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Politics

What any US president needs to know about Asia policy

History shows that America's regional ties can shape or disrupt world order

The cost of basing U.S. forces in Asia, such as those shown here in Japan, is lower than maintaining them stateside because Asian allies pay a significant share of the burden.

During the U.S. presidential campaign in 2008, an overzealous staffer purloined a list of Barack Obama's Asia policy advisers and delivered it to the campaign team for Senator John McCain. Presented with the list, a senior McCain adviser wryly observed that, if President Obama's Asia team was exchanged for McCain's Asia advisers, the policy papers would be identical.

Obama's visit to Hiroshima and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's recent visit to Pearl Harbor remind the world how durable and consistent American interests in Asia have been since the end of World War II. Five American presidents served as military officers in the Asia-Pacific theater. Obama was the first American president born in the Asian region, where he spent a formative part of his childhood. Whether or not they have lived and worked in the region, all of Obama's successors will find Asia of increasing significance to their office.

Up to now, American goals in the region, and the policies deployed to support each, have been remarkably bipartisan. The current challenges for America are the products of the success of those policies, not of their failures. In the early 1980s, no one at the beginning of the Reagan administration, in which we both served, would have believed that the major problem for the global economy would be managing the aspirations of a China in which the government's source of legitimacy rested on non-stop growth and rising middle-class expectations.

No one imagined that Vietnam would one day seek American arms to support its military. And no one could have imagined a South Korea where democratic traditions were so deep that a presidential crisis would be managed by civilian institutions, even as record levels of South Korean equities were being purchased by foreigners -- evidence of the durable strength of that economy.

As the Trump administration takes office, we note several ground truths about America's Asia policy:

First, all U.S. presidents face two kinds of policy choices: those that reflect their agenda and those imposed on them by events and the international calendar. Putting aside any crisis that may take over the president's inbox, there are regularly scheduled international meetings that call for head-of-state participation.

Adm. Gary Roughead, a former chief of U.S. naval operations, is credited with the quote that "virtual presence is actual absence." That is particularly true in Asia, where the dignity and significance of personal meetings is valued highly and is seen as a measure of U.S. commitment.

China to fill void

Distances are daunting but many nations expect and hope to see the American president in person -- especially in his first year on the job. For the new president, not attending big meetings such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum and other regional fora, as some analysts have suggested, would be more than a slight to host governments. It would be seen as a downgrading of America's commitment to the region.

Second, the death of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement -- the largest trade deal in history -- raises fundamental questions about American leadership that demand an answer from both markets and policymakers.

If American trade rules and its vision of trade liberalization do not set the terms of debate in Asia, other ideas will fill the void. China's particular brand of government-directed mercantilism may not be preferred by those who live in the region, but could be attractive in the absence of an American vision.

Policy, like nature itself, abhors a vacuum. American private investment in Southeast Asia alone is three times that of China's. The U.S. will relinquish its lead if it does not put forth an affirmative agenda that limits state capitalism in favor of real market incentives.

Third, people are policies. Who represents the American president matters in Asian capitals. Does he know and trust his ambassadors and the custodians of Asia policy in the departments of State, Defense, and Commerce, as well as in the intelligence community? If senior Asia policymakers are unconnected to the White House, that will be obvious -- and costly -- in terms of diminished American power and influence in the region.

Finally, Americans are not Hessians nor freelance mercenaries. We do not deploy our military forces for financial gain. Our presence reflects our fundamental interests, not our desire to improve our balance sheet. It is not a happy accident that the cost of basing U.S. forces in the region is lower than that of maintaining them stateside. This is the result of decades of negotiation and a desire by our Asian allies to pay a significant share of the costs of American forces abroad to protect our common security.

We constantly revisit the terms of U.S. participation in the Asia-Pacific theater as a matter of policy. It does not strengthen our position to characterize Asian allies as cheats and free loaders, not least because such characterizations are untrue.

Richard Armitage is president of Armitage International and a former deputy secretary of state under President George W. Bush; Kevin Nealer is a principal of The Scowcroft Group. Both are affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.

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