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Upcoming Summits Underscore Importance of East Asia in U.S. Strategy

Following the launch of Asia Society's Task Force report U.S.-East Asia Relations: A Strategy for Multilateral Engagement, Asia Society Fellow and co-director of the report Simon Tay offered advice to the U.S. on how to engage Asia. (7 min., 11 sec.)

As his would-be political opponents barnstorm the country in an attempt to unseat him next November, U.S. President Barack Obama has turned his attention to more international matters. The president recently concluded an appearance at the G-20 summit in Cannes, France and will soon travel to Honolulu for a meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). Following a visit to Australia, President Obama will wrap up his tour of the region by attending the East Asian Summit (EAS) meetings in Bali, Indonesia on November 18 and 19.

The president’s focus on Asia-Pacific countries reinforces the growing strategic importance of a region that, in the context of domestic American politics, is more often considered a foe than a friend. Politicians from both parties fret publicly that manufacturers, enticed by East Asia’s vast pool of cheap labor, are shipping jobs overseas. Newspapers from across the political spectrum routinely publish editorials lambasting China for its currency controls, blaming bureaucrats in Beijing for exacerbating American economic woes. The Asia that in the past existed on the periphery of Washington’s strategic landscape has come under much closer scrutiny in recent years.

More than any other American president, President Obama has made a rhetorical commitment to strengthening U.S. ties with Asia. Yet as his administration shifts its focus toward securing re-election, the president may feel tempted to modify his approach to the region in an effort to appeal to the broader American electorate. High unemployment continues to stall economic recovery in the U.S., and the president has been unable to push his jobs bill through a hostile Congress. In such a situation, pressuring Asia — particularly in respect to trade — may become more appealing.

Doing so would be a mistake. Asian economies, once only a player within the region, have assumed a broader global responsibility. China, as a creditor nation, could play a major role in the current debt crisis affecting Europe. The very fact that the G-20 Summit itself has emerged as a key international forum indicates that countries like China, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and India have become increasingly indispensable to global decision-making.

Likewise, the Asia-Pacific region has assumed a greater role in matters of international security. China has taken a firm stance towards the South China Sea, leading its neighbors to consider arrangements balancing Beijing’s muscle. The United States has pursued stronger military ties with countries like India, Vietnam, and South Korea in an effort to maintain its portfolio of interests in the region, which include protection of the essential sea lanes that facilitate a large chunk of global commerce. In addition to managing long-standing regional flashpoints on the Korean peninsula and in the Taiwan Strait, Asian countries have established themselves as diplomatic players worldwide.

With China emerging as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases (displacing the United States), Asia’s role in combating global climate change has also assumed great importance. Developing nations across the region have struggled to balance economic development with stricter environmental controls, a trend that will only intensify as Asian countries become increasingly industrial and urban. In the coming decades, the United States government will have to forge agreements with its Asian counterparts in order to tackle such pressing issues.

Earlier today, the Asia Society released a task force report entitled U.S.-East Asia Relations: A Strategy for Multilateral Engagement. This report, compiled by an international group of experts, presents a series of practical recommendations on what the U.S. can do to build constructive relationships with Asian countries.

The stakes are high. Washington can no longer relegate East Asia to the periphery of its grand strategy. Finding solutions to problems in economics, security, and environment will require a concerted effort by the United States to engage its Asian partners across these issues, casting aside ideological objections in order to seek areas of higher ground.

Central to these initiatives are forums like APEC and EAS, both of which President Obama has wisely chosen to attend in the next 10 days. While his re-election effort will no doubt weigh heavily on Obama’s mind during these meetings, he must think beyond the scope of his presidency and establish Washington’s relations with East Asia on firmer footing. The future of American security, economics, and environmental protection lurks in the balance.

Michael Kulma is Executive Director, Global Leadership Initiatives at Asia Society and co-director of the U.S.-East Asia Relations: A Strategy for Multilateral Engagement task force report.

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