Last week, Daniel Russel, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, came to speak at the Stanford event, “America’s Pacific Future Is Happening Now,” on the administration’s rebalance to Asia policy.
Mr. Russel began the talk by saying that the relationship between the U.S. and the Asia Pacific “has changed in a big way” in the last seven years. President Obama is determined to use diplomacy to advance American interests in the region.
Russel discussed four aspects of the “rebalance” strategy. First, to increase trade and investments in Asia Pacific. The world’s economic gravity has shifted significantly to the Asia Pacific. The region represents nearly half of the world’s population with a burgeoning middle class. America recognizes that its future is critically linked to that part of the world.
Second, to strengthen US relationships with its allies to enhance security, which is at the center of the “rebalance.” North Korea is seriously threatening security in the region, Russel said, and tensions in the South China Sea are very real. The US has been working with Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines on joint military exercises and capacity building.
Third, to build multinational institutions that are rule based. Russel cited US involvements with ASEAN, APEC, and negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Russel believes the TPP has the best environmental agreement, labor standards, and IP protection. “High standards produce economic dynamism,” Russel said. “And the U.S. is at the center, re-enforcing our leadership.”
Fourth, to promote universal values and human rights. The U.S. has supported Burma’s democratic transition, and worked harder with countries such as Thailand and Cambodia that have seen a regression in democracy. “Human rights are not Western values,” Russel said. “They are universal values. When we stand for these values, we make a lot of friends. We are the choice of security partner for many of these Asian countries.”
Mr. Russel made a point to say that the “rebalance” is not about containing China. “During the Cold War,” Russel said, “we had a containment strategy. But [now] we are not pursuing a zero-sum game.” Russel pointed to the fact that the U.S. has engaged in high-level military-to-military dialogues routinely with China. And China has joined forces with the U.S. to fight climate change. In 2014, he said, President Xi Jinping and President Obama reached an agreement to curb carbon emissions. It was the first time China committed to cap its emissions, by 2030 if not earlier.
On the question of the U.S. handling of the AIIB, and the consequences of America not participating in it, Russel denied that the administration has sought to deter its allies from joining the bank. “We did have concerns about the standards of the AIIB,” Russel said. He indicated in the early days the AIIB seemed to be closely linked to China’s “One Belt One Road” project, “which was very self interested.” (It’s interesting that Mr. Russel just said that President Obama is determined to advance US interests, while accusing China of being self-interested). However, Russel commended the AIIB for making great progress in adopting international standards.”Its initial projects will be in partnership with the Asian Development Bank,” he said.
When I asked why China is not included in the TPP, Mr. Russel said that the TPP was an agreement among a small group of 12 nations, and “no one has sent an invitation to exclude China.” Because of the high standards of the TPP, Chinese industries are not yet ready. The Chinese were very dismissive about the TPP, he said, but recently Premier Li Keqiang has expressed interest in joining the TPP. “Personally,” Russel said. “I think the world will be a better place when China can meet the standards and join the TPP someday.”
A fellow attendee told me later that this is only part of the reason. In another seminar, Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Russia who participated in the TPP negotiation, said that the U.S. wanted to move quickly to reach a consensus on commercial rules. Once the rules are established, China can join, and it will have to abide by the rules that Washington favors.
From the American perspective, the U.S. is trying to set up rules and institutions in Asia Pacific so that no one country can exert its sphere of influence or bully other nations because of its sheer size. Obviously, much of this is directed toward China and to prevent China from challenging the existing international status quo. It may not be “containment” in its pure form, but it is a variation of containment with engagement, or a “smart congagement.”
This strategy certainly has its risks, as we have seen tensions in the South China Sea and a deterioration in the US-China relationship in recent years. However, if it succeeds, it could create conditions for the U.S. and China to cooperate and work together to solve many of the world’s problems.
As President Obama told Jeffery Goldberg of the Atlantic, “If we get that right and China continues on a peaceful rise, then we have a partner that is growing in capability and sharing with us the burdens and responsibilities of maintaining an international order.”