TCS Daily

Examining America's Role in Asia

By James K. Glassman - November 30, 2004 12:00 AM

For U.S. policy, "the Asia region is a success story," said J. Stapleton Roy, co-chairman of a group of specialists which last week issued an important new report, "America's Role in Asia," published by the Asia Foundation.

Roy's colleague, Michael H. Armacost, also speaking at a press conference Nov. 15 at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said that the Bush Administration had "managed to improve simultaneously solid relations with Japan, China and Russia" -- the three most powerful countries, along with the United States itself, in the region.

"The United States is well positioned," said the report, "to advance its core interests in Asia."

But while the report's tone was generally upbeat, it was admonitory as well.

"Without a more coherent and integrated strategy which links our approaches to East Asia with our policies in South and Southeast Asia, and which extends well beyond countering terrorism and checking nuclear proliferation, we could see American influence in the area seriously diminished in the years ahead," it said.

The beneficiary of such a decline in influence would, of course, be China. "All Asians see China as the emerging dominant power in East Asia," said Roy, whose 45-year tenure in the State Department include tours as U.S. ambassador to China, Singapore and Indonesia. He is now a managing director of Kissinger Associates.

Roy, in an interview I conducted with him later, worried that "Asians are left with uncertainty" about how the U.S. views China -- "as a strategic competitor or partner. This is an unresolved domestic debate. The [Bush] administration has been referring to the good state of relations with China, but Asians want the U.S. to work to maintain those relations for the next two decades."

This uncertainty over China is part of a broader pattern. "Asians," Roy said, "do not have the sense that Americans follow an integrated strategy" in Asia. For 50 years, we had a strategy that addressed a clear threat, communism. Everyone knew where we stood. Now, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the movement of China toward capitalism, the old strategy has dissolved, but a new one has not yet taken its place.

Meanwhile, Roy said, "China is pursuing very skillful diplomacy to soften views [of other Asian countries toward its policies], but the U.S. is seen as operating the opposite way, degrading its soft power." Roy cited the doctrine of pre-emption -- America's stated strategy of moving quickly to forestall terrorist attacks before they happen. The doctrine itself is acceptable to Asians, he said, but it creates "unease" and "degrades soft power."

Roy added that "the U.S.-Japan alliance is now in very solid shape, qualitatively better than with China." But Armacost, in remarks at the press conference, warned that the Northeast Asia region is threatened by the development of nuclear weapons by North Korea and that "I don't think we've been serious about this issue."

Meanwhile, another author, Stephen Philip Cohen, who concentrated on the South Asia region, said that "a radicalized or failed Pakistan would be a disaster," and that this may be "the one last chance" to get the nation on the road to stability. In 25 years, he noted, Pakistan will be the world's fourth largest country.

India, he said, has been a success story. The country just held "the largest peaceful election" in world history, with three-quarters of a billion voters. India-Pakistan relations have been characterized by serial crises since 1987, but "right now the process [of negotiations on disputed Kashmir] is going well" -- though the nuclear threat remains.

The report is the third in a series sponsored by The Asia Foundation, a half-century-old organization, headquartered in San Francisco, that is "committed to the development of a peaceful, prosperous, and open Asia-Pacific region." Previous reports were issued in1992 and 2000.

Authors of the current report, in addition to Roy, Cohen and Armacost, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan and the Philippines who is now director of the Walter H. Shorenstein Forum for Asia Pacific Studies at Stanford, included Catharine E. Dalpino of Georgetown, Marcus Noland of the Institute for International Economics and Robert Scalapino of the University of California at Berkeley.

A separate report, with the subtitle "Asian Views," looked at America's role from the perspective of the people and nations in the region itself. It was written by Kim Kyung-won, president of the Seoul Forum for International Affairs, a private council in Korea; Tommy Koh, ambassador-at-large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Singapore and a former ambassador from Singapore to the United States and to the United Nations; and Farooq Sobhan, president of the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, an independent think tank, and former Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh.

Roy told me he felt there was a "considerable amount of comparability on what we are doing right and wrong between the American and Asian views." We are "not seen as a bumbling interloper in the region" but as a "major economic engine of growth."

Both reports emphasized that the U.S. must find a productive modus vivendi with China. "Any U.S. effort to promote the containment of China would be at best premature and, at worst, counterproductive," said a release that accompanied the "American Views" report. "No important Asia country would join such an effort."

The report emphasized that "access to the U.S. market and American investment, technical knowledge and business know-how is critical to the acceleration of [China's] own modernization." But China's stability is not a sure thing. The country's "ideology is obsolete, and its ruling party's future is uncertain. The regime's legitimacy rests largely on economic performance."

The report also urged an expansion of U.S. "military and economic support for Afghanistan's government, while also supporting the rebuilding of Pakistani educational systems, institutions and bureaucratic competence."

Another problem highlighted in the report was the restrictive visa policy enacted by the United States following the 9/11 attacks. "The United States should remedy problems in visa screening policies that exclude moderate Muslims in South and Southeast Asia from broader exposure to the United States," said the report.

Roy added that, while anti-Americanism exists in Asia, the animosity is "qualitatively different" from anti-Americanism in Europe, which is "more visceral.

The ambassador concluded our interview with comments about Singapore, a small country with substantial influence in the region and close ties to the United States. "If you want to have a dialogue in Southeast Asia," he said, "you can do it in Singapore better than anywhere else," he said. "Intellectual power is their soft power."


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