U.S. on Sidelines in Asia

This article appeared on OCRegister.com on August 1, 2007.

A few days ago, I was chatting with an East Asian diplomat stationed in Washington who seemed surprised that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would be skipping the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' Regional Forum meeting in Manila later this week.

The ARF brings together 27 foreign ministers representing the 10 Southeast Asian nations, and 17 other governments with security interests in the region. Rice instead will travel to the Middle East, where she will hold discussions on stabilizing Iraq in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and visit Israel and the West Bank. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte will represent the U.S. in Manila.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack expressed regret that Rice would not be in Manila, but said that she was "prioritizing" talks on Iraq and Middle East peace. "I don't think it has to do with the importance of the business necessarily, but of the timing," he said of the ARF meeting.

I reminded the East Asian diplomat that this was not the first time American officials in general, and Secretary Rice in particular, had been "prioritizing" the Middle East at the expense of East Asia. Rice cancelled a trip to the ARF meeting in 2005, the first time a U.S. secretary of state had skipped the talks since they were first held in 1994.

ARF is a high-level multilateral security group in a region that is becoming both a global economic powerhouse and a central strategic arena. The U.S. faces military challenges from China and Russia as it strengthens its alliances with Japan, Singapore and Australia and forms new security partnerships with India and Vietnam. And the ARF also includes Indonesia and Malaysia, two of the world's most-thriving Moslem democracies; North and South Korea; and India and Pakistan, the rival nuclear powers of South Asia.

To add insult to injury, the White House had announced last week that President Bush had postponed talks with leaders of the 10 ASEAN states — a historic summit scheduled in Singapore for September, which was supposed to celebrate the longtime strategic alliance and economic partnership between the U.S. and one of world's most economically dynamic regions. A region, one might add, where Americans don't have to oust regimes and invade countries in order to maintain their trade and military presence. But Bush would be preoccupied in September with dealing with the reports he is scheduled to receive from his military commanders in Iraq.

For much of the 1990s, with the end of the Cold War, globalization, and the rise of new Asian economic powers, it seemed as though Washington was starting to shift some of its focus from Europe and the Middle East to East Asia. The United States expanded its engagement in the Pacific — as American policymakers, lawmakers and the media began to pay more attention to Asian economic and strategic agendas.

Yes, "9/11 changed everything," and the U.S. war on global terrorism necessitated refocusing new diplomatic and military efforts in the broader Middle East, where there happens to be a lot of oil. And Washington is also under a lot of pressure to stabilize Iraq and bring peace to the Middle East.

But do we need to remind policymakers in Washington that East Asia's economies are making it possible for the Bush administration to finance the U.S. deficit, and indirectly, its military presence in the Middle East? That China is becoming one of the largest importers of Middle Eastern oil? That Indonesia and Malaysia are critical fronts in the war against terrorism?

Hence, even if the Bush administration disregards the obvious — that it should put the political, economic, and military developments in China, Japan, India, Korea and the rest of the ARF members at the top of its agenda — U.S. policymakers should understand that managing the problems in the Middle East will require the engagement and support of the rising powers in East Asia. And there is no reason why Washington cannot walk in the Middle East and chew gum in Asia at the same time.

In any case, if and when American officials start complaining, as they have in recent years, about China's efforts to assert its diplomatic and economic status in East Asia — which is after all, its strategic back yard — and supposedly to marginalize the U.S. in the region, they will need to be reminded that they themselves have slighted Asia. Is it possible that they've marginalized themselves there?

In fact, the worst-case scenario for Washington is that current policy will lead to U.S. marginalization in both East Asia and the Middle East, and that in both regions, China could emerge as the biggest power.