Excess Consideration toward China Is Unnecessary: 'Return to the Asia Rebalance'

Jonathan D. Pollack and Jeffrey A. Bader — a researcher at the Brookings Institution and the former senior director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council, respectively — wrote a memorandum for President Obama which went up on the Brookings Institution’s website on Jan. 23 entitled, “Return to the Asia Rebalance.”

Brief Summary of the Memorandum:

Most countries in the region support the policy of rebalancing to Asia; however, China is wary of the policy and North Korea is opposed to it. This policy is well-timed. The United States must build upon policy successes and ensure that actions match words. The U.S. must further show that reorientation toward Asia is a long-term policy.

There are three challenges to be met: To protect and enhance the United States’ long-term interests, to deepen ties with U.S. allies and partners while reaching out to new ones, and to tackle these first two challenges without alienating an emerging China or creating military conflict.

To ensure success, skill management is necessary as well as occasional direct engagement from President Obama.

Pollack and Bader recommend the following steps:

1) Ensure that sequestration cuts do not damage U.S. readiness and capabilities in the western Pacific.

2) Conclude Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations in the first half of this year and convey support to China of its inclusion if it meets standards of admission.

3) Following the Chinese Communist Party’s Third Plenum, support the efforts of Chinese leaders to advance economic reform and conclude a U.S.-China bilateral investment treaty by 2016.

4) Bring important Asian partners into closer alignment with U.S. interests. The U.S. should support Prime Minister Abe’s proposal to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance, but should urge Mr. Abe not to stir up historic issues that hurt the relationship between China and Korea, such as visiting Yasukuni Shrine. The U.S. should also support Mr. Abe’s economic reforms. At the same time, the U.S. should press South Korean President Park to normalize Korea-Japan relations.

5) Pursue the de-escalation of territorial disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.

The political, security and economic elements of President Obama’s Asia rebalancing policy are clear and well-understood across the region.

However, the U.S. cannot ignore the severe damage it received to its standing in the region due to government dysfunction. Respect for the United States is based on its economic strength, its openness and effective governance, and military might, but these attributes are not so impressive today. The U.S. government shutdown and barely averted debt crisis have sent a negative message across the Asia region. President Obama’s nonattendance of the 2013 APEC and East Asia Summit meetings could not be avoided, but it hurt U.S. credibility. The president’s upcoming visit to Asia shows that the United States’ interest in Asia is not temporary.

Unease toward the U.S. as a security and economic partner is occurring during a rise in nationalism in many nations. This is clearly due to territorial disputes. The risk of incidents or accidents between Japan and China is heightened due to China’s establishment of an air defense identification zone. The United States must work to help ease tensions.

The Obama administration needs to strengthen its commitment to the Asia-Pacific region. Speeches and visits are important, but they must be bolstered by action.

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The above memorandum is again entitled “Return to the Asia Rebalance,” and it is very positive that people like Pollack and Bader are arguing for the importance of Asia. Since there are many pressing issues that must be addressed in the Middle East, the United States focus is often drawn to those issues. But there is no doubt of the importance of Asia with a rising China as a long-term issue. The U.S. has no choice but to focus on Asia from here on out.

The difficulty is how to shape policy toward Asia. This memorandum advises placing great value on allies, recognizing the danger of destabilization in Asia posed by the different nature of Communist China and its emergence, and developing policy based on this in Asia. However, the argument gives slightly too much consideration to China. It is inadequate to advise treating China and allied nations equally and just hope that a problem will not arise.

The authors should also recognize that on the issues of history among Japan, South Korea and China, the ones who fan the flames are primarily China and South Korea, where historic issues are utilized in local and international politics. Japan is not trying to stir up historic issues. Visiting Yasukuni Shrine is meant to express condolences to the people who gave their lives for their country. It has nothing to do with the militarism that China and South Korea are criticizing.

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