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The U.S. Role in Asia-Pacific: A Philippine Perspective

September 14, 2011

This is the first article in a special Young Leaders Series to In Asia written by rising leaders in Southeast Asia who participated in the 25th Asia-Pacific Roundtable program in Kuala Lumpur, co-sponsored by ISIS MALAYSIA, The Asia Foundation, and Pacific Forum CSIS. In their essays, the participants were each asked to answer the following question: In your view and from your country’s perspective, what role do you expect the U.S. to play in Southeast Asia?  

The United States currently plays many roles in the Asia-Pacific region, but from a Philippine perspective, three top the list:  U.S. involvement in regional security architecture and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea-West Philippine Sea (SCS-WPS); U.S. leadership in forging the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP-A); and the U.S. role in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Risk Reduction (HADR). As ministers convene for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in San Francisco this week, these issues are likely to emerge as top priorities during discussions.

With 40,298 kilometers of U.S. coastline that meets the Pacific Ocean, the security of the Asia-Pacific region is obviously a top U.S. national security concern. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on a recent visit to India, “much of the 21st century will be written in Asia.” In his testimonial to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific in March, Assistant Secretary for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell furthered this statement when he declared “Essential to our long-term national interests is to make sure that the United States remains true to its identity as a Pacific power.”

Most agree that the United States remains the world’s largest and foremost military and naval power. Over the decades following World War II, this position has effectively deterred any would-be aggressors in the region, and has served as a successful counter-weight to China’s rapidly expanding military ambitions. It must be noted, however, that the U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has exposed to the world the futility of decisive military action when unaccompanied by real and sustainable public participation, country ownership by the citizens, and a government that is inclusive of all sectors and levels of its society.

From a Philippine perspective, the United States’ role in regional security is also married to freedom of navigation in the WPS/SCS. The sea lanes of the WPS/SCS are used by approximately half of total annual international maritime trade, including vital supplies of energy sources such as oil and natural gas. China’s proprietary claims over the WPS/SCS as one of its “core interests” leaves many stakeholders in the region anxious, and raises U.S. concerns about China’s unimpeded movement of vessels, goods, and persons in the disputed area. At the ASEAN Regional Forum in Vietnam last year, Secretary Clinton reaffirmed this concern when she said that, “the United States supports a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion. We oppose the use or threat of force by any claimant.” Although controversial, by formally stating the U.S. position on the WPS/SCS, the U.S. dampened Chinese illusions of unilateral action in the WPS/SCS maritime sphere and simultaneously helped give ASEAN a new voice with which to express its own concerns.

The United States is also changing the economic landscape of the region through its promotion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). On the surface, the TPPA can be seen as bringing member economies to a new high in trade relations and economic cooperation. The United States, through the TPPA, is guiding member economies to higher standards of production and tremendously reducing, if not eliminating, tariffs. From a Philippine standpoint, this brings both challenges and opportunities. Membership in the TPPA would require the Philippines to implement domestic reforms in trade and industry, which I predict would bring us closer to our compliance objectives in international trade and increase external demand for domestic products and labor. Asia, currently touted as the driver of global economy and growth, clearly makes better U.S. engagement a priority. But, are Asian nations as mutually enthusiastic about the TPPA? Negotiations at the APEC summit this week will likely shed light on that question.

U.S involvement in humanitarian assistance and disaster risk reduction in the region is also viewed as a key role. The Philippines lies between the Pacific and Eurasian Plates which makes it highly vulnerable to typhoons, floods, landslides, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis. An average of 22 tropical cyclones hit the Philippines every year. The archipelagic nature of the coastal areas makes the country particularly prone to storm surges and tidal waves. Through all these disasters, the Philippines has witnessed the United States’ steadfast and unwavering commitment to providing humanitarian assistance and to building the capacity to mitigate the effects of these disasters through better preparation.

How these roles change in the next decade will depend a great deal on how the vision and strategy of U.S. policymakers’ national interest plays out in the region. In addition, changes in the regional architecture such as a stronger ASEAN, the rise of new major players like India, and developments in countries such as Myanmar and North Korea will also affect U.S. engagement in the region.

The Asia-Pacific is indeed experiencing very interesting times, and is in the unique position of moving the global economy forward and bringing regional relations to a whole new level of cooperation and peace. The potential for strategic and economic collaboration within the region is enormous – leaders and policymakers must not fail to realize these opportunities and seize the moment to usher in the age of trans-Pacific peace and prosperity.

Monika Limpo is a Foreign Service Officer in the Office of American Affairs in the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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