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Evan A Feigenbaum: Could America fade in Asia?

It is essential to adapt US policy to the contours of change in Asia if the US wishes to remain vital and relevant there

Evan A Feigenbaum 

Asia is reintegrating, but the United States (US) simply isn’t adapting quickly enough. And it is essential to adapt US policy to the contours of change in Asia if the US wishes to remain vital and relevant there.

What’s the problem? For Washington, it is at once intellectual, strategic and bureaucratic.

Intellectually, the US still has three separate foreign policies in Asia — one for East Asia, another for South Asia, and a third for Central Asia (which it scarcely regards as part of Asia at all). Even as Asia reintegrates, then, the US is too often stuck in an outdated mode of thinking.

Strategically, traditional US roles and habits are being altered compared to, say, 10 years ago. And the Asia that is likely to emerge 10 years from now will be very different from that with which Americans have grown comfortable.

Gradually, but inexorably, the region is becoming more Asian than “Asia-Pacific”, especially in its economic and financial arrangements; more continental than subcontinental, as East and South Asia become more closely intertwined; and more Central Asian than Eurasian, as China develops its western regions and five former Soviet countries rediscover their Asian roots.

In concrete terms, this means that old US roles are being challenged by new forces. In East Asia, for example, preferential trade agreements, regionally-based regulations and standards, and institutions created without US involvement – most notably, the Asean Plus Three and a related China-Japan-South Korea mechanism – hold the potential to marginalise the US in time. In Central Asia, Washington has, for nearly two decades, promoted pipeline diversification away from Russia and towards the West across the Caspian Sea, only to have the new oil and gas pipelines run eastward to China. And in South Asia, the US has developed a strategic relationship with India while fading elsewhere as China assumes a larger role.

Sri Lanka offers a good example: although the US is still a major trading partner, China is emerging as Colombo’s partner of choice for large-scale capital investment. And China isn’t the only East Asian power expanding its economic links with South Asia. While the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement sat moribund in Washington for nearly two years until December 2010, Korea and India ratified their own agreement in goods, services and investment. And India and Japan signed a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement in February 2011, even as negotiations for a proposed US-India Bilateral Investment Treaty continue to go nowhere.

Bureaucratically, US institutions, policies and programmes are badly skewed.The US isn’t well organised for success in the new Asia. The US formulates and implements its Asia policy through a baffling mishmash of misaligned agencies and military commands. Thus, Pacific Command (PACOM) based in Hawaii handles East Asia and half of South Asia, while Central Command (CENTCOM) based in Florida oversees the other half of South Asia.

Responsibility for Central Asia is lumped with Russia and Ukraine at the National Security Council, with India at the State Department, and with India, China and Japan at the Pentagon. In fact, the US didn’t even treat India as an Asian country until as recently as the 1990s, managing relations with New Delhi through a westward-looking bureau with principal responsibility for West Asia.

Should this matter to the US? So what if China is building gas pipelines to Turkmenistan, or Japan is investing in Indian infrastructure, or Chinese demand now powers economic growth of America’s closest Asian allies, including South Korea and Australia?

The problem is not that the US will cease to be a power in Asia. Particularly in East Asia, Washington remains an essential strategic balancer, vital to stability. But, for one thing, the US cannot simply be a provider of security-related public goods. So it risks fading as Asians provide more and more economic public goods to one another. And rapid Chinese growth, combined with slack global demand, means that China increasingly powers the growth of nearly every major economy in Asia. Within a generation, the US could find its firms at a competitive disadvantage in a part of the world that will constitute a huge chunk of the global economy.

Meanwhile, Washington could miss opportunities to work in new ways with India in East Asia, with Japan and South Korea in South and Central Asia, and with China in Central Asia, in particular. Americans could be bystanders to the economic and strategic dynamics that are quickly reshaping the region.

To adapt, US decision makers do not need to reorganise the entire US government. It would be enough to increase the scope and intensity of activities across the artificial dividing lines that have been constructed within Asia.

The US could stand to coordinate a bit more with Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing, and not just on East Asian issues. It could factor India even more explicitly into its East Asia policy. It could send its CENTCOM commander to the Pacific and its PACOM commander to Central Asia every once in a while. It could support efforts to foster trade and work through public-private partnerships to build infrastructure.

Without a new map of Asia that reflects the ways in which Asians themselves are remaking their continent, US’ relevance – and influence – will wane in the coming decades.

The author is head, Asia Practice Group, at Eurasia Group, and is also adjunct senior fellow for Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, Washington, DC

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First Published: Mon, April 04 2011. 00:30 IST