Sequestering America's Pacific Century

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (C) discusses sequestration as (L-R) Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) listen on February 26, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

In Asia, each day matters. Today, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) economies will do almost $50 billion in trade, 44 percent of the world’s total. Today, as oil moves around the world, one third of it will pass through the South China Sea or the adjacent Gulf of Thailand. The region’s economic transformation won’t rest — today, 40,000 people will move from the country to a city in China, and 1,335 new vehicles will take to the road in Delhi. Governments and businesses across Asia are each day are making decisions that directly affect U.S. interests.

America’s future prosperity and security are in play in Asia, yet Washington has decided to go on break. On March 1, with no action by Congress, forced budget cuts — otherwise known as sequestration — will cut government spending across the board, a concept so obviously harmful that it was enacted only to force a more thoughtful compromise.

This story originally appeared on CNN's GPS blog, an Asia Blog partner site.

These cuts will undermine one of America’s most consequential commitments for the 21st century, namely to deepen its engagement in Asia. This focus on the world’s most economically vibrant region, where great and emerging powers navigate a complex mix of competition and cooperation, and where America’s leadership role is both desired and contested, is an essential element of any meaningful strategy to foster U.S. economic growth and global leadership.

This commitment is so critical that it’s one of the few issues on which Democrats and Republicans agree. The Obama administration elevated Asia’s place in U.S. foreign policy rhetorically, secured a major diplomatic success in Myanmar, and rapidly reoriented defense planning to "rebalance" toward Asia. These gains built on the success of the Bush administration in deepening partnership with India, strengthening Asian regional organizations and fostering the U.S. alliance with South Korea. The debate in Washington is no longer whether to focus on Asia, but how.

The forced budget cuts, though, will significantly constrain the “how.” The precise impact of sequestration is hard to know — plans are still being developed and the full impact will occur over years. But officials and analysts have already described cuts that would significantly undermine U.S. engagement in Asia.

U.S. business opportunities in Asia will suffer. Secretary of State John Kerry has lauded the economic engagement work of U.S. embassies in Asia. With their help, Kerry noted, Orbital Sciences Corporation secured a $160 million deal to build a Thai broadcast satellite, Boeing received an $21.7 billion order (its largest ever for commercial jets) from Indonesia’s Lion Air, and General Electric has sold $40 million in locomotives to Indonesia’s state railroad, in a country where it has invested $1.2 billion.

Deputy Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank has reported that the International Trade Administration will reduce support for U.S. exporters in foreign markets by almost $15 million a year, forego plans to place new staffers in new markets and decrease trade enforcement activities by $7 million. These global cuts will certainly affect the region of America’s greatest economic opportunity.

The Defense Department has warned of a “crisis of readiness,” with notable impacts on the Asia-Pacific. The Navy plans to cut the activity of its fleet in the Asia-Pacific by a third. The Army warned that, “Combined with previous cuts that have already been approved, [sequestration] will result in a total reduction of at least 189,000 personnel from the force, but it'll probably be higher than that.”

Diplomatic and aid efforts also face cuts. The United States has benefited greatly in Asia from the help it has lent in times of crisis, including during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2010 floods in Pakistan. Yet, $200 million could be cut from humanitarian assistance.

U.S. development programs like Feed the Future and the Global Health Initiative could be constrained. America’s development experts are active in Bangladesh, a focus country for these two initiatives and the President’s Global Climate Change effort. These experts are making hard-won progress on economic growth and health, so today less than a third of Bangladeshis live on $1.25 a day or less, according to USAID, compared with 57 percent in 1991.

Practical services that support America’s engagement in Asia are at risk. Cuts to visa processing, for example, would limit U.S.-Asia trade, educational and cultural exchange, and people-to-people engagement.

Finally, U.S. leadership in Asia derives in great measure from its economic might.  This too will be diminished. According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, “the sequester could push the nation into sub-2 percent GDP growth for 2013 and perhaps 2014.”

These cuts are why many in Asia may hope for a robust U.S. role, but worry Washington won’t deliver. Certainly, there is room in the federal budget for sensible cuts. But making blind cuts undermines confidence in the United States as a practitioner of “smart power,” and renders hollow America’s stated commitment to help build a prosperous and peaceful Asia-Pacific with its partners.

2013 should be a year of American renewal. The economy is finding its footing and more Americans are going back to work. U.S. forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan, and al-Qaeda is, according to President Obama, “a shadow of its former self.” There are great possibilities for the United States in Asia, but the federal government must now focus on minimizing damage rather than leveraging new opportunities.

Opportunities rarely wait long. The United States has looked forward and placed a rapidly growing Asia at the top of its agenda. Sequestration sets the gains from this foresight aside. Whether it’s for a day, a month, a year, or ten years, Asia won’t wait for the United States to reinvest and reengage.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Matt Stumpf
Matt Stumpf is Asia Society D.C. Office Director and former Special Asst to the USAID Administrator, State Dept nonproliferation expert and MacArthur Foundation Program Officer for Asian Security.