‘Rebalance’ to Asia calls for 3-pronged strategy

‘Rebalance’ to Asia calls for 3-pronged strategy
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Almost two decades ago, I was a Marine Corps infantry officer aboard an amphibious assault ship with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit deployed in the South China Sea. The ship I was on, the USS Belleau Wood, received orders to transit the Taiwan Strait during what later became known as the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, precipitated by Chinese military action and missile launches in the run up to Taiwan’s 1996 presidential elections. We were part of a show of substantial U.S. military force in the region ordered by then-President Clinton, which included two carrier strike groups. It was a powerful demonstration of American commitment and resolve in the Asia-Pacific.

I recently returned to the region, this time as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to assess the United States’s “strategic rebalance” in the region. I landed on Okinawa on April 1, the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa — another demonstration of our country’s history of resolve there.

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In 2011, President Obama announced the strategic rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, which involves once again pivoting our country’s focus — in terms of military and trade strategy — toward the region.

It’s a region full of immense opportunities. It holds half of the world’s population, it’s the fastest growing economic region in the world and it has tremendous export opportunities for our country.

But there are also challenges. The region is home to five nuclear nations, and seven of the 10 largest standing armies in the world. Territorial disputes, island-building and an unstable nuclear North Korea demand our country’s attention.

As Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter recently put it, the Asia-Pacific is “the defining region for our nation’s future.”

The Obama administration’s foreign policy strategies toward Iran, Russia and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, to name a few, have engendered deep skepticism in Congress. I’m a member who has been critical of these administration policies, along with others. But the call for a rebalance to the Asia-Pacific may be among Obama’s most compelling and important foreign policy initiatives to date, particularly if energy is included as a key part of the strategy.

Using a three-pronged rebalancing strategy — military, trade and energy — has the potential to benefit our country’s economy and our national security, and to ensure peace and prosperity as this dynamic region of the world continues to grow and as countries like China continue their rise.

It also has the potential to be the kind of enduring foreign policy strategy that results when the executive and the legislative branches work together. 

The military rebalance includes deploying our newest and most capable weapons systems to the region, ramping up our naval fleet in the Pacific, strengthening military cooperation between our traditional allies and others in the region, and ensuring that the 50,000 U.S. troops currently in Japan and Korea are optimally deployed. It also means ensuring that the U.S.-Japan alliance remains the cornerstone of security in the region, even as we relocate some of our Marines from Okinawa to places like Guam, Australia and Hawaii to enhance their operational durability throughout the region. 

For their part, our Asia-Pacific allies have shown commitment both politically and financially by agreeing to pay a substantial portion of the billions of dollars of construction costs for our ongoing military rebalance. 

While many questions still need to be resolved on these issues, we are moving in the right direction.

Trade, the second part of the Obama administration’s rebalance, is currently being debated in Congress. Trade agreements establish “rules of the road” for the new century. If we don’t establish such rules in the Asia-Pacific, China will. These agreements will help unlock new opportunities for growth and expansion for American workers, from those in the high-tech sector to our fishermen, ranchers and farmers. Currently, it’s estimated that 38 million jobs in the United States are tied to trade. The trade agreements being discussed in Congress are estimated to create 750,000 new jobs.

As a U.S. assistant secretary of State and as a director at the National Security Council under Condoleezza Rice, I worked on many of our nation’s current free trade agreements, including those with Korea, Singapore and Australia. Such agreements can benefit our workers and grow America’s economy by eliminating barriers to American-made exports.

Finally, there’s the promise of American energy, which has thus far been overlooked as a key part of the rebalance to the Pacific. American natural resources, particularly our vast reserves of natural gas, as well as oil and minerals, are much needed by Asian economies. Exporting these resources to Asian-Pacific markets is a win-win. It will create tens of thousands of good-paying jobs for American workers, deepen our country’s security ties with Japan and Korea, increase our economic ties with China, and dramatically and positively impact our trade imbalances in this part of the world. Most importantly, it will allow us to unlock our country’s economic might by enabling us, once again, to become the world’s energy superpower.

My state of Alaska has been reliably exporting clean-burning liquefied natural gas to Asian markets — mostly Japan — for more than 40 years. A massive, new project currently being developed in Alaska could be a cornerstone of this critically important energy rebalance to the Pacific.

When I was recently in the region, I had productive discussions on these and other issues with senior government officials, including with Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe. His historic April 29 address to a joint session of Congress has set the stage for the White House and Congress to come together in support of our rebalance to the region. But to be successful, it must be a three-pronged strategy — military, trade and energy — in order to more comprehensively advance America’s long-standing interests and commitments in the region.

Sullivan is Alaska’s junior senator, serving since 2015. He sits on the Armed Services; the Commerce, Science and Transportation; the Environment and Public Works; and the Veterans’ Affairs committees.