Insights and Analysis

Asian Policy Challenges for the Next President

August 20, 2008

By J. Stapleton Roy, Michael H. Armacost

The presumptive presidential candidates are taking the global stage. Senator John McCain has traveled to Colombia, Mexico, and Iraq. This summer, Senator Barack Obama embarked on travels to Europe, Israel, the West Bank, Iraq, and Afghanistan. However, east of Afghanistan, lie some of the most strategically important countries to U.S. foreign policy — and they are missing to date from both candidates’ itineraries.

Whoever wins in November will inherit a decent hand to play in Asia; the region is not currently in crisis. Our relations with the great powers there — Japan, China, Russia, and India — are generally solid. Asian economies have sustained robust growth despite the current U.S. slowdown. Counter-terrorist efforts in Southeast Asia have produced some impressive results. Six Power Talks have succeeded in putting a cap back on North Korea’s plutonium program, albeit at a higher level than in 2002.

Despite this, the region deserves greater attention. In contrast to Europe, where EU integration has submerged the centuries-old destructive rivalries that spawned two world wars, in Asia, the nation-state system remains strong, balance of power considerations dominate thinking in most of the region’s capitals, and America’s relative power has been declining.

Accommodating the rise of newly emerging great powers without conflict is a daunting challenge. And in Asia we face the rise of several new powers. China will present the most formidable geopolitical challenge, but India is also looking for a “place in the sun,” and we can expect greater assertiveness from Japan, Russia, and others. We must maintain better relations with these powers than they can forge between themselves. This can maximize American leverage while minimizing threats to our economy and prosperity.

While the United States has been preoccupied with the situation in the Middle East, the Asian balance has been shifting quietly, if inexorably, in the direction of others. China, Japan, India, and Russia are casting longer shadows. Size matters, and they have it. In 2007 China contributed more to global growth than America did — the first time this has occurred since the 1930s. And, during these Olympic Games, China’s technological prowess and economic boom have been on view for the entire world to see. India’s economy is growing almost as fast as China’s, and it is becoming an important source of entrepreneurial innovation. Although Japanese growth proceeds at a more stately pace, its economy is three times the size of China’s, and dwarfs India’s and Russia’s. Tokyo, moreover, continues steadily to amend the self-imposed restrictions that have, for decades, limited its international security role, as it seeks to become a “more normal nation.”

What then should be the key features of a plausible U.S. strategy toward Asia? The starting point must be a willingness to accord Asia the attention its intrinsic importance to us demands. After all, Asia contains over half the world’s population, and six of its ten largest countries. In Asia, we run our largest and most persistent deficits. It produces more than 30 percent of global exports, and controls a much larger share of the world’s savings pool, which we tap to finance our trade deficits and offset our puny national savings rate. Asia also contains the three countries — Indonesia, Pakistan, and India — with the largest Muslim populations. These are ample reasons to pay more attention to Asia and to give our policies in the region a higher priority in the next administration.

U.S. policy towards Asia faces a triple challenge: getting our own house in order, clearly defining a geopolitical strategy for Asia, and promoting concerted efforts among Asian powers to cope with pressing trans-national problems. These include cooperation on combating nuclear proliferation, countering terrorism, energy, the international economy, regional community building — and contriving a policy to clean up the environment that does not constrain future growth prospects for Asian powers.

The recent focus on the Middle East, Europe, and South America is warranted, but Asia must not be overlooked come 2009. We cannot downgrade relations with Asia or retreat from major responsibilities in the region at a time when its importance to U.S. interests is growing. Even with the best of intentions, the new administration will be hard-pressed in its initial months to address the array of issues demanding attention. The United States is the only major country that sweeps away virtually the entire policymaking echelon of the government every time the White House changes hands. Administrative factors will limit the amount of serious and sustained attention that the new U.S. administration is likely initially to devote to the situation in Asia. But it cannot afford to treat policy challenges in Asia as secondary or tertiary concerns.

Michael Armacost and J. Stapleton Roy are Trustees of The Asia Foundation and co-chairs of the forthcoming volume “America’s Role in Asia: Asian and American Views“. An advance, electronic version of the report will be available on Friday, August 22nd at The published volume will formally debut in Washington, DC on September 10th. For more information, please contact Amy Ovalle at [email protected]


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