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The Asia opportunity

U.S. is poised to take a leadership role, emphasizing Democratic values in this crucial region

By Steven Phillips

6:00 AM EST, January 14, 2013

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Over the past two years, the Obama administration has focused greater diplomatic attention and military resources on East Asia as part of a policy described as a "pivot" or "rebalancing." While American leaders are loath to admit it publicly, this is a response to China's growing influence, particularly Beijing's territorial claims around its borders. China now has the world's second-largest economy and a rapidly modernizing military. It is led by a Communist Party that maintains its power by promoting a strong sense of national pride and expectations of China's continued rise to greatness.

Increasing American military power in the region may be necessary, but it is not sufficient to ensure peace and prosperity in the region. The following ideas should inform America's Asia policy going forward:

First, American policy must be about more than containing China. Any approach that appears to mimic Cold War containment policies creates equivalence between Washington and Beijing among the peoples of East Asia. America's formidable soft power comes from the contrasts — not similarities — between the United States and its potential rivals. Last week, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called for "rule of law; open access for all to the global commons of sea, air, space and cyberspace; unimpeded economic development and commerce; and resolving conflict without the use of force." However, too often the timing and content of Washington's policies are reactions to China's military bluster rather than part of a long-term effort to uphold values important to democracies in the region.

Second, "rebalancing" is impossible without allies. Between the United States and China lie Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, all with strong ties to Washington. These three represent the third-, 13th- and 20th-largest economies in the world, and all have strong militaries. Each faces a much more immediate threat from China than does the United States. Washington's commitment to the region must not go beyond the willingness of these countries to defend their own interests. The Japanese prime minister's recent advocacy of greater defense spending is a hopeful sign. Similar commitments should be expected from South Korea and Taiwan. Regional integration is vital. The Obama administration should continue to foster military cooperation among Asian nations and must also advocate more vigorously for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement consisting primarily of democratic counties.

Third, domestic politics shape international relations in East Asia. Politicians in China, Japan and South Korea use territorial claims to whip up public support. North Korea's dangerous nuclear ambitions have been driven by three generations of leaders determined to create a state of perpetual crisis to justify their continued rule. Taiwan's difficult relationship with China is often driven by heated electoral competition on the island. In this environment, Washington should avoid reacting to what is said and instead focus on what leaders in the region actually do.

Fourth, the American people deserve a vigorous debate over East Asia policy. The nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense has focused on his views of Israel, but the press and Congress should force both him and Secretary of State-designate John Kerry to offer their perspectives on the "rebalancing" effort. The administration must also convince the public that resources should be devoted to East Asia during an era of skyrocketing budget deficits.

Finally, we should not assume that the nations of East Asia are on an unstoppable rise to global dominance or that the United States is in inexorable decline. For example, China's one child policy has limited population growth at the price of a rapidly aging population. This means that more resources must be devoted to pensions and health care, and that wages will rise due to a smaller workforce. Japan, Taiwan and South Korea face even more serious demographic dilemmas. Such developments could limit the economic success that made these countries major global players. None of these countries attracts immigrants as the United States does.

President Barack Obama is becoming the elder statesman of the region, as new leaders have recently come to power in China, South Korea, North Korea and Japan. He should take advantage of his status to shape a strategy that promotes democratic values, bolsters allies and avoids over-reacting to heated nationalist rhetoric. He should also explain to the press, the public and Congress why East Asia is vital to America's security and economic health, and why America can remain an important player in the region for the foreseeable future.

Steven Phillips is a professor in the History Department at Towson University. His email is sphillips@towson.edu.

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