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U.S. Must Help Strengthen Asia’s Regional Architecture

June 15, 2011

Two weeks ago, I attended the 25th Asia-Pacific Roundtable hosted and organized by the ASEAN-Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. More than 350 people from 25 nations attended, including ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan, Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, Commander of U.S. Pacific Command Admiral Robert F. Willard, and Indonesia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Raden Mohammad Marty Muliana Natalegawa, among others.

Jakarta busy street

Over the past two years, the U.S.'s increased attention to Asia, particularly to ASEAN, has generated lively discussion about its role in the Asia-Pacific region. Photo by Josef Polleross.

The three-day discussion focused on a wide spectrum of issues – from regional architecture, the future of ASEAN, and territorial disputes in the South China Sea, to U.S.-China relations, the U.S.-Japan alliance, and challenges on the Korean peninsula. In comparison to recent years, the agenda focused more on the U.S. I believe this is a reflection of the increased attention the U.S. has given to Asia for the past two years, particularly to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The Obama administration appears to want to shift its focus toward Asia even more, but conflict in the Middle East has prohibited the U.S. from doing so.

Given the rise of China and India, it is clear that the U.S. is no longer the sole, or even the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific. The U.S. is facing enormous economic challenges – high unemployment, ballooning budget deficits, record mortgage foreclosures, resulting in cutbacks in many services, and thus making the majority of Americans at a minimum, skeptical, and in many instances angry, about U.S. government policies and concerns about the future direction of the nation. Despite these difficulties, U.S. power and influence should not be underestimated. The U.S. remains the world’s largest economy and military power and will continue to be a major factor in the region. However, a key challenge for the U.S. will be to reconcile its obligations and commitments abroad while reducing its debt.

But what might be of more concern to many Asians is the U.S.’s “staying power” in the region. Will domestic challenges and other foreign policy challenges (including the war in Afghanistan and simmering commitments in Libya and Syria) dissipate the increased attention the U.S. has been giving the Asia-Pacific region as of late? Despite its ability to project its influence, the U.S. is still viewed by Asians as a “distant power,” but one that is extremely important to shared economic prosperity on both sides of the Pacific. In the coming decades, the U.S. and Asian countries, particularly China, Japan, and India, will face the long-term challenges of managing globalization while maintaining an open international economic order, which has served both American and Asian interests over the past three decades.

Since the end of World War II, Americans have always equated power with leadership. The U.S. will undoubtedly remain powerful both economically and militarily for decades to come, but just not as powerful. The U.S. will also continue to be a leader, just not the leader. China, India, Japan, and ASEAN nations will want their say in both regional and global institutions. It is therefore vital for the U.S. to work with other nations in multilateral fora in a credible, sustained way. Engaging with Asian nations to help strengthen regional architecture in which it is a member is in both U.S. and Asian interests. Solving the global challenges we face – from energy security, global warming, transnational crime, and combating terrorism to trade, investment, and finance – requires effective coordination, collaboration, and leadership from leaders in Washington, Beijing, Tokyo, New Delhi, Jakarta, and other Asian capitals.

John J. Brandon is The Asia Foundation’s director of International Relations Programs in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jbrandon@asiafound-dc.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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