. On November 18-20, the Cambodians will be hosting the East Asia Summit, which President Obama joined with great fanfare last year and which the president will be able to attend this year because it is after the U.S. elections. The main deliverable on economics at that summit will be a decision within the region to proceed with the RCEP -- an Asian "Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership" that includes the ten ASEAN states, Japan, China, Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand -- and does not include the United States. The Cambodians' current plan for the November summit is to hold an RCEP inaugural meeting while President Obama waits outside the room cooling his heels with Vladmir Putin (since Russia is also not included in the regional trade deal). Stunningly, our allies Japan, Australia ,and Korea all appear to be on board with this scenario.
At one level this resembles the silliness of a junior high school prom, but at another level it could be the moment people start writing the obituary for the "pivot." To prevent that, a returning Obama administration or a new Romney administration has to put more oomph into the current anemic U.S. trade strategy. The RCEP launch will be embarrassing, but since those talks have no prospect of hitting a WTO-compliant level of trade liberalization, the United States can retake center stage again by showing that it can form an even more impressive coalition of trade liberalizing states. This means getting Japan in to TPP; leveraging Canada and Mexico in the TPP process (which will also help us counter Brazilian efforts to separate South America from us); and beginning to move on a complementary trans-Atlantic FTA process. The "pivot" was never sustainable without like-minded allies in our hemisphere and Europe and now is the time to recognize that and develop a strategy accordingly.
The next administration will also have to demonstrate credibility by moving to secure trade promotion authority (TPA) from the Congress (just can't get around Article One Section Eight of the Constitution). Finally, the administration had better start thinking about new ways to engage on economic issues within the EAS that keep us in the regional dialogue without requiring a high-standard FTA with countries like Laos or Burma. Bob Zoellick was a master of that art at USTR when he pioneered the Enterprise for ASEAN Initiative -- a flexible framework that allowed a la carte participation by countries ranging from an FTA (Singapore) to establishing very basic economic dialogues (Cambodia).
In short, for trade to continue underpinning U.S. leadership in Asia, we will have to go global, be agile within the region, and give a shot of adrenaline to USTR. Otherwise, the "pivot" will be a minor footnote in the textbooks.
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"What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?" famously asked the early church father Tertullian. His question in the third century addressed the relationship between the reason of Greek philosophy embodied by Athens and the revelation of Judeo-Christian religion embodied by Jerusalem. Today's foreign policy equivalent of Tertullian's query could be "What hath Damascus to do with Darwin?" (the Australian city that is, not its namesake English naturalist)
Plenty, because oftentimes strategic opportunities transcend just one region. This is the case with the Middle East and Asia today. Looking at those regions together, the Obama administration has a strategic opportunity to push far-reaching changes that will anchor American interests for a long time to come. Here I will echo many of the good points that Dan Blumenthal makes in his post below. The White House (and the Asia policy shop at the State Department) should be applauded for last week's moves in Asia, including plans to base a small contingent of Marines in Darwin, Australia, support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and further development of the AirSea Battle Concept. If one doubts the significance of these moves, just a glance at the querulous reactions from China tells another story. This new posture is all the more significant -- and welcome -- considering that the Obama Administration took office less than three years ago intent on pursuing a dubious "G-2" partnership with China.
While I share Dan's concerns about the administration's commitment to resourcing America's forward posture in Asia and political will to follow through on free trade, the fact of these decisions is still encouraging and merits bipartisan support. Basing a small contingent of Marines in Australia sends a political signal that far surpasses its military significance, and will bring positive reverberations not just in Canberra but also in Jakarta, Hanoi, Manila, and Bangkok. And more may be yet to come, if the recent liberalization trends in Burma continue and Secretary Clinton's upcoming visit, encouraged by Aung San Suu Kyi, helps lure Naypyitaw out of Beijing's orbit. If even Burma comes in from the cold, Beijing will have realized the dubious geopolitical distinction in the last two years of having alienated almost every other nation in its neighborhood (or at least everyone not named "North Korea").
Yet as Dan argues, the White House would be undercutting its own strategic initiative if it treats these moves in East Asia as pivots away from the Middle East and South Asia. Our nation's actions in one region shape our credibility and power in other regions. India realizes this, hence its hesitation to partner with an America that it worries will be drawing down prematurely in Afghanistan and further complicating India's rough neighborhood. China and Russia realize this, hence their efforts to constrain American influence by vetoing the recent U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria and watering down an emerging resolution on Iran, which as Mike Singh and Jacqueline Deal point out remains China's favored partner in the region.
Syria represents the crucible of strategic opportunity. The once-timorous Arab League has now spoken boldly that Assad must go. The European Union, too politically paralyzed to deal adequately with its own economic crisis, has marshaled the political will to impose severe sanctions on Damascus that are now bearing fruit. The people of Syria have braved the massacres of over 3,500 of their fellow citizens and persist in their demands for a new government in Damascus. It is time for the Obama Administration to capitalize on this multilateral momentum by leading a concerted diplomatic effort to end Bashar Assad's barbaric rule.
While moral concerns alone justify the demise of the Assad regime, the strategic consequences would be enormous. Iran would lose its only regional ally. Hamas and Hezbollah would lose a valuable patron state. Lebanon would have the chance to reclaim its sovereignty. Turkey would see the benefits of being a responsible regional actor. Iraq's border security would improve. The Green Movement in Iran would likely be resuscitated and pose a new challenge to Ayatollah Khameini's regime in Tehran that is otherwise barreling ahead with its nuclear weapons program. China and Russia would lose both a client state and international credibility, and democratic reformers in China might even be energized.
China, after all, sees its subtle rivalry with the United States playing out not just in East Asia but across the world. As David Ignatius describes, when American leadership is perceived to be diminishing in a region, other actors will step in to fill the void, such as the Saudis are doing in the Middle East. And if America abdicates our leadership in the Middle East, the effect will be to undercut rather than strengthen our posture elsewhere such as Asia. This is why Marines in Darwin and democracy reformers in Damascus are important players on the same global chessboard.
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The past two
months have witnessed a series of revelations regarding China's growing
military power. In December 2010, Admiral Robert Willard, Commander of U.S. Pacific
Command, declared that the aircraft carrier-killing DF-21D anti-ship ballistic
missile had achieved initial operating capability. Last month, photographs and
video of the J-20 fifth-generation stealth aircraft, a plane considerably more
advanced than observers expected of China, appeared on the internet.
On Monday, Ross Babbage, the founder of Australia's respected think tank, the Kokoda Foundation, issued a monograph, Australia's Strategic Edge in 2030 that examined the changing military balance in the Western Pacific and its implications for Australia. It is a report that demands the attention of policy makers in Washington.
Babbage argued that China's aggressive military modernization is rapidly undermining the pillars that have supported American presence in the Western Pacific for more than half a century. As he puts it, "China is for the first time close to achieving a military capability to deny United States and allied forces access to much of the Western Pacific rim." He catalogues China's anti-access efforts, which include cruise and ballistic missiles that can attack ships and fixed targets; a massive investment in cyber-warfare capabilities, with reports of tens of thousands of Chinese cyber intrusions daily; new classes of both nuclear and conventionally powered submarines; a substantial increase in the Chinese nuclear stockpile; a huge investment in space warfare; and a massive increase in fighter bomber and other airborne strike capabilities.
Babbage argued that Australia will need to take drastic action in order to protect its interests in a region increasingly dominated by China. These include acquiring a fleet of 12 nuclear-powered attack submarines (the report hinted at leasing or purchasing Virginia-class SSNs from the United States), developing conventionally armed ballistic and cruise missiles, increasing Australia's investment in cyber warfare, and hosting American forces on Australian soil.
LARRY DOWNING/AFP/Getty Images
Australian voters will cast their ballots Saturday to choose potentially their third Prime Minister in nine weeks. Still in a post-putsch daze following Prime Minister Gillard's "et tu, Julia?" ouster of Kevin Rudd in June, the electorate will now decide between either rewarding Gillard and the Labour Party's palace coup with a full term, or starting afresh by choosing the colorful Tony Abbott and a Liberal Party government.
Most polls show an essentially deadlocked race, with the added wild card of the third party Greens potentially securing enough votes to force a hung parliament or coalition government. Absent a clear sign from voter surveys, some prognosticators have looked for other sources of insight, such as Harry the Psychic crocodile who picked a Gillard victory. The fact that the purportedly clairvoyant reptile's method of "picking" involves eating a poultry carcass attached to a photo of the candidate's face is decidedly not confidence-inducing. Put it this way -- it is rarely a good thing for a political campaign to be represented by a dead chicken. Especially a dead chicken devoured by a crocodile.
One of the paradoxes of the tight campaign is that conditions in Australia overall are quite good, a fact which would normally hand the ruling government a comfortable victory. Australia has weathered the global economic crisis well, technically avoiding recession by suffering only a single quarter of GDP contraction, with unemployment holding at 5.3%. While some credit goes to the banking sector's avoidance of toxic debt and an adept government stimulus package, Australia's resilient foundations are rooted in the remarkable economic boom and fiscal stability achieved under former Prime Minister John Howard, which contributed to Australia's No. 1 ranking in the 2008 Legatum Prosperity Index.
On economic issues, the electorate's increasingly fond memories of the Howard government likely account for some of the Liberal Party's resurgent appeal. And voter concerns over a return to budget deficits under Labour are real, as are lingering resentments over Rudd's disastrous campaign to push a 40 percent "super-profits tax" targeted at the Australian mining industry, which had been a major driver of the past decade of growth.
Foreign policy issues have played almost no role in the campaign. Nevertheless, nations in the region, and especially the United States, have a substantial stake in the outcome. Australia is one of America's strongest and longest-standing allies, the only nation to have fought alongside the United States in every war of the past century. U.S.-Australia relations under the Obama administration have been cordial though not particularly robust -- and certainly not helped by President Obama's two cancelled visits. In an interview this week with the Diplomat, former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer made the telling comment that "the Obama administration has placed less emphasis on alliances and allies. This means that Australia by its very nature has a lower profile in Washington than we had during the Bush administration, particularly during the Howard years."
However, in recent months the Obama administration has substantially improved its strategic posture in the Asia-Pacific. From the joint naval exercises with South Korea, to stabilizing relations with Japan, to upgrading ties with Vietnam, to serving notice that the United States does not accept China's hegemonic assertions in the South China Sea, the administration seems to have found a new compass in the region. While new partnerships with nations such as India and Indonesia will feature in a successful Asia strategy, America's existing alliances in the region will still serve as the foundation.
Here is where the U.S.-Australia relationship is indispensable. Both nations share interests and values, and often a common perspective on pressing regional and global issues -- whether the war against jihadist terrorism, China's growing assertiveness (even using Fiji -- yes, Fiji -- as a proxy), democracy and human rights promotion, maritime security, free trade, or energy security. America has no stronger ally in the region. Whatever the outcome of tomorrow's elections, they represent an opportunity for the Obama administration to reinvigorate ties with this enduring alliance partner.
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Australia has released a pretty far-reaching and extraordinary defense white paper that is getting a lot of attention, and raising a lot of questions about the future of great power politics in the Pacific. Here is Andrew Schearer writing today in the Wall Street Journal Asia:
Asia has long looked to the United States to underwrite two critical public goods: free trade and security. Now there is anxiety in the region about its continuing willingness and ability to so, and governments are looking for ways to adapt. For the latest example, look no further than Australia's defense policy paper, released on Saturday.
1) Doubling Australia's submarine fleet with next-generation submarines,
2) Replacing Australia's surface combatants with new-generation warships,
3) Expanding Australia's amphibious lift capacity,
4) Purchasing 1,100 protected combat vehicles of various types for the Army,
5) Replacing the Army's helicopter fleet with latest-generation aircraft,
6) Improving the training and equipping of Australia's special operations forces,
7) Acquiring 100 F-35 fifth-generation strike-fighter aircraft,
8) Upgrading and expanding airlift, air early warning, and air refueling capabilities,
9) Acquiring long-range strategic strike land-attack cruise missile inventories,
10) Upgrading ISR capabilities across the force,
11) Acquiring cyber and electronic warfare capabilities,
12) Acquiring independent space mission assurance capabilities,
13) Exploring the development of missile defense capabilities to defend troops in field and Australia's population and key infrastructure.
Not too shabby. And this from the government of Mandarin-speaking, left-wing Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, no imperialist war-monger he.
Schearer, in his Journal piece, is troubled by this, and I think he anticipates the reaction of some U.S. conservatives:
[I]t's clear that if the Obama administration does not show it is serious about maintaining the U.S. military presence in Asia, Australia may end up with no choice but to get serious about strengthening its military defenses, even beyond what is in the policy paper. "Smart power" has its place, but U.S. allies in Asia would feel more secure if America backed reassuring rhetoric with real military muscle.
But why is it a bad thing for our allies to strengthen their defenses? Absent some major surprise, the relative decline of U.S. power seems like a pretty sturdy long-term trend, and we shouldn't do anything to catalyze it further than recent events may have already -- say, by assuming that future conflicts will necessarly look like our present ones or that the old axiom of power abhorring vacuums won't apply to new great powers. That said, I see the Australian white paper as a reason to be optimistic that America's relative decline can be managed in a smart way that leaves us in a good strategic position. Westhawk puts his finger on one reason why:
If the Australian defense ministry can reach these conclusions, why shouldn't the Japanese, South Korean, Taiwanese, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Singaporean, Indian, and Russian defense ministries also formulate these same planning assumptions?.... The greatest loser from such a chain reaction would be China.
I'd go even further. The United States should want the Indians, and the Japanese, and the South Koreans, and the Indonesians to reach the same conclusions. We should actively encourage them to reach the same conclusions. And that goes for our NATO allies as well. (The Russians, not so much.) We should work to get more and more of America's like-minded allies investing in the capabilities to shoulder a greater share of our collective defense. And to that end, the perception that the "unipolar moment" is passing can actually play in our favor, as will the fact that China's "peaceful rise" remains an open question at best.
This is not an argument for America to retrench -- to send the signal to our partners that they are free-riders who need to be weened off a dependence on U.S. power. To the contrary, it's a reason to do even more with our Pacific allies and to expand our joint capabilities. The rise of potentially aggressive great powers creates a natural incentive for their wary neighbors to provide more for their own defense, and I think we actually further that trend by showing a greater resolve to do so ourselves.
Less clear is whether what is true for Australia (and perhaps other Asian powers) will also be true for, say, Europe. But that's a whole other problem.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.