State Department: U.S. Shifts Geostrategic, Military Focus From Middle East To Asia


The Australian
August 15, 2011
Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor

-”I think what you see is an across-the-board effort (by the US) to articulate India as playing a greater role in Asia, and also revitalising relations with ASEAN – both ASEAN as an institution, and with its key members, such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore, and revitalising what used to be a very important relationship with The Philippines.”
-Campbell has made it a personal mission to revive US activism in the South Pacific, and recently led a US delegation around the region.

Washington’s foreign policy needs to pivot away from the Middle East and towards the Asia-Pacific, says US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell.

In an exclusive interview with The Australian, he says: “One of the most important challenges for US foreign policy is to effect a transition from the immediate and vexing challenges of the Middle East to the long-term and deeply consequential issues in Asia.”

Few officials would put the choice so starkly. Campbell is not suggesting that the US neglect its responsibilities in the Middle East. But his comments reflect a desire, widespread across the Obama administration, to deepen and widen US engagement in Asia.

Campbell has found that the economic troubles of the US have meant that he has to project a more basic message to Asia: that the US is in Asia to stay, and that its security and economic commitments in Asia remain as strong as ever.

This took particular form when Campbell’s boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was scheduled to deliver an economic speech in Hong Kong recently. She had had various messages about market-opening and intellectual property to deliver. But the sense of the region changed the content of the speech.

“When we travelled through Asia, before and after the ASEAN regional forum, it became clear that what a lot of Asians were interested in hearing about was the continued effectiveness and relevance of the United States,” Campbell says.

When I conducted the interview with Campbell at the Perth meeting of the Australian American Leadership Dialogue, I also spoke to Mike Green, a former Asia director at the National Security Council under president George W. Bush, and now a professor at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. “It’s inevitable that the economic problems have put a dent in our soft power,” he says. “In material terms, it’s almost a non-story. The math in the Standard & Poor’s downgrade was incorrect.”

Campbell is a Democrat and Green a Republican, but they represent something of a broad continuity of the centre ground in US foreign policy, especially in relation to Asia.

Campbell believes the US will recover from its present economic problems and that reports of US decline are vastly overblown.

“At the end of the Vietnam War, there was enormous dialogue about US power and whether we could continue to be effective. At the end of the Cold War there was rhetoric that the Cold War was over and that Japan had won,” he says. “We’ve repeatedly proved the critics wrong. The underlying fundamentals – economic performance and political stability – make me confident we can do so again.”

The broader question is whether the US in particular, and the West in general, are seen as declining powers in Asia.

Green thinks that, outside Beijing, this view of Western decline is not widespread in Asia. But, he says: “There is a feeling in Beijing that’s palpable that the West is in rapid decline and that China’s century of humiliation is over.”

The minority of Chinese who do not buy the triumphalist line that the West is in radical decline, Green says, includes the Chinese leadership. “The netizens and others are constantly pressuring the government to stand up to America, and this is encouraged by the People’s Liberation Army.”

I asked Campbell about…the general disposition of China in Asia, especially in its massive military modernisation. “There is an undeniable assertive quality to Chinese foreign policy and we’re seeing that play out in the South China Sea and elsewhere ” he says.

“What has been effective in the past year or so is the number of countries in the Asia-Pacific (that) have been prepared to say to China that greater transparency (from China in military matters) is in the interests of the Asia-Pacific region.”

Campbell does not see, or present, US diplomacy in Asia as a zero sum game between Washington and Beijing. And the US is taking a wide array of measures to enhance its own many-layered dialogues with China. But at the same time it is deepening its relations with China’s neighbours.

“I think what you see is an across-the-board effort (by the US) to articulate India as playing a greater role in Asia, and also revitalising relations with ASEAN – both ASEAN as an institution, and with its key members, such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore, and revitalising what used to be a very important relationship with The Philippines.”

Green is much less diplomatic about China. He believes the PLA’s doctrine and practice of serial episodes of assertive confrontation with neighbours has not substantially changed, but that the Chinese Foreign Ministry has been given permission to negotiate some modest protocols for maritime engagements, especially with southeast Asian neighbours.

I asked Green what, then, is the thinking behind the PLA’s leadership…

“The Chinese say it’s defensive because the US is creating a string of encircling alliances with troublemakers like Vietnam and Japan,” Green says.

“The second reason is they say it’s their right. The PLA has a new doctrine, which they call the Near Sea Doctrine, which is a bit ambiguous but takes their navy way out beyond the littoral chain of islands. The PLA view is that they should be able to deny foreign navies in this area and they also feel they need longer-range blue-water capabilities to defend their interests.

Campbell, a great champion of the US-Australian alliance, believes it is a central part of the Asia-Pacific architecture and that it is growing more significant to both nations. “The US-Australia alliance is undeniably more important. It requires more attention, it’s stronger and more durable than ever. I’m certain it is moving to become a more intimate alliance.”

But Green thinks Australia should stand up to China with more assertiveness.

Campbell has made it a personal mission to revive US activism in the South Pacific, and recently led a US delegation around the region.

“This is your backyard,” he says. “The US does have deep strategic interests in the South Pacific. We do see increased Chinese activity. We welcome it so long as it’s transparent and constructive.”

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