There are plenty of voices raising concern about our Asian foreign policy, to the extent we have one. Leading a congressional delegation in Japan, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) released a statement:
We welcome the President’s visit to the Asia-Pacific and to Japan. Our coinciding visits reflect a strong commitment on behalf of both the U.S. executive and legislative branches toward this region. We believe that our prosperity in America is tied to the growth and stability of the Asia-Pacific and that a cornerstone of U.S. engagement in this region is the U.S.-Japanese alliance.
As a global power, however, the United States has many challenges across the world. We all remain very concerned about what’s going in Iran and its quest for a nuclear weapons capability. We are also very concerned about the terrible conflict in Syria, as well as by Mr. Putin of Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine.
While we cannot afford to ignore these challenges, none of this should distract from the priority the United States also must place on the Asia-Pacific. We are a Pacific nation. However, America’s commitment to our friends and allies around the world is critical to our standing with our allies in the Asia-Pacific region.
In other words, our much promised “pivot” to Asia never happened and when it does it shouldn’t be at the expense of our other global interests. How we calm jangled nerves in the region and demonstrate a commitment to our alliances with democratic friends is no mystery, but it does require presidential focus. The president’s former deputy chief of staff Jim Steinberg and Michael O’Hanlon of the center-left Brookings Institute join the chorus of those on the right calling for greater resolve when it comes to addressing the threat our allies face from China:
We propose [a policy] entitled “Resolve and Reassure.”
War too often results from misplaced judgments about another country’s resolve. In East Asia, and between China and the United States, the Korean War demonstrates what can happen when countries miscalculate other’s willingness to act. The United States needs to project clarity about its resolve to defend its vital interests. And in the current context of East Asia, nowhere is this more important than with respect to alliance commitments. To prevent misjudgment, the United States must sustain the credibility of its treaty obligations, both in words — as the administration has done by making clear that the Senkakus fall under the U.S. obligation to assist Japan via the U.S.-Japan security treaty — and in actions.
That does not mean Washington must immediately unsheathe the sword if tensions escalate over China’s actions near the Senkakus or disputed islands in the South China Sea, but it must make clear that it is prepared to impose significant costs if red lines are crossed — which is why the response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine is so salient to the situation in East Asia.
U.S. allies in Asia worry that China’s ability to impose economic costs against the United States might deter Washington from acting — a concern exacerbated by U.S. and European caution in imposing costs on Russia. The late March expansion of sanctions against Russia should help reassure U.S. allies of Washington’s willingness to accept the risks of economic retaliation in order to impose costs on those who cross red lines. U.S. allies will be watching closely to see if the threats of broader sanctions become more concrete in the event of further Russian encroachments.
I part company with the authors when it comes to hoping that we can persuade China “to slow the rate of its military buildup rather than race for parity.” Maybe it is time for the U.S. to stop indiscriminately cutting its defense budget. Insofar as the authors recommend “confidence building [with China], including the willingness to enter into mutual agreements that help make credible each side’s professions of good intentions,” this would seem more appropriate once we have re-established credibility with our allies.
However, the authors’ key point — that our Russia policy affects our China policy and our Asian allies’ comfort level — could not be more accurate. Once we begin keeping commitments and holding aggressors accountable in one part of the world, countries elsewhere will learn we mean business. And speaking of business, the completion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal would confirm that there are benefits to a close relationship with the U.S. (Cantor noted, “We’re pleased to hear that our negotiators along with those here in Japan are making progress. All of us would say we believe this agreement would mean real job growth and real economic prosperity not only for you here in the region but for us in the United States.”) Unlike the Middle East, we have a bevy of friendly democratic nations in Asia; now all we need is American leadership to defend our mutual interests.