By John Pomfret
Thursday, January 14, 2010; A08
HONOLULU -- In her first year as secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton went to East Asia three times -- more than any other part of the world. It was her first destination, and until the earthquake in Haiti, she was set to return to the region this week on the lead-off trip of her sophomore year.
Clinton's advisers are fond of proclaiming that the United States is "back" in Asia. The secretary herself got into the act Tuesday, saying that America is not only "back in Asia," but "back to stay."
But the Obama administration faces tough odds as it seeks to improve the standing of the United States in a vast region that does more trade with America than any other and that is the home to the biggest U.S. airbase outside the United States.
On one hand, Asians want the United States "back" as well. But on the other, analysts say, it's unclear whether Washington is wielding the right tools to build a new foundation in the area. It's also unclear whether the Obama administration has sufficient leverage or enough trust from its key partners to get the job done.
There's little doubt that talk of "Asian values," fashionable in the 1990s to justify opposition to democracy and a U.S. presence in the region, has been replaced by calls for the United States to live up to its responsibilities in Asia. When he visited the White House last year, for example, Singapore's former prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, urged President Obama not to pull out of the Pacific. At a summit of leaders from Southeast Asia a few weeks later, no fewer than four leaders told Obama that the United States must remain engaged in the region. Among them, sources said, was America's old enemy, Vietnam.
A key reason for this change of heart has been the rise of China and the new, sometimes intimidating, triumphalism emerging from Beijing. What was once ebullience in the region over China's new power has been replaced by a more somber view. Last week, China unilaterally announced plans to develop tourist resorts on a disputed island chain in the South China Sea, despite having agreed that any development in the region would be carried out in coordination with other Asian claimants. It incarcerated an Australian business executive shortly after China lost a bid to buy his employer, sparking fears that Beijing was using its security apparatus to exact revenge.
And the country's plans for a blue-water navy, and its impending deployment of submarines armed with nuclear missiles, don't inspire the sense of security provided by the sea-lane-patrolling U.S. 7th Fleet.
Hurdles for United States
Given China's bold moves, it is no wonder that many Asian countries welcome the United States. But U.S. plans to "return" to the region face a daunting array of obstacles.
First, the volume of resources that the United States devotes to Asian alliances and institutions has always paled in comparison with those of, say, Europe, by a factor of more than 10. Victor Cha, a senior national security official under President George W. Bush, remembered checking the figure when he was in the White House.
"It was astounding; it was ridiculous," he said, "which just showed how little attention we really paid to this."
Some analysts fear that it might be too late for the United States in Asia.
That worry was implicit in a speech Clinton gave at the East-West Center in Honolulu on Tuesday. From there, she was due to go to Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea this week but decided to return to Washington after the Haiti earthquake. Underneath the policy buzzwords -- "institutional architecture," "fulcrum of global politics" and "sub-regional institutions" -- was a message that Asia has moved on without the United States.
Indeed, it has. By the late 1990s, Washington was, by and large, no longer interested in Asian organizations. After the U.S. decision not to bail out the government of Thailand in 1997 (even though it had bailed out Mexico in 1995), the countries of Asia created a dizzying array of institutions and arrangements -- from currency swaps to the East Asia Summit and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- to which the United States was not invited, nor did it want to attend.
A pan-Asian identity began taking root. Hip women in China dyed their hair blond not to look Western but to imitate women in South Korea, where the style was the rage. Regional pundits pondered whether Asia could give birth to a new European Union-style alliance.
Business, not weapons
In addition, Evan Feigenbaum, a former senior State Department official who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations, said he worries that the tools the Obama administration is bringing to the table may no longer work to improve American relations with Asia. In her speech Tuesday, Clinton stressed the centrality of U.S. security ties to the region. But as Feigenbaum noted, "the business of Asia is business." Asians are linking themselves not with military pacts but with trade.
On Jan. 1, for example, a free-trade agreement took effect between China and the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Despite worries about China's attitude, trade is booming. Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate has yet to ratify a trade deal with South Korea.
"It's undeniably very difficult terrain with the United States losing jobs every month," acknowledged a senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Others worry that the United States lacks the leverage to return to its position of strength. China's growing trade with the region -- and elsewhere -- means that it no longer depends on the U.S. export market and therefore does not need to kowtow to American demands.
Clinton on Tuesday demanded that China explain why it had hacked into the e-mail accounts of human rights activists, as alleged by Google, and called more broadly for Internet freedom. Google also threatened to pull out of China. Beijing's response will surely be less accommodating than it may have been in the days when it had no home-grown search engines and relied on the U.S. market.
Finally, central to any resurgent U.S. role in Asia is Japan, America's closest Asian partner. But relations between Washington and Tokyo are wobbly. The new Japanese government appears pushed and pulled between its reliance on the United States and its desire to forge a more independent, Asian identity.
There is concern in Japan, too, that Washington cares more about China than Japan, Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said while in Hawaii this week to meet with Clinton.
"The United States wants to rejoin the conversation in Asia," said the senior State Department official. "We think the United States needs to have a seat at the table."