March 9, 2015
Claudia Rosett, Journalist-in-Residence, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies
Shihoko Goto, Senior Associate for Northeast Asia, Woodrow Wilson Center
Since the end of World War II, U.S. engagement in East Asia has been largely defined by bilateral, strategic partnerships in the region. Over the years, it has worked militarily with South Korea in order to counter the threat posed by the DPRK, utilized defense contracts in order to protect Taiwan’s independence, and facilitated Japan’s peaceful rise through its security commitments.
However, this security-oriented approach to East Asia is now rapidly changing. On the one hand, the U.S.’ security posture in the region is changing as a result of current and projected budget-cuts. Under the new fiscal reality brought on by 2011’s sequester, military commanders will soon be forced to reduce their capabilities and reduce the number of forward deployed soldiers and ships in the region.
While the sequester was never meant to become law, its implementation has left many analysts fearing that its fiscal constraints will hurt U.S. interests in East Asia. As Ms. Rosett articulated, the drawdown in U.S. forces is coming at a time when the country’s chief rivals in Asia, China and Russia, are increasingly using their economic and military might in order to unilaterally achieve their interests. She argues that the withdrawal of U.S. hard power is fueling an “era of opportunism,” in which emerging world powers will feel obliged to use any means necessary in order to procure their unilateral interests, knowing there will be no hard response from the U.S. or its allies.
In order to maintain and protect its current and future regional interests, Ms. Rosett argues that the U.S. must be committed to increasing its military presence in East Asia. By simply allowing China to unilaterally establish its own air defense identification zone and by failing to challenge Russia in Ukraine, she worries that the U.S. is inadvertently losing the trust of its regional allies, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea – all of who are involved in territorial disputes with China. Unless the U.S. takes a more assertive posture in the region, Ms. Rosett believes it will risk ceding its long-term influence and interests.
In this modern and globalized world, however, traditional military power may not be the only means through which the U.S. can maintain influence around the world. As Ms. Goto points out, even as the U.S.’ military posture contracts, the country can still maintain strength and relevance in East Asia through its economic ties. With Pacific trade now totaling more than $20 trillion dollars annually, there is a shared interest between the U.S., China, Japan, the ROK, Australia, and pretty much every country in East Asia and the Americas, in maintaining stability in East Asia.
Because of this shared economic interest, Ms. Goto argues that the U.S. can effectively maintain its influence in East Asia without having to rely on a robust military presence. Particularly, should the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) be passed, it will bind the U.S., Japan, Australia, and many of South East Asia’s emerging markets under a shared set of economic, diplomatic, and maritime laws and values. In the near-term, the TPP will lower tariffs and trade barriers, opening up Asian markets to U.S. businesses, enforce intellectual property rights, and erode the control that state owned enterprises have in many developing countries. In the long-term, the TPP has room to expand beyond its current 12 members, having already garnered interest from China, South Korea, and Taiwan.
Having been described as a “21st century trade agreement” by the Obama Administration, the TPP rethinks how the U.S. asserts influence and protects its interests abroad. Rather than relying on costly, military capabilities, the TPP enforces stability by highlighting and enshrining in law, shared, global interests. While the U.S.’ physical show of strength may be declining in East Asia, the TPP ensures that its tacit, economic might, continues to be felt and respected throughout the world.