America’s Quiet Victories in Asia

By Michael J. Green, a senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council from January 2004 to December 2005. He is at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Georgetown University (THE WASHINGTON POST, 13/02/07):

Last month the leaders of 16 Asian nations met in the Philippines for the second East Asian Summit and agreed to work for better energy security and reduced poverty. The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed an agreement with China on trade and services and pledged to work toward a broader free-trade agreement. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of the Philippines, a traditional U.S. ally, declared that “we are happy to have China as our big brother in this region.” No Americans were invited to the summit.

Is America’s Pacific Century over? Is America losing Asia to China? Not yet. As with all things Asian, the appearance of harmony in the meetings in Cebu does not entirely match reality. Almost all the major leaders at the summit still trust Washington more than their neighbors, China in particular. And while China may be key to the region’s economic dynamism, the political model the leaders are increasingly embracing for long-term success is the one championed by the United States.

Take the East Asia Summit itself. When China proposed hosting the meeting two years ago, many in the region reacted with alarm. Singapore and Japan pushed successfully for the inclusion of leaders from India, Australia and New Zealand to balance Chinese influence, and ASEAN won agreement that only its members could host the summits. Meanwhile, Singapore signed a strategic framework agreement granting greater access to U.S. forces, Indonesia took steps that allowed the United States to resume bilateral military contacts, and Vietnam signed an agreement allowing greater religious freedom to help ensure a successful summit with President Bush and closer strategic alignment with Washington. Arroyo’s obsequious nod to “big brother” in Beijing aside, Asian leaders are not about to let the Pacific become a Chinese lake.

The regional trade agreements are also less threatening to U.S. interests than they sound. Most economists expect little trade distortion or barriers to American firms from these agreements, which are pockmarked with exemptions. To the extent that more advanced economies such as those of Japan or Singapore are using these intraregional economic discussions to increase transparency, capacity and governance in the less-developed economies, such as Indonesia’s, it helps U.S. business. Ultimately, Asia still depends heavily on U.S. capital and foreign direct investment and markets to sustain economic growth.

America’s greatest source of soft power in Asia is the Asian embrace of democracy. At its founding, ASEAN members were all led by authoritarian leaders or dictators; the guiding principle of the organization was “noninterference in internal affairs” — a platitude that essentially represented a rejection of universal values. Today, China is embracing that principle of noninterference, but ASEAN is moving on. The most important document at Cebu was not about trade or energy but the draft of ASEAN’s new governing charter, which says regional peace and stability rest on “the active strengthening of democratic values, good governance, rejection of unconstitutional and undemocratic changes of government, the rule of law, including international humanitarian law, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Thomas Jefferson could not have put it better, but this is the thinking of Indonesia’s first directly elected president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. It is the vision of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has rejected decades of mercantilist thinking in an effort to define a new purpose for a resurgent Japan. It is a central theme of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is moving India beyond non-alignment and championing democracy as the answer to the increasing threat of failed states and terrorism in India’s neighborhood.

None of these leaders embraced democracy because it was imposed by the United States, nor are they contemplating imposing democracy on their neighbors. Many continue to have major governance and democracy challenges (Thailand’s coup for one) and are torn over how to manage the undemocratic disaster that is Burma. Yet all recognize that their economic development and national security depend on the spread of democratic principles and good governance. As these values are consolidated across the region, they will inevitably affect China, Burma and even North Korea.

The United States has a winning hand in Asia and needs to play it. This means more engagement at senior levels — with China, but particularly with like-minded leaders in India, Japan and Indonesia. It means completing our free-trade negotiations with Korea so that the United States sets the standard for trade liberalization in the region. Above all it means not abandoning our commitment to the promotion of democracy in Asia, where we are succeeding despite setbacks in Iraq and the Middle East.