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America's Pacific Century
Wednesday, 12 October 2011 04:01

Just one month ago was the tenth anniversary of 9/11, that tragic terrorist attack on New York and Washington.

In a brilliant article in Foreign Policy magazine, Hillary Clinton has turned the page on that decade by announcing that "The future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the center of the action".

Clinton's words are indeed most welcome.  The past ten years have been America's lost decade.  Ben Benanke once spoke of the great moderation in the economy.  But that was a mirage which presaged the US-created global financial crisis.  And President Bush's expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also weakened the economy, without making the world a safer place.   

As Clinton says, "In the next 10 years, we need to be smart and systematic about where we invest time and energy ... One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment -- diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise -- in the Asia-Pacific region".

The Asia-Pacific region has of course been a very important driver of the US economy. And the region is equally reliant on open US markets and technology.  But there is much more to do to strengthen and consolidate this important economic partnership. 

Clinton highlights the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement which will hopefully be approved by Congress this week, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which is being discussed.  The TPP would bring together economies from across the Pacific -- developed and developing alike -- into a single trading community. 

While TPP's goals are laudable, its negotiations are in fact very complex. The US insists that it include strong protections for workers, the environment, intellectual property, and innovation, and also promote the free flow of information technology and the spread of green technology, as well as the coherence of its regulatory system and the efficiency of supply chains. And one can never be sure that the US Congress will be in the mood to approve it when its time has come.  The free trade agreement with Korea has been languishing for years in America's messy trade politics.    

I believe that the best thing that the US could do to forge a meaningful partnership in the Asia-Pacific region would be to implement serious regulatory reforms to its financial sector, so as to avoid future financial crises.  But the US is still a long way from doing that.

The economic rise of the Asia-Pacific region also means that it "has become a key driver of global politics", reflecting the new economic power balance. Clinton highlights the importance of the US's treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand, as well as outreach to China, India, Indonesia, Singapore, New Zealand, Malaysia, Mongolia, Vietnam, Brunei, and the Pacific Island countries.

Clinton reserves the most attention for China which "represents one of the most challenging and consequential bilateral relationships the United States has ever had to manage".  She acknowledges that "fears and misperceptions linger on both sides of the Pacific. Some in our country see China's progress as a threat to the United States; some in China worry that America seeks to constrain China's growth. We reject both those views. The fact is that a thriving America is good for China and a thriving China is good for America. We both have much more to gain from cooperation than from conflict ... It is up to both of us to more consistently translate positive words into effective cooperation -- and, crucially, to meet our respective global responsibilities and obligations."

One of Clinton's top priorities has been to work with China to build mutual trust, and to encourage China's active efforts in global problem-solving, including through the Strategic and Economic Dialogue. 

The US and China are also working to increase transparency and reduce the risk of miscalculation or miscues between their militaries.  Clinton argues that both sides would benefit from sustained and substantive military-to-military engagement that increases transparency.  She is pushing China to join the US in forging a durable military-to-military dialogue.

Clinton argues for "a more robust and coherent regional architecture in Asia", and notes that the United States has moved to fully engage the region's multilateral institutions, such as ASEAN, APEC and the East Asia Summit.  "Our challenge now is to build a web of partnerships and institutions across the Pacific that is as durable and as consistent with American interests and values as the web we have built across the Atlantic".

Clinton's main audience in this paper seems to be the US Congress and the US people.  She is clearly concerned that as the Iraq and Afghan wars wind down, there are many who "seek a downsizing of our foreign engagement in favor of our pressing domestic priorities".  As she says, "these impulses are understandable, but they are misguided. Those who say that we can no longer afford to engage with the world have it exactly backward -- we cannot afford not to."

She notes the concern that many Asians have about the US's willingness to remain engaged and to lead.  And although she says "We can, and we will", there are many of us who doubt.  The recently discovered Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the US shows what a constant distraction the Middle East can be.

The world has been blessed to have Hillary Clinton as US Secretary of State. Very few in her position have been as intelligent and hard-working.  But even in these past 2 1/2 years, there are many in Asia who say that she has not been able to bring the Congress with her.

The Asia-Pacific region still has immense potential for driving global prosperity.  But the risks for stability are also enormous.  A strong US presence is necessary for maintaining stability -- even if the US sometimes provokes instability itself by selling arms to Taiwan, by receiving the Dalai Lama or sabre-rattling about China's exchange rate. Indeed, the US is the only country with the diplomatic and intelligence resources to lead the region.

We can only hope that the Congress listens to her carefully.  And that even if there is a Republican administration in office in 2013, it realizes the stakes involved.

One of the big problems is that the easiest way for the US government to obtain Congressional and public support for staying fully engaged in the Asia-Pacific region is to paint China as an enemy -- when in fact, the whole point is to make China a friend!   


America's Pacific Century, Hillary Rodham Clinton, US Secretary of State.  Foreign Policy Magazine.  October 11, 2011


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