By Ernest Z. Bower, Senior Adviser and Director of the Southeast Asia Program, CSIS
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard meets with President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Leader’s Summit in Yokohama on November 14, 2010. Australian government photo in the public domain.
When Julia Gillard settles into her seat across from U.S. President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on Monday, she should get right to the point, as a good friend would do, and remind the President that the United States should not lose focus on its effective efforts to reengage Asia while managing the historic developments in North Africa and Middle East.
Australia has been a stalwart friend and ally of the United States and has earned the right, even taken on the mantle of responsibility, to say a frank word when needed. Now is that time.
Australians have fought shoulder to shoulder with American brothers in every modern war, they have stood by the United States on foreign and security policy, they have ensured that efforts to provide security for the Asia Pacific has a strategic anchor in the south, and they have pioneered world class trade agreements together. Australia understands the importance of sustained, high level U.S. focus on Asia, and it knows how important 2011 is as regional security and trade architecture is developed.
The point here is in no way to underestimate the importance of events taking place in the Middle East, but to remind Washington that this is one of the most important years for U.S. Asia policy in decades, and while the President and his team monitor and respond to developments in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and other countries, he must remain focused on connecting the dots of a nascent U.S. strategy for Asia.
Asia understands the importance of the transformative surge in the Middle East, but it cannot and will not accept explanations from the United States that “events in the Middle East require urgent attention, and we’ll get back to you soon.”
This is a vital year for U.S. engagement in Asia. The President is coming off a productive visit by China’s premier Hu Jintao, his team is about to bring the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement to Capitol Hill for approval, and he should be looking ahead to participating in his first East Asia Summit (EAS) and third U.S.-ASEAN Leaders Meeting in Jakarta and hosting the annual general meeting for leaders of Asia Pacific economies at the APEC Summit in Honolulu in November. A major deliverable for the Hawaii meeting should be at least a framework agreement for the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement.
Getting the new regional security and trade architecture in place and set in at a constructive trajectory will take major leadership time and attention. That focus will be required this year – not in the future – now.
If Southeast Asia, Japan, Korea and others feel that there is U.S. bandwidth has narrowed and been substantially diverted to the Middle East, an important and perhaps irrevocable lesson will have been learned. Namely that China is the rising power whose focus on Asia will be sustained, serious, and high-level, while the United States is more likely to have such engagement ebb and flow. Such a calculation on behalf of important friends and allies in a region of the world that is so strategically and economically vital would result in an unacceptable dimunition of American influence and undercut U.S. national security interests.
Julia Gillard and our Australian friends know this well. She would do her country, the Asia Pacific and her friend President Obama a great turn if she can share a convincing word about sustaining momentum and focus on Asia in 2011.