Rebalancing the US pivot to Asia

Curtis S. Chin
It will be important that US involvement in Asia and the Pacific be much more than about defense

Curtis S. ChinFrom US Marines in the northern Australian city of Darwin to the repositioning of US naval forces across the Pacific region, the so-called US pivot to Asia continues, and Southeast Asia is increasingly part of the mix.

Indeed, China’s economic rise and increasing assertiveness was the context for much of the analysis by policy pundits, from Manila to Washington, D.C., who seemed to focus more on the context than on any concrete results of the recent “informal summit” of US President Barack Obama and China’s new leader Xi Jinping in California recently.

That meeting of the two leaders followed the recent visit of US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to Singapore for his first Shangri-La Dialogue as head of the Pentagon – he helped establish the annual Asia-Pacific security conference as a US senator more than a decade ago – and was likely welcome news for governments and individuals across Asia who are worried about an increasingly assertive China and the United States’ commitment to the region amid ongoing budget battles in Washington.

Building on a visit by his predecessor, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta one year ago, Hagel reaffirmed the ongoing US policy “pivot” eastward – though “rebalance” is now the preferred word of choice – with the Pentagon continuing to shift military troops, ships and aircraft to and in the Pacific region. Already, beyond US marines deploying to Darwin, US naval visits to Singapore and other Pacific ports are increasing, and joint military exercises continue.

Critically, Hagel also noted the importance of dialogue and engagement between the United States and China, so as to avoid “miscalculations, and misunderstandings and misinterpretations.”

Yet, while Japan, Korea, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations in particular may well quietly welcome continued strengthened US defense and diplomatic engagement in Asia – US Secretary of State John Kerry is expected also in the region – there also remains the hope that the United States will also see the value of greater business, cultural and educational engagement by the United States in Asia and the Pacific.

Both the region and the United States will benefit from a more robust policy pivot to Asia, going well beyond increasing diplomatic outreach and rebalancing and repositioning a range of military assets in the Asia-Pacific region. A greater business, cultural and educational dimension to the so-called pivot could add substance to the rhetoric that an economic pivot is also happening.

Lower-cased ‘bric’

So, what could a more robust US pivot look like?

First, from a business and trade perspective, the United States would benefit from an explicit government recommitment to free trade and to Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). During tough times, the default position of government is often inward-looking, seeking to shelter domestic businesses from competition. Ultimately, though, protectionism stifles productivity, and economies and consumers suffer.

Negotiations do continue toward a regional Free Trade Agreement – the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) – between the United States and several Pacific Rim nations, but continued expansion of parties to that effort is likely to lead to inevitable delays in anything getting done anytime soon.

New, more focused initiatives are also warranted in Asia, even as the United States now talks of a US-Europe trade agreement.

This would also mean government leaders who do not talk down US businesses for succeeding overseas, or unintentionally make it more difficult for US business people, particularly small businesspeople, to succeed overseas. A case in point, is the so-called Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) – a well-intentioned US piece of legislation that has in some cases made it difficult for US expatriate workers to obtain financial services due to onerous reporting requirements required of non-US financial institutions serving American clients.

US businesses are facing growing competition from companies from Brazil, Russia, India and China – the BRIC – and elsewhere. They also face a new lower-cased “bric” that poses an even larger challenge – bureaucracy, regulation, interventionism and corruption.

Inefficient or ineffective bureaucracies, regulations that are unequally applied or enforced when they exist at all, interventionism by government at the expense of market forces, and crony capitalism, if not outright corruption – all persist in Asia. Yet, American companies still succeed despite the odds. A more robust policypivot would not further worsen the odds against American business in Asia.

Americans and their elected leaders should take pride in the success of US businesses in Asia – regardless of where the jobs are based or products made, instead of making it more difficult for them to succeed.

Here in Thailand, where I am based at the Corporate Social Responsibility Asia Center at the Asian Institute of Technology after having stepped down from the Board of Directors of the Asian Development Bank, the Ford Motor Co. is investing several hundred million in a manufacturing plant for vehicles to be sold throughout the region. The success of a company such as Ford in Asia is not bad news for the United States, and US senior diplomats, including a future US Secretary of Commerce, should recognize that.

Second, from an educational perspective, while the United States remains the overwhelming No. 1 destination for students studying outside of their home country, the nation’s share of that growing market is declining as other nations take efforts to make it easier for qualified foreign students to study in their colleges and universities.

Education, culture

A US educational pivot would also follow suit, recognizing the critical value – both economic and diplomatic – of young people from the Philippines and elsewhere in Asia traveling to and studying in the United States. Specific policy changes could include taking lessons from Australia, which has introduced efforts to better coordinate the university application and visa application processes.

Third, much attention has been given to Chinese efforts to promote Chinese culture and studies of the Chinese language abroad though government-funded institutes and programs. While US pop culture and the English language are increasingly ubiquitous, a strong case can be made for greater support for focused “cultural diplomacy” by the United States.

This would include policy changes and encouragement of public-private efforts and partnerships that would increase exchange programs and the visits of US cultural organizations, particularly smaller institutions, to the Asia-Pacific region.

With this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue at an end, the US Secretary of Defense traveled on to Europe for a meeting of defense ministers there. For that audience, what is going on in Asia – particularly with regards to rising military tensions this past year in the South China Sea, involving the Philippines, Vietnam and other of China’s neighbors – was likely a topic of private conversation.

But whether in Washington, Singapore or Manila, it will be important that US involvement in Asia and the Pacific be much more than – and be seen as much than – about defense.

It remains time to rebalance the “rebalance,” and for the United States to follow up on defense and diplomatic visits with substantive policy efforts and investments that also encourage greater US business, educational and cultural involvement in the region. –

Curtis S. Chin is a senior fellow and executive-in-residence at the Asian Institute of Technology, and a managing director with advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. He served as US Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank (2007-2010) under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.