The New York Times

July 28, 2009
Op-Ed Contributor

America's Balancing Act


HONG KONG — “The United States is back” Hillary Clinton declared at the recent meeting in Phuket, Thailand, of the Asian Regional Forum, which groups the foreign ministers of the Association of South East Asian Nations with their counterparts from China, Japan and South Korea.

Mrs. Clinton’s appearance certainly gave a boost to Asean ministers — whose meetings had often failed to lure her predecessor. But the reality is that Washington’s Asia policies cannot change much. Although the gradual exit from Iraq and the end of “war-on-terror” rhetoric have helped re-balance Washington’s attention, the United States has many interests pulling it in different directions — China, India, Japan, nonproliferation, trade, climate change, etc.

The key is balance, not change.

Sad to say for Asean, Southeast Asia does not pull in any definable direction. At the Phuket meeting, Clinton focused attention on North Korea, a country where Asean members have no discernible influence, and on Myanmar, whose government is impervious to foreign rhetoric.

The United States is conscious of its declining influence in Southeast Asia. Washington’s Middle East obsessions were partly to blame, but more important has been the rise of China as an economic power. Competition among China, Japan and South Korea to help Asean countries has stimulated East Asian economic cooperation. China has pushed “friendship” through free trade agreements that look good on paper.

With the United States in recession and its financial institutions disgraced, it may seem like a poor time to imagine that America can revive its influence with official visits and rhetoric. The White House has failed to push a free trade deal with South Korea through Congress, so it can forget about reaching anything like that with Asean.

Yet, paradoxically, this may be the best of times for the region to remember how dependent it remains on the United States. Few Asean members want to see the security umbrella — to which most contribute — diminished by U.S. budget pressures and engagements elsewhere. Member states that had been embracing China’s rapid rise are beginning to wonder whether it is now proving to be too fast for their good. Indeed, Beijing has shown poor timing by resurrecting historic claims to the whole South China Sea. Events in Xinjiang and Tibet have also been reminders of resentment over Han Chinese settlements.

To all this, one must add the benefits of the Obama effect on perceptions of America, particularly in Islamic Southeast Asia.

The economic crisis has been a reminder that Southeast Asia’s economic health remains more dependent on a global system that the United States still dominates. China’s influence will continue to increase, but that makes it more important for the region not to neglect its other links.

Washington does not need new policies in Southeast Asia. A little attention will go a long way, as will speaking softly while being as helpful as possible on issues like disaster relief, fighting terrorism, building trade and maintaining financial stability.

Superficially, things may look different in Japan, where the Liberal Democratic Party, for decades a faithful servant of U.S. policies, will probably soon be replaced by the Democratic Party of Japan, which, in theory, remains wary of the U.S. military presence, is opposed to Japanese military involvement overseas, and wants to improve relations with China. But the party is backtracking on these positions as elections approach, so foreign policies are unlikely to change significantly. The rise of China and the enigma of nuclear North Korea will keep the United States and Japan in alliance for a long while yet.

India has had over-expectations about its ties with America. The Bush administration’s focus on India as a counterweight to China may make strategic sense, but it was too blatant and the cost to nuclear nonproliferation very high. Whatever the merit of close ties with a democratic India, management of relations with China remains more important, whether the issue is nonproliferation, trade, or climate change. For now, too, Pakistan’s problems take precedence over India’s opportunities.

Indeed, as long as the United States remains bogged down in Afghanistan, enmeshed in the Middle East, uncertain of its relationship with Russia and facing deficits at home the relative stability of East Asia will limit the attention the region gets. Asean members should not complain about that.