Tom Donilon is a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center. He was national security adviser from 2010 to 2013.
Questions have arisen in recent months about the sustainability of the United States’ rebalance toward Asia. The costly cancellation of President Obama’s trip to the region during the U.S. government shutdown last fall fueled that skepticism, which has only grown as urgent foreign policy challenges have required U.S. leadership in the Middle East and Europe.
Yet the rebalancing of U.S. priorities and resources toward Asia remains the right strategy. This reorientation does not imply a turn away from allies in other regions or an abandonment of our commitments elsewhere. It represents a shift away from the war efforts in the Middle East and South Asia that have dominated U.S. national security policy and resources for the past decade and a shift toward the region that presents the most significant opportunity for the United States.
Every U.S. administration must ensure that the inevitable cascade of crises does not crowd out the development of long-term strategies. So at the outset of his first term, Obama directed his national security team to assess the projection and focus of U.S. power around the world.
The administration concluded that the United States had become substantially underinvested in the Asia-Pacific region — diplomatically, militarily, commercially and in terms of policymaker attention. We began implementing the rebalance from the very start: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s first trip in office was to Asia, something no secretary of state had done since 1961.
The decision to rebalance stemmed from a recognition of the United States’ crucial role in supporting Asia’s social and economic development. Were it not for 70 years of U.S. investment in the unimpeded flow of commerce and the preservation of peace, Asia would be less secure, less prosperous and less free. Today, territorial disputes, nationalism, changing power dynamics and the North Korean threat make the U.S. presence all the more essential.
The administration also determined that the futures of the United States and Asia are increasingly linked. The Asia-Pacific region includes more than half of the world’s people, produces half of the world’s economic output, is the top destination for U.S. exports and is home to many of the world’s fastest-growing economies.
The rebalance is a comprehensive effort incorporating all elements of U.S. national power. It entails strengthening alliances and partnerships, building an economic architecture that can sustain Asia’s growing prosperity, supporting democratic reforms and maintaining productive relations with China. And the United States is making steady progress along each of these fronts.
The U.S. commitment to Asia’s security is substantial and deepening. The United States is modernizing its alliances and strengthening the region’s capacity to ensure the safety of navigation and respond to humanitarian disasters. Even amid uncertainty over its defense budget, the United States is set to expand the share of its naval assets in the Pacific to 60 percent of the global fleet by 2020.
The president’s trip to the region this week will reinforce the key elements of the rebalance. In Northeast Asia, it will reaffirm the importance of our core alliances with Japan and South Korea; in Malaysia and the Philippines, it will underscore the renewed U.S. focus on Southeast Asia, an economically dynamic bloc of 600 million people.
When in Japan and South Korea, the president should follow up on his recent efforts to mitigate long-standing tensions between the two countries. Discord hampers our countries’ abilities to address trilateral security challenges including the threat from North Korea.
But the rebalance is about more than military assets; it places an even greater emphasis on diplomacy and trade. The centerpiece of the economic rebalancing is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the most important trade deal under negotiation today.
By eliminating trade barriers and harmonizing regulations, the TPP would connect a dozen Asia-Pacific economies in a massive trade and investment framework covering 40 percent of global gross domestic product. It would directly provide the United States with some $78 billion in annual income.
The TPP’s most important aims, however, are strategic. A deal would solidify U.S. leadership in Asia and, together with the negotiations over a free trade pact in Europe, put the United States at the center of a great project: writing the rules that will govern the global economy for the next century. An open platform that countries can sign onto provided they commit to its high standards, the TPP would incentivize the spread of free markets and liberal economic principles.
Finally, the United States must continue to seek constructive relations with China. Some have caricatured the rebalance as a strategy to contain China. The United States has a good deal of experience with containment — and a $500 billion annual economic relationship does not resemble that strategy.
In fact, the U.S. vision for Asia — an order rooted in stability, economic openness, the peaceful resolution of disputes and respect for human rights — presents the right environment for China’s rise. Sustaining that environment requires the United States to maintain a strong presence and the necessary capabilities to meet its obligations to allies, constantly engage with Beijing and make clear that it rejects and will oppose the use of force, intimidation and coercion in territorial disputes. By upholding these principles, the United States can help ensure that the 21st century in Asia will be defined not by conflict but by security and prosperity.
Read more on this topic: