Defense secretary’s Asia voyage underscores US role in the region

By Arthur I. Cyr

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s extensive visit to Asia underscores the significant long-term United States involvement in the region, even as much media commentary emphasizes immediate developments and elements of change. His stop in Afghanistan, where the U.S. remains directly engaged in war, demonstrates the importance of the military dimension. The Obama administration recently declared formally that Asia will be a priority emphasis in defense policy. This clearly reflects the extraordinary rise of China, which is devoting substantial resources to expanding naval capabilities. Understanding the true significance of this trip requires examining economic as well as military dimensions. In East and Southeast Asia, the U.S. has fought wars against Japan and within Korea and Vietnam, but any new comparable large-scale armed conflict is unlikely. Traditionally, China has been cautious about using force beyond national boundaries. Since the mid-1980s, the total volume of U.S. trade with Asia has been larger than with Europe. In the vast Asia region, as in other parts of the globe, the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War has brought new flexibility and opportunities. Arguably this is particularly true for the United States. Despite serious problems of debt, unemployment and Washington gridlock, the U.S. remains the largest and most diverse economy, and also the most substantial military power, on the planet. Most of the major economies severely affected by the global financial crisis and recession are in North America and Western Europe. By contrast, Asian nations control a large percentage of available financial resources. For many years, Japan and now China have been principal purchasers of U.S. debt. Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) is an ambitious effort to provide policy coordination among the nations involved. APEC was conceived by Australia’s Prime Minister Bob Hawke and embraced enthusiastically by President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker. Australia over the past two decades has moved in the direction of free markets, and a much more explicit national commitment to tolerance, directly reflected in official policy toward indigenous populations. The recent decision to station a U.S. Marine contingent in Australia underscores the strong bilateral ties between the two nations, dating back to World War II.

The 2006 APEC summit was held in Vietnam. That gathering provided a useful opportunity to highlight that nation’s economic growth and the wider commitment to multilateralism.

Vietnam for understandable reasons was long a special case. For years after Hanoi’s military victory in 1975, the newly unified nation was unable to turn the corner from political revolution to economic development. Vietnam did not join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations until 1995, nearly three decades after the creation of the regional development organization. There are military security aspects to APEC summits, though the focus is economics. In the 2008 summit held in Peru, Americans and Russians discussed differences over Moscow’s invasion of Georgia, and missile developments in Europe and Korea. In 2006, Hanoi honored Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the United States government with a martial parade, complete with American flags — a very moving as well as poignant gesture. The Pacific region generally lacks the complex established network of economic and military regional organizations that define relationships in the Atlantic region. For this reason, APEC is especially significant. For decades, Cold War division defined relationships among nations. Today, economic incentives and related self-interest have dramatically undermined earlier ideological intensities. Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of “After the Cold War” (Macmillan/Palgrave and NYU Press). He can be reached at [email protected]