By Ernie Bower
Editor’s Note: The CSIS Asia Team is writing a series of analyses that forecasts key issues and challenges in the Asia-Pacific. Here Ernie Bower explains that sustaining U.S. commitment to Southeast Asia in 2013 will require consistent high level diplomatic engagement and progress on trade and investment. Want more analysis? Plan to attend the CSIS Asia-Pacific Forecast 2013 event on January 29 in Washington D.C. or watch the webcast live online.
The United States has a time-limited opportunity to consolidate and secure the strong relationships it has developed in Southeast Asia and the Pacific over the last three years. China, for a number of reasons, has forfeited the momentum it built in the region during its charm offensive that began during the Asian financial crisis in 1997 and ended a decade later in 2009 with its declaration of the nine dashed line around the South China Sea.
India remains relatively aloof as it focuses on domestic politics and economic issues. Japan still has not regained its confidence and while it is well-intentioned, it is no longer viewed as a partner with ballast or heft, and South Korea has not yet aspired to a regional leadership role.
Both Southeast Asia and the Pacific continue to welcome the United States to develop its role, as long as it does so based on the principles of mutual benefit and respect. Southeast Asia needs the United States to balance its effective security “pivot” with economic diplomacy, mainly a trade policy that is viable in Asia while promoting U.S. interests.
Specifically, this means completing the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) agreement in 2013 while simultaneously working with key partners and regional organizations such as ASEAN to build capacity so that all member countries understand they have alignment and a clear on-ramp to increase trade and investment with the United States.
The greatest challenges for the United States in Southeast Asia during 2013 will be sustaining high level engagement and maintaining the vital messaging of “being present.” Secretary Clinton at State and successive secretaries Gates and Panetta at Defense understood the importance of this effort and committed themselves and their senior officials to the effort because strengthening ASEAN is a vital part of a long term strategy to welcome a rising China to a responsible leadership role regionally and globally.
Will nominated successors John Kerry and Chuck Hagel follow through on this commitment, and will the White House support the effort? Based on their records and their understanding of Asia generally and Southeast Asia specifically, there are good reasons for optimism in this area.
In the long term, the White House needs to work with the new cabinet and willing members of the House and Senate, as well as governors with foresight and global perspective, to make the case to Americans that engagement in Asia is important for our economic future and national security.
Talking about Asia to the American public in a sustained way has never been supported by political advisers in the White House – that needs to change if the United States wants to be strong and safe in 2013 and beyond.
Mr. Ernest Z. Bower is a senior adviser and holds the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS. You can follow him on twitter @BowerCSIS. To learn more you can RSVP for the CSIS Asia Pacific Forecast 2013 event on January 29 or plan to watch the live webcast online at CSIS.org and keep an eye out for #Asiapalooza on twitter.
Ernest Bower is senior adviser and Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies & codirector of the Pacific Partners Initiative at CSIS.