Obama’s Plan for America’s Pacific Century
Like the U.S.-European Atlantic Charter of 1941, a “Pacific Charter” could help establish the U.S. as an Eastern power
Leaders line up for a group photo at the East Asian Summit and ASEAN Summit in Nusa Dua, Bali November 19, 2011 / Reuters
MORE FROM THE COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS:
Hillary Clinton to Myanmar
The East Asia Summit’s Goals
Obama to Asia: It’s Our Party
Chinese Hacking Chinese
Barack Obama’s triumphant Asia-Pacific tour was a major foreign
policy achievement for the president. By bolstering security alliances
with pivotal nations and promoting a regional free trade area, he left no doubt
that–after a costly decade of distraction in Iraq and Afghanistan–”The
United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay.” The trip
also underscored just how much China’s dramatic rise has unsettled its
neighbors, both in the realms of economics and security.
But President Obama did more than offer deft reassurance to U.S.
allies. He articulated a political vision for the Asia-Pacific as an
open system in which all countries (and notably China) “play by the rules”
and no single country (China, again) throws its weight around. His
message was implicit but unmistakable: It’s time for an “Atlantic
Charter” for a Pacific Century.
Indeed, the president’s tour had echoes of August 1941. Seventy years
ago, as the fascist powers ran rampant, FDR and Winston Churchill met
aboard a ship off the coast of Newfoundland. Their goal was to give hope
to a world confronting the Axis nightmare of military aggression,
political tyranny, and closed economic blocs. Their answer was to
promulgate an alternative vision around which peace- and liberty-loving
nations could rally. The “Atlantic Charter”
did just that. It envisioned an open and non-discriminatory world order
based on principles of collective security, multilateral trade,
self-determination, and freedom of the seas.
The charter’s principles, quickly endorsed by the anti-Axis
coalition, would inform U.S. plans for the major postwar multilateral
organizations, including the United Nations, the General Agreement on
Tariffs and Trade, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund.
Even after the outbreak of the Cold War, Atlantic Charter principles survived within the Free World.
Today’s global environment is far more benign than 1941, of course.
But China’s dramatic rise and assertive behavior have sowed doubts about
its commitment to the principles that have underpinned the
Western-dominated liberal order since 1945.The United States and China’s
neighbors are asking the same questions: Is China a status quo power, seeking only modest reforms to an order that has permitted its dramatic rise? Or is it a deeply revisionist one, skeptical of existing norms of behavior and determined to transform regional and global order in narrow self-interest?
The jury is out on whether China will become a “responsible stakeholder.”
Nevertheless, the Asia-Pacific desperately needs “rules of the road” to
govern its security, political, economic, and maritime relations.
Negotiating those principles and norms, however, will not be easy.
For decades, Asia-Pacific security has been underpinned by a
“hub-and-spoke” system of alliances between the United States, at the
core, and Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand,
Singapore, and the Philippines, among others. China’s aggressive
behavior in 2010 and its bellicose rhetoric regarding the South China
Sea have only reinforced the desire of Pacific allies both new
and old for a forward U.S. military presence. President Obama’s
announcement that U.S. marines would be permanently deployed in
Australia offered critical reassurance to nations hedging against
At the same time, many U.S. allies are being pulled into China’s
economic orbit, given that juggernaut’s voracious growth. Until
recently, the United States appeared to be ceding Asian-Pacific economic
leadership to China, effectively allowing Beijing to dominate
emerging regional economic architectures that excluded Washington. The
president’s decision that the United States should attend the East Asia
Summit (EAS) and become a permanent member of that group, coming on the
heels of his vocal endorsement of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in
Honolulu, signaled U.S. determination to prevent the emergence of a
China Inc. economic bloc. In the words of Professor Carlyle A. Thayer, the United States has “turned the multilateral tables on China.”
Given mutual mistrust between China and the United States, it’s hard
to envision Barack Obama and Hu Jintao meeting off the coast of Okinawa
to sketch out a common vision of the Asia-Pacific. But the past week
suggested the United States has much to gain diplomatically by outlining
a future for Asia-Pacific order based on adherence to common
multilateral principles. Such a “Pacific Charter” would initially have
- Freedom of the seas and multilateral resolution of maritime disputes. The
strategic and resource-rich South China Sea has emerged as the region’s
most significant flashpoint. While China is not the only assertive
player here, its aggressive territorial claims, extreme rhetoric, and
naval modernization make it essential for the United States to redouble
its historic support for freedom of navigation, including through the
deployment of the U.S. Navy. The United States must also continue to
insist–as the president did in Bali–that maritime disputes be handled not bilaterally but multilaterally through EAS and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. (The U.S. position would be more credible if it finally ratified that treaty.)
- Free trade across the Asia-Pacific: The United States must
regain its historic status as the world’s leading champion of
multilateral trade liberalization and resist the world’s fragmentation
into competing trading and currency blocs. But with the WTO Doha round in the doldrums,
regionalism must be a big part of the picture. The TPP, as the most
encompassing regional proposal under consideration, is vastly preferable
to more cookie cutter arrangements, centered on China. The news that Japan
is now interested in participating, makes completing the TPP a
first-order priority. As to whether China might eventually join the TPP,
the White House has taken the brilliant tack of placing the ball in
Beijing’s court. If it aspires for TPP membership, the Obama
administration has communicated that China will need to bring its
economy up to international standards and norms
and embrace true reciprocity and non-discrimination–by ceasing its
currency manipulation, ending subsidies to state-owned enterprises and protecting intellectual property rights.
- Cooperative security to address transnational threats: In
the absence of a regional collective security arrangement, which is
unlikely to emerge in the near future, the U.S. alliance structure
remains essential to ensure regional stability in the Asia-Pacific, and
to reassure neighbors troubled by China’s rise. Both the president and
the Secretary of Defense have emphasized that cutbacks in U.S. defense
spending will not be allowed to weaken U.S. security posture in East
Asia. At the same time, the United States should promote increased
region-wide cooperation, including with China, to address a growing list
of transnational threats including terrorism and crime, maritime
piracy, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, pandemic
diseases, the consequences of climate change, and natural disasters.
- Human rights and democracy as inalienable: Finally, the
United States must continue to support the rights of all peoples in the
Asia-Pacific to individual liberties, including the right to select
their leaders freely. Political developments from South Korea to
Indonesia have given the lie to arguments that purported “Asian values”
are incompatible with rule by the consent of the governed. No doubt,
progress may be slow in coming–not least in China and Burma. But as FDR
explained in 1941, it was “a good thing to have principles” toward which
all nations must aim. And over time, the Pacific Charter might, like
the Helsinki process during the Cold War, assist internal groups
struggling for liberty in the world’s remaining authoritarian states.
Secretary Clinton’s upcoming trip
to Burma is an excellent step in implicitly suggesting progress towards
political liberalization in the region will be both noticed and
rewarded by the United States.
“America’s Pacific Century,” as envisioned
by Secretary Clinton, will not come into being overnight. But that
should not stop the Obama administration from offering a clear U.S.
statement of the principles, which together constitute a new Pacific
This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.
Short URL: http://thepresidency.us/?p=1615