Op-Ed

Decent Asia Policy, Needs Work

David Shambaugh

With the Bush administration entering its last 18 months in office, it is time to take stock of its foreign policy record. While U.S. relations with Africa, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and Russia under President George W. Bush all receive poor to mixed reviews, Asia policy must be considered a net success.

The administration has been fairly adroit in managing some key challenges—notably North Korea and Taiwan—and it has generally done a good job of managing relations with the three principal powers in the region—Japan, China and India. But it has been less effective in other areas.

Going forward, Washington must build on its successes, but it must also recalibrate its strategy to manage regional complexities.

An effective American policy in such a complex region requires closer ties with Beijing and New Delhi, deeper engagement with Asean and Central Asia, a recalibrated Japan policy, an appreciation of the increased regional role of China, adjusting to changing security dynamics and a new institutional architecture, and a more proactive and engaged regional diplomacy at the official and nonofficial levels.

First of all, Washington needs to move beyond its Japan-first policy and its orientation towards alliances. Both are outdated and need to be adjusted. Asia’s future lies with China and India, not with Japan. Moreover, Japan is afflicted by a mortal wound in its regional identity and influence—the “history” issue. This situation is not good for Japan, for Asia, or for the United States.

Secondly, the real strategic question for Washington is the balance between military hedging and diplomatic engagement with Beijing. The United States needs to engage more and hedge less.

Hedging begets counterhedging by Beijing and, in any event, creates the perception of a semicontainment policy by Washington. Such geopolitical maneuvering can quickly aggravate ties with allies, risk escalating unforeseen crises, and undercut cooperation on a wide range of important regional and global issues where U.S. and Chinese interests converge.

Third, the United States must pay increased attention to Southeast Asia and growing forms of multilateralism in Asia. The U.S. obsession with security alliances and APEC (seemingly the only multilateral forum deemed worthy of attention by Washington) has blinded the U.S. government to various subregional groupings, both governmental and nongovernmental levels. Asians take nongovernmental (so-called “Track II”) meetings very seriously as the place to forge consensus prior to governmental action.

One current example is the discussion about setting up a new Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Mechanism, an idea that grew out of the Six Party Talks on North Korea. While Beijing, Seoul and Moscow are all expressing interest, the United States is nowhere to be seen.

Fourth, the United States needs to better articulate its regional policies. The Bush administration has regrettably eschewed formal policy documents, such as the East Asia Strategy Report issued during the Clinton administration, and senior officials appear infrequently on Capitol Hill to explain U.S. calculations and policy on Asia.

Of course, there must be a strategy in order to articulate it, and it is not clear that the current administration has a comprehensive vision of the region that goes beyond strengthening alliances, hedging against China and rolling back the North Korean nuclear program. These are reactive tactics rather than proactive strategies.

Fifth, the United States needs to wed South and Central Asia more centrally to East Asia policy and strategy. Increasingly, Asia is becoming a seamless web from Afghanistan to the Pacific, but bureaucratically and intellectually the U.S. government has not adjusted to this reality.

When the United States finally “rediscovers” Asia, after the end of the Iraq conflict, Washington will find a markedly changed region.

While the Bush administration will bequeath a fairly strong regional record to its successor, the next U.S. administration will have to make substantial adjustments for the new realities.

More