The ongoing political impasse in Congress and last-ditch scramble to raise the debt ceiling caused President Obama to cancel his October visit to the Asia-Pacific region. Compounded by recent events in the Middle East, specialists in Washington and Beijing have seized upon these developments as fresh evidence of America’s declining role in Asia.
Such a narrow view is misguided. This perception ignores distinct advantages that the United States enjoys as the preeminent power in the region as a result of over a half a century of U.S. policy in Asia. Moreover, it understates the extraordinary challenges that China faces as it continues its development.
In the fields of security and diplomacy, American influence is unparalleled. U.S. military presence in Northeast Asia has guaranteed regional security since 1945. Faced with the rise of China, the Bush and Obama administrations have further integrated American ties with governments in South and Southeast Asia, most notably India. The Obama administration has also elevated to wide regional approval – with the notable exception of China – the role of regional institutions as mechanisms to complement America’s region-wide military, diplomatic, and economic presence. China’s hardline emphasis on territorial disputes in 2012 unnerved neighbors and provided further openings for the United States.
In economics, historically integrated trade relationships with Japan and South Korea are increasingly complimented by emerging trade links with regional players such as Indonesia, Vietnam, and even Burma. Approximately 60 percent of the goods that are exported from China and ASEAN are ultimately manufactures that go to the United States, Europe, and Japan; a statistic not lost on most Asian governments, including China. The bottom line—Asian traders know they need the U.S. market. President Obama’s initiatives reassure them that the United States will eschew damaging protectionism.
To be sure, China’s deep and evolving economic relations with many of these countries mean that American economic policies are in competition with China across the region. It is precisely this reality that has motivated America’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a proposed free-trade pact which seeks to establish a high standard, rules-based free-trade economic order that will continue to serve American interests.
The United States also has a long record of support from the majority of its partners in the region, even if many of these countries juggle their policies to balance relations with the United States and China. This was illustrated by the largely calm reaction from key partners to President Obama’s absence at October’s Asian summits, reflecting the preference of many Asian governments uncertain of a future in which China plays the role of Pacific hegemon.
In a tacit recognition of the strength of American engagement on its periphery, Chinese President Xi Jinping has initiated a strategic shift of his own, “rebalancing” China’s foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific with the aim of forging closer ties with its neighbors, while playing down differences. In recent months, Beijing has proposed a flurry of enhancements in existing trade, investment, infrastructure, and other interactions in meetings with the majority of Asia’s leaders. The notable exceptions remain Japan and the Philippines who continue to contest Chinese claims to disputed East China Sea and South China Sea territories.
The effect and extent of such overtures, however, should be put into perspective. China remains a “win-win” power – it continues to engage in regional and global affairs only when it believes there is an explicit advantage to be gained by doing so. This policy was in stark evidence throughout the Syria crisis in September, where Beijing remained firmly on the sidelines of the negotiations. China’s “free-riding” agenda is founded on carefully calculated policies aimed at maintaining its rapid rise.
Alarmist tendencies in Washington and predictions of American decline in Beijing understate the United States’ vast capabilities while downplaying China’s enormous long-term challenges which preclude a more influential international role for at least a decade or more.
As the United States moves forward with its rebalancing, it is faced with significant obstacles of its own. Against this background, Harvard University professor Joseph Nye has advised that the most serious danger for America in the current fluid regional and global situation is to overreact by turning inward. In contrast, President Obama’s rebalancing shows the openness and engagement in pursuit of smart power needed in the years ahead.
Adamson is a research associate at the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University. Sutter is professor of Practice of International Affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University and former National Intelligence Officer for East Asia and the Pacific.