Sec. Clinton’s Trip Signals Refocus On Asia

Our guest blogger is Nina Hachigian, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Some progressives might not like to hear me say this, but compared with the rest of its foreign policy legacy the Bush administration did OK in Asia. That’s mostly because they did very little. In the first term, when the administration did veer from its strategy of “benign neglect” to focus on North Korea, US foreign policy was, true to form, highly dysfunctional and counterproductive. Pyongyang went ahead and built its very first nuclear weapon on the Bush Administration’s watch. In the second term, Asia received practically no high-level attention, so the professionals were left to keep things going as best they could, without a captain steering the ship.

America should do better than that. We have enormous interests in Asia, after all. It is welcome news, then, that Secretary of State Clinton is breaking with tradition and making Asia the destination of her first overseas trip instead of Europe. Here are a few suggested priorities for U.S. policy in Asia, in order of the secretary’s itinerary:

Early and Often. Just showing up more regularly will go a long way toward communicating that the U.S. does understand that the world has changed — Asia now accounts for 60% of world GDP, 50% of world trade, and 40% of the world’s population. The fact that Secretary Rice skipped two meetings of the Southeast Asian Nations’ Regional Forum — the first US Secretary of State ever to do so –- still rankles, and was taken as symbol of a U.S. disinterest in Asia. Not only should Secretary Clinton go to the traditional meetings, she should also support a new Northeast Asia security forum, evolving out of the Six Party Talks on North Korea, so the region has a more robust mechanism to address tensions in the various bilateral pairings of Japan, South Korea and China, for example.


Tokyo. The U.S.-Japan alliance has been the bedrock of our Asia policy for over half a century, and it will assuage fears in Japan of “Japan passing” that Secretary Clinton stops there first. Beyond managing the issues of American military bases and North Korea, both of which are sensitive, the question is how the alliance can focus more intently on the new security threats of today — climate, non-proliferation, terrorism, disease, and fragile states — not to mention the economic crisis. She should discuss with her counterparts whether there are issues on which Japan, the U.S. and China, the three elephants of East Asia, can work in conjunction. Seoul. It’s a little crazy in Seoul politics these days, what with chainsaws in the parliament and all. But South Korea is also a longtime U.S. ally and the relationship needs active attention. The first order of business is to better harmonize our positions on North Korea, but beyond that, we need to figure out a new frame for the alliance. What do the U.S. and South Korea together stand for? What should be our goals? Beijing. With our all differences, China still has significant influence on U.S. security and prosperity and vice-versa. Secretary Clinton should make good on her intentions to forge a holistic approach to China, not one driven solely by the Treasury Department, as was the case in the Bush second term (though that was better than it being driven by Rumsfeld’s Pentagon.) We’ve got four major potential catastrophes to avert with China — the economic crisis, nuclear proliferation, climate change, and avian flu. Washington and Beijing see more or less eye to eye on addressing the financial crisis and North Korea. Avian flu could be worse, but China continues to block U.S. actions in the UN security Council on Iran. Getting both China and the U.S., who together account for 40% of global emissions, to act aggressively enough on global warming is a huge diplomatic challenge. A fifth potential catastrophe — humanitarian — in terms of China’s actions or lack thereof in Sudan, Zimbabwe and Burma, must also be on Secretary Clinton’s agenda.

Jakarta. In Indonesia and elsewhere, Secretary Clinton needs to make clear to China’s neighbors that while the U.S. welcomes a strong China, we are not going anywhere and will continue to play the role of security guarantor in the region. Indonesia is also the world’s largest Muslim country, and Clinton can continue the conversation that President Obama has begun with the Muslim world. Here she can also highlight America’s interest in engaging with and building out the security architecture of Asia.

Secretary Clinton is not always going to like what she hears as she travels around Asia. She is bound to get an earful about America’s irresponsible actions on the financial crisis. But fielding such complaints is par for the course as we dig ourselves out of the diplomatic hole we are in. It is about time we paid closer attention to those 3ish billion people on our left. Secretary Clinton’s trip is an excellent start.