Foreign Policy

5 things the US must do to avoid losing influence in Asia

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Washington’s failure to anticipate recent political developments among its traditional Asia-Pacific partners have led to alarming setbacks for America’s so-called Asia pivot.

These episodes threaten to impede Washington’s postwar role of helping to ensure the security and prosperity of the region just as a new U.S. president assumes office.

{mosads}Part of any policy maker’s job is to consider the unimaginable in order to prepare for crises and the unexpected.

The Pentagon, for instance, has war plans in its files for adversaries and allies alike. To not do so would be an abandonment of the Department of Defense’s national security responsibilities.

Yet, there seems to have been a failure by Washington to prepare for new governments coming to power in allied countries of the Asia-Pacific. The cases of Thailand and the Philippines come to mind. Both have been handled poorly by the Obama Administration and may foretell of future troubles.

Exhibit A: Thailand. In May of 2014, following a half year of political crisis that many thought was heading towards civil war, the Thai military launched a coup against sitting Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. The military put in place a junta and later Royal Thai Army Commander in Chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha was elected as the new prime minister of the country.

The U.S. handled the change of regime in Bangkok clumsily. Public criticism by Washington of Thailand’s new government and its human rights failings became the norm, sanctions were imposed and joint military programs were scaled back. The result? Bangkok, Washington’s oldest treaty ally in Asia, moved closer to Beijing’s orbit, enhancing commercial, diplomatic and military ties.  

Exhibit B: The Philippines. In May of this year, Rodrigo Duterte was elected the 16th president of the Philippines on a platform that included combating the illegal drug trade through law and order measures. The President kept his campaign promise by initiating the Philippine Drug War and supporting the extrajudicial killings of thousands suspected of being involved in the drug trade. This followed with pointed U.S. criticism of Duterte’s tactics.

Duterte has bristled at judgments from Washington, calling Obama a “son of a whore” and telling the U.S. president to “go to hell.” He has also expressed a desire to free Manila from its dependency on Washington, announcing in Beijing (to the applause of those present) the Philippines’ “separation” from the United States and its desire to align more closely with Beijing while pursuing a more “independent” foreign policy.

In the defense of the Obama Administration, the new governments in Bangkok and Manila have presented their fare share of difficulties and not all of the blame lies with Washington. Yet, the U.S. was caught flat-footed in both instances, failing to understand its allies’ concerns that contributed to the fallouts in relations.

The 800-pound gorilla in the room and underlying cause of Bangkok’s and Manila’s distance is the rise of China. Both Bangkok and Manila are initiating a balancing act between Washington and Beijing, a dance that is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. (This approach is contrasted by Tokyo, Hanoi and Delhi, each of which are hardening their defenses and geopolitical alignments to cope with an increasingly assertive Beijing.)  

Taking these factors into consideration, the following steps need to be taken by Washington in order to avert a further erosion of its influence in Asia:

  1. Obtaining a clearer understanding of the geopolitical, security and economic concerns of the players in the region. This will require sustained U.S. diplomatic outreach and a greater emphasis on carefully listening to the states involved.
  2. Demonstrating to its partners that the United States is invested in Asia over the long term. More frequent U.S. military visits to the region and assurances that Washington’s seemingly endless commitments in the Middle East will not distract from its responsibilities in the Pacific are in order.
  3. Abandoning the public lecturing of allies. Washington’s open criticism of Bangkok and Manila in recent years has been counterproductive. America’s legitimate concerns over human rights and dissent ought to be conveyed respectfully in closed-door meetings with its partners.
  4. Recommitting to America’s economic aid and investment in the region. While Asia has enjoyed impressive economic growth over the past 30 years, there are still areas that are lacking in development, i.e., Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Burma, Indonesia. There is no reason for the U.S. to cede to others the roles of investment and economic aid.
  5. Weighing the possible causes of allies and partners moving to China’s fold in the future, however improbable. What would cause Seoul or Delhi to throw in with Beijing? For good measure, what would need to happen for Tokyo and Singapore to do the same? Canberra? A lack of imagination and a failure to think outside of the box by American policy makers may lead to future blunders with consequences far heavier than recent missteps.

The next U.S. president will need to commit to a decades-long “surge” of new strategic thinking, diplomacy as well as military and commercial presence in the Asia-Pacific if it is to maintain its stabilizing influence in the region. Efforts short of this will likely change the region’s order from what we have known in the postwar era.

Ted Gover, Ph.D. is Instructor of Political Science at Central Texas College, U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton​, California​.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Asia Pivot Bangkok Barack Obama East Asia Manila Philippines Philippines Ted Gover Thailand United States

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